This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
You know when you come across something that is so out of left field and absurd that you’re certain it must be a hoax? Especially something on the Internet that is so professionally conceived and executed, so slick and on-point that, if it were really what it claimed to be, your sensibilities would just be reeling...so obviously it must be something else? Something with an ulterior motive?
Okay, we’re adults and we’ve got some life experience; we understand irony and we know what clues to look for so as not to be duped.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell a parody or a bogus online campaign from something legitimate. Like a good tried-and-true urban legend, a clever parody Web site can have just enough specific detail to convince, yet rope in its readers and get under their skin, often provoking a reaction—which is, of course, just what they hope to do.
Take, for example, this hilarious parody site called CheatNeutral. I love to use this site with my AP® Language students to demonstrate the concept of an absurd “modest proposal” backed by apparently rock-solid arguments, so that they will better understand why Swift's outrageous idea to eat babies was received by some of his contemporaries as a genuinely meant proposition.
Another go-to page for teaching about online parodies is the Dihydrogen Monoxide awareness site. With dire warnings about how “the atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds” and that it “is a known causative component in many thousands of deaths and is a major contributor to millions upon millions of dollars in damage to property,” the site is both alarmist and authoritative, a study in language use as well as a parody of other such alarmist campaigns.
But both the CheatNeutral and DHMO sites contain the clues to their satirical purposes. CheatNeutral reveals its message in the video, if you watch it through to the end, and on its “small print” page. The DHMO site isn’t as explicit, but you might ask any students in your class who are taking Chemistry to figure out the elemental formula of the chemical in question: soon enough, someone will point out that dihydrogen (H2) monoxide (O) is simply...water.
What happens when you run across a site that contains almost no clues as to its satirical nature, that seems in all ways legitimate, but you just know it can't possibly be real?
Check out CoalCares.org. If you’re like me, your first reaction might have been incredulity. Was the coal industry really trying to placate the parents of children with coal-induced asthma with Justin-Bieber-themed inhalers? Were they really offering print-out games in the “Kidz Koal Korner” in which little Jimmy is having an asthma attack and needs to get through the maze quickly to get to his puffer?
While navigating this Web site, my mind was reeling. Certainly, I’d heard of attempts by the coal industry to make nice with consumers and communities wary of the environmental and health effects of mining and coal energy, but this was too much. Sirens were blaring “PARODY! PARODY!” in my head, but I just couldn’t find the indicators I wanted. At least, not at first blush.
It took that initial skepticism as well as some informed digging to uncover the truth. In essence, I needed to apply my best Web site evaluation skills to figure out the site and its message. My first instict was to Google it, and I immediately found support for my hunch:
“Update: Peabody Punked by Fake Asthma Site" (Forbes.com)
“Coal Cares. No, really.” (The Energy Collective)
“Coal Cares brings biting satire to clean energy debate” (Mother Nature Network)
And on Wired.com, an at-length examination of the hoax, its background, and its fallout
The Forbes site is especially interesting, with links to actual coal industry efforts to court the public, such as a page from a coloring book distributed by Friends of Coal (who offer more “coal in the classroom” materials). It points to some of the specious logic used by the Web site, such as the hyperbolic language surrounding solar energy as a dangerous “mainlining the sun.” There’s even a previous parody, a video by the Coen brothers (of Fargo fame).
My Googling also turned up this article that discusses the motivation behind the parody site, the earlier targeting of children by the coal industry. The examples on this page and the parodies invite lots of rhetorical analysis, both the serious and the amusing kind.
Once we know that the Coal Cares site is a hoax, we can return to it and look for missed clues. For example, at the top right, a link directs us to several purported sponsors, but the Web sites belonging to those organizations make no mention of Coal Cares or any such initiative. The language and examples on the Web site, like those on the DHMO site, seem authoritative, but invite questions about their logic and over-the-top emotional appeals. Have your students choose passages to scrutinize from this perspective. Then see if they can find examples of the kinds of actual campaigns this site parodies.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as an adult I have developed a certain radar for these kinds of Internet hoaxes. But how do we teach our students to have this kind of healthy skepticism before falling prey to the various chain e-mails and Facebook virus-links and phishing scams that don’t just boggle the mind but threaten to boondoggle their bank accounts and lives?
Unfortunately, only experience can teach them that, but we can offer them such experience in the form of object lessons in class, where we examine and deconstruct Web sites such as the ones listed here.
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