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Wednesday, 07 June 2017 15:49

Meet the editor of PatriotHole, the internet’s greatest (temporary) fake news site

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"The world is kind of a nightmare right now" —ClickHole editor Matt Powers on the role of satire in the age of Trump.

“It's really hard to satirize something that's already insane,” Matt Powers told me, “but if it’s being given legitimacy, then we have no choice.”

Powers is the editor-in-chief of ClickHole, a satirical website that parodies clickbait web culture. In May, the site temporarily — and unexpectedly — rebranded itself as PatriotHole.

Inspired by far-right sites like Breitbart, the Blaze, Drudge Report, and InfoWars, PatriotHole unleashed a torrent of spoof articles mocking the ethnic resentments and cultural anxieties percolating on the right.

 

It also mocked the exploitative business model of online media, openly admitting that it was chasing “millions of dollars of untapped web traffic.”

Sadly, the PatriotHole experiment only lasted two days (though they’re still posting content on Twitter). But they were a glorious two weeks, with headlines like “An Abortion Doctor So Sexual That Your Daughter Gets Horny For a Third -Term Procedure? Believe it. His Name Is Ahmed” and “Hell Yes, Baby, It Is the Special Choo-Choo Medicine Called Coal! The Patriotic Vegetable That Comes From Mountains!!!”

Now that PatriotHole’s brief run is over, I reached out to Powers by phone to talk about the conceit of the site and what they hoped to accomplish with it. We talked about the role of satire in the age of Trump and why the legitimization of partisan media compelled them to launch PatriotHole.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.


Sean Illing

Be honest: What sites or publications were your inspirations? Breitbart? Drudge Report? What?

Matt Powers

Yeah, but I think a lot of the stuff that we do — especially on ClickHole in general — makes fun of the left as well. Both sides are ripe for parody. We try to be nonpartisan in part because lots of comedians do the “Fox news is stupid” thing. We’re not super interested in that. We definitely want to make fun of Fox and Trump and all of that, but we also want to make fun of the left and really the entire political culture.

 

Sean Illing

It’s also about exposing the truly cynical business model animating all of this noise, right?

Matt Powers

That’s exactly right. What’s actually happening is that these sites have found a way to cut through the noise of Facebook and really manipulate people’s emotions and fears, their paranoia. We see a performance-based spreading of ideology, which is cynical and dangerous, and we’re going to make fun of it.

Sean Illing

It’s interesting that you use the phrase “performance-based.” Is that how you see all this polarized online discourse, just profit-driven performance art?

 

Matt Powers

I maybe wouldn't go as far as that, but I do think it's a huge component of it. You can see how a lot of websites have altered their content or reformatted their content to make it more social media–friendly. I think it's sort of the latest version of that. Sites are just more ballsy now with their headlines and their click chasing, and that’s something we play with at ClickHole and PatriotHole.

Sean Illing

How so?

Matt Powers

We play with those same emotions. We just say openly, "Shut the internet down, this is the best thing ever," or, "This is going to make you cry," or, "This is going to make your day,” or, “This is going to make you smile." Now, a lot of websites play this headline game earnestly, but we do it to tell jokes. But also to point out the negative implications of it all.

Sean Illing

What are the negative costs?

Matt Powers

Everyone is pissed off and misinformed all the time. We’ve got fake news being pumped out of content farms in Eastern Europe, spreading bullshit all over the place. But it’s not pointless bullshit — there’s a goal. For example, in the election, a lot of it was to disparage Hillary [Clinton] and to build up Donald Trump. Which is a crazy thing in and of itself.

So there's certainly an aim here. The people behind this weren’t saying, "Oh, we want ad impressions." They were using the mechanisms of the system to game it. But they’re also manipulating people in dangerous ways with false stories and conspiracy theories.

Sean Illing

The conspiratorial angle is interesting to me. I'm always fascinated by the psychology of that. And you all play into that pretty humorously with PatriotHole. How do you think about conspiracy theorizing? Is it just about tapping into people’s anxieties, or is it more about empowering people, making them believe they’re it-getters and everyone else is oblivious to what’s really going on?

 

Matt Powers

Yeah. I think it's always attractive to feel like you're on the inside, that you really get it and almost everyone else doesn’t. It's just a cool place to be. Like, everyone else wake up, this is what's happening! There's so many conspiracies that are just so attractive, and I kind of understand why. It's like there's something happening here and no one knows but you and a small group of people. And the more people that tell you no, the more it's like, "Well, then it's definitely true." So I totally understand why that's attractive. It's just weird that it's been weaponized by the internet.

Sean Illing

That’s been weaponized, and the underlying fears propelling all of this stuff have been weaponized as well, and that’s something PatriotHole relentlessly parodies. I’m thinking of the Muslim abortion doctor piece in particular. I mean, every festering fear on the reactionary right is crammed into that one article!

Matt Powers

Right. That's every fear if you’re a certain kind of person. Your precious baby girl is in love with this sexy Middle Eastern abortion doctor. It's obviously ridiculous, but we were trying to call out how fearmongering a lot of these sites can be. Especially jamming it up against fear of the other and anything that's not white-picket-fence America.

Sean Illing

Do you find it difficult to satirize our strange present?

Matt Powers

Well,it’s really hard to satirize something that's already insane, but if it's being given legitimacy, then we have no choice. We get asked all the time, "How do you satirize Donald Trump? How do you satirize something that’s already so crazy?” And my answer to that is always: If it's being treated as legitimate and people are earnestly listening to it and engaging with these things, that just raises the bar for us to satirize them.

Sean Illing

Have current events changed how you think about the role of satire in society? I realize that’s an outrageously big question, so feel free to answer however you like.

Matt Powers

No, it's a good question. I think the word "satire" has so many definitions at this point — people think of it differently. In my mind, it's using a recognizable format to uncover and expose the truths about the format or the content you're satirizing. So it's like we use clickbait language to make jokes about what clickbait does.

In our most satirical versions, we hope to point out the lurking fanaticism and how it uses that inspiring language or that heartwarming language. And we like to use broken versions of that to show how ridiculous and manipulative that can be.

Sean Illing

That’s sort of the beauty of satire: On its face it’s complete bullshit, but you find more truth in it than you do anywhere else.

Matt Powers

Yeah, I totally agree. And I think that the Onion and ClickHole and The Daily Show and Colbert’s old show are all stronger and funnier when you have already consumed the news through an actual news source. I think they all become more enjoyable once you already understand the news. I truly hope no one gets their news from ClickHole, because they are being incredibly misinformed.

 

Good satire allows people to think about something they already know in a different way. That’s why we use the news media format against the news media. If you already understand the thing we’re parodying, then what we’re doing is both funnier and more honest. We’re exposing what’s actually happening, and that’s what effective satire can do.

Sean Illing

Do you think the people you’re making fun of get it?

Matt Powers

I'm not sure. We've certainly had content that's been shared by people on Twitter who represent very far-right viewpoints. Which is always interesting because, again, once our content's out there, anyone can share it, even people we don't agree with or we vehemently disagree with. But we also make fun of the left, so that stuff might get picked up by more far-right media people.

I think what we want is to make sure we're saying the right things with our satire. Things that we can stand behind, and things that we feel make a good point. And at the end of the day, what’s funny and true is funny and true. And once it goes out into the world, if we feel good about it, whoever shares it is certainly welcome to.

Sean Illing

Is there a point at which things get so bad, so dark, that it’s just not funny anymore?

Matt Powers

The world is kind of a nightmare right now — we get that. A lot of unprecedented things that would've been unthinkable a year ago or two years ago are happening. Again, the role of satire and comedy is [to] respond to what’s entering our discourse and consciousness and then raise the bar, call it out in a way that is true and resonates.

 

We want to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Whatever is happening in the world, no matter how bad or ugly, we have to talk about it. I think it’s our job to comment on the world as it is.

Sean Illing

The world doesn’t get much stranger than this...

Matt Powers

Yeah, and it’s crazy how quickly things can become normalized. The idea of a billionaire who has no experience and who has these horrible sexual assault allegations and horrible for-profit scam universities can become president was a farce last summer. But now it's like, "Oh, yeah, of course we have a president who started a for-profit university and stole a bunch of money from people who were just trying to get ahead in life." Like, that's almost taken for granted. I guess that’s what presidents do now.

If we can make some jokes and expose the insanity of all this, then we’re doing our part.

Source: This article was published vox.com By Sean Illing

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