29 Jan

The tenuous line between humor and misinformation on the networks

Por Ariel Riera, Celeste Gómez Wagner and Mariela García

Updated 7 de February, 2020 at 5:03 pm

If you only have a few seconds, read these lines:

  • In subjects both superficial and serious, jokes are frequently among the most shared tweets.
  • Specialists believe that humor can help alleviate social situations that are difficult to cope with.
  • The danger of this content is that it can be used to justify disinformation or to encourage mockery and discrimination.

Social networks are a stage for debates where humor is still present in sensitive topics. As detected by Chequeado, these types of publications are generally the most shared. For example, in the analysis of tweets concerning legal abortion in October, the most widely shared message was a joke. They often include graphic resources (GIFs or videos), such as in the most retweeted posts when analyzing the conversation on Tweeter about the crisis between the United States and Iran.

Tweet: Trump: “we are only selecting the best shooters for world war 3”
Me at the tryouts:

Mara Destefanis, a National Electoral Chamber (CNE) advisor for monitoring networks in the 2017 and 2019 campaigns, also mentioned in a conversation with us that humor can be used to “bring relief and joy in situations of crisis and social complexity”, since, as she pointed out, at the social level “it generates catharsis, relieves stress and brings complicity”, although she also warned that it could be “a double-edged sword”.

Humor can be a driver of disinformation. For example, in early January, a picture of former player Juan Pablo Sorín went viral with a message claiming that he was “Iranian and a Hezbollah member”. In a context in which many users made jokes about the opposition’s complaints about the new members of the government, the tweet ironically said that the person in the photo charged “300 thousand dollars a month as an advisor of Alberto Fernandez. The message circulated on tweeter and was shared, among others, by the journalist Eduardo Feinmann (@edufeiok), who wanted to fact-check the publication as if it were true.

Tweet: This barbarity is published by some SOBs. That’s Juampi Sorin

This is Amir Ashuryan, an Iranian and Hezbollah member. He entered our country in December and charges 300 thousand dollars a month as an advisor of Alberto Fernandez. 

You voted for that, Kumpa (a term used among Cristina Kirshner’s supporters)


In an academic paper on the subject, Edson Tandoc and Richard Ling from the Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) state that humor is one of the most common forms that fake news take, and that satire and parody are two common formats in this kind of content because they both use humor or exaggeration as a way to attract audiences. 

As Destefanis explains, the most popular news “are those which evoke emotions, including humor (…), which has a multiplying effect when used for disinformation”.

Claire Wardle, co-founder of the First Draft organization to fight disinformation, states that satire can be used strategically to spread rumors and avoid information checking because any criticism can be discarded with the excuse that it was not taken seriously. In summary, humor can be used as a justification for false or inaccurate content. 

For instance, there are accounts that pretend to be official accounts of actors with a strong political background and even though they clarify or state that they are parodic, in some cases they can confuse users who read their messages. In the analyzes carried out by Chequeado, for example, on the day of the general elections, the most shared tweet was published by one of these accounts: @CFK_, which parodies the official account of the vice president, Cristina Fernández (@CFKargentina). This account is currently suspended.

Disinformation might not be intentional. That is why the context is very important in humor. First Draft allows us to observe that, sometimes, on social networks, the points needed to understand a message are missing, that is, a message can be shared and distance itself from its initial meaning, and thus generate disinformation, even if that is not the main purpose of the publication. For example, in the case of Rócio Marengo and the Koala, the most shared tweet started out as a joke and became a trending topic, as many users retweeted it as news. 

On the other hand, this kind of content can also be discriminatory or encourage discriminatory practices. Damián Fraticelli, doctor of Social Sciences and researcher at the Buenos Aires University (UBA), explained to us that on the networks “it became a trend to laugh at others in a soulless way”. He added that each account “forms a collective”, and that celebrating or sharing a joke  reaffirms one’s identity and sense of belonging to the group. It should be noted that on platforms such as Twitter, communities “educate” the algorithm about what we see and what we do not see. 

These platforms have their own mechanisms for reporting discriminatory content. In the case of Twitter, among other things, it is not allowed to “encourage, threaten or harass others because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or serious illness” (see here).

Argentinian law provides for something similar. According to Law 23.592, discriminatory acts or omissions related to “race, religion, nationality, ideology, political or union opinion, gender, economic position, social status or physical characteristics” are taken into account. The law provides that whoever “arbitrarily prevents, obstructs, restricts or (…) undermines” the exercise of constitutional rights and guarantees must “revoke the discriminatory act or cease its practice and repair the damage”. 

The law does not include the digital environment. According to Fraticelli, on one hand, this lack of regulation enables “anyone to make a meme (a picture associated with some text used with humor to recreate a feeling or situation in everyday life) to criticize someone powerful, which then circulates in an unprecedented scale, allowing a form of denunciation that could not be done in the mass media”. However, on the other hand, “it causes an increase in cyberbullying and mockery”.

To address this, the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) has an Observatory on the internet that comes into action when “the instances of complaints made possible by the platforms have been exhausted”. They alert that discrimination can be covered up with humor and call this “biased discrimination”. According to the last statistics, from 2008 to 2017, digital complaints represented from 5 to 35% of the total complaints received by the Institute.

* The Digital Democracy Room is a project of FGV DAPP in Brazil in partnership with Chequeado, Linterna Verde and Ojo Público. It’s goal is to monitor and analyze the digital conversations regarding the electoral context.

The analysis is available the website of Chequeado here.