We will all remember 2016’s political theater for many reasons: for its exhausting, divisive election, for its memes both dank and dark, for the fact that the country’s first female presidential candidate won the popular vote by a margin of 2.8 million and still lost the election to an actual reality show villain.
But 2016 was also marked—besieged, even—by Poe’s law, a decade-old internet adage articulated by Nathan Poe, a commentator on a creationism discussion thread. Building on the observation that “real” creationists posting to the forum were often difficult to parse from those posing as creationists, Poe’s law stipulates that online, sincere expressions of extremism are often indistinguishable from satirical expressions of extremism.
A prominent example of Poe’s law in action is the March 2016 contest to name a British research vessel that cost almost $300 million. Participants railed—perhaps earnestly, perhaps jokingly—against the National Environment Research Council’s decision to reject the public’s overwhelming support for the name “Boaty McBoatface.” So too is the April spread of the “Trump Effect” Mass Effect 2 remix video, which resulted in then-candidate Donald Trump retweeting a video that may or may not have been a satirical effort to frame him as a xenophobic, fascist villain. June’s popular Harambe meme, in which a gorilla shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo was embraced in the service of animal rights advocacy alongside Dadaist absurdity and straight-up racism, is another. In each case, earnest participation bled into playful participation, making it difficult to know exactly what was happening. A ridiculous joke? A pointed attack? A deliberate argument? Maybe all of the above?
The rise of the so-called alt-right—a loose amalgamation of white nationalists, misogynists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes—provides a more sobering example of Poe’s law. White nationalist sentiments have metastasized into unequivocal expressions of hate in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, but in the early days of the group, it was harder to tell. Participants even provided Poe’s law justifications when describing their behavior. A March 2016 Breitbart piece claimed the racism espoused by the “young meme brigades” swarming 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter was ironic play, nothing more, deployed solely to shock the “older generations” that encountered it. According to Breitbart, those propagating hate were no more genuinely bigoted than 1980s heavy metal fans genuinely worshiped Satan. The implication: First of all, shut up, everyone is overreacting, and simultaneously, do keep talking about us, because overreaction is precisely what we’re going for.
Perhaps the best illustration of this tension is Pepe the Frog, the anti-Semitic cartoon mascot of “hipster Nazi” white nationalism. The meme was ostensibly harnessed in an effort to create “meme magic” through pro-Trump “shitposting” (that is, to ensure a Trump victory by dredging up as much chaos and confusion as possible). But it communicated a very clear white supremacist message. The entire point was for it to be taken seriously as a hate symbol, even if the posters were, as they insisted, “just trolling”—a distinction we argue is ultimately irrelevant, since regardless of motivations, such messages communicate, amplify, and normalize bigotry. And normalized bigotry emboldens further bigotry, as Trump’s electoral victory has made painfully clear.
Poe’s law also played a prominent role in Facebook’s fake news problem, particularly in the spread of articles written with the cynical intention of duping Trump supporters through fabrication and misinformation. Readers may have passed these articles along as gospel because they really did believe, for example, that an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton’s private email server died mysteriously. Or maybe they didn’t believe it but wanted to perpetuate the falsehood for a laugh, out of boredom, or simply to watch the world burn. Each motive equally possible, each equally unverifiable, and each normalizing and incentivizing the spread of outright lies.
Hence the year’s plethora of outrageous election conspiracy theories—including the very false claim that Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Pizzagate, as the story came to be known, like so many of the stories animating this weirdest of all possible elections, has a direct link both to 4chan and r/The_Donald, another hotbed of highly ambivalent pro-Trump activity. It is therefore very likely that the conspiracy is yet another instance of pro-Trump shitposting. But even if some participants are “just trolling,” other participants may approach the story with deadly seriousness—seriousness that precipitated one Pizzagate crusader to travel from his home in North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle in order to conduct his own investigation, by opening fire in the restaurant.
Take, for example, Trump’s incensed reactions to the casts of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live, his baseless assertion of widespread voter fraud (in an election he won), and his unconstitutional claim that flag-burners should be denaturalized or imprisoned. Are these outbursts designed to distract the press from his almost incomprehensibly tangled economic conflicts of interest? Is he just using Twitter to yell at the TV? Is he simply that unfamiliar with well-established constitutional precedent? Is he, and we say this with contempt, “just trolling”?
The same kinds of questions apply to Trump’s entrée into foreign policy issues. Did he honestly think the call he took from the president of Taiwan was nothing more than pleasantries? (His advisers certainly didn’t think so.) Does he sincerely not remember all the times Russian hacking was discussed—all the times he himself discussed the hacks—before the election? Does he truly believe the Russian hacking story is little more than a pro-Clinton conspiracy?
It’s unclear what the most distressing answers to these questions might be.
Poe’s law helps explain why “fuck 2016” is, at least according to the A.V. Club, this year’s “definitive meme.” Content subsumed by Poe’s law is inherently disorienting, not unlike trying to have an intense emotional conversation with someone wearing dark sunglasses. Not knowing exactly what you’re looking at, and therefore what to look out for, obscures how best to respond in a given moment. More vexingly, it obscures what the implications of that response might be.
Take Pizzagate. If proponents of the theory genuinely believe that Clinton is running an underage sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza shop, it makes absolute sense to debunk the rumor, as often and as loudly as possible. On the other hand, if the story is a shitpost joke, even to just some of those perpetuating it, then amplification might ultimately benefit the instigators and further harm those caught in their crosshairs (in this case both literally and figuratively).
Further complicating this picture, each new instance of amplification online, regardless of who is doing the sharing, and regardless of what posters’ motivations might be, risks attracting a new wave of participants to a given story. Each of these participants will, in turn, have similarly inscrutable motives and through commenting on, remixing, or simply repeating a story might continue its spread in who knows what directions, to who knows what consequences.
As the above examples illustrate, the things people say and do online have indelible, flesh-and-blood implications (looking at you, Paul Ryan). Heading into 2017, it is critical to strategize ways of navigating a Poe’s law–riddled internet—particularly as PEOTUS mutates into POTUS.
One approach available to everyone is to forcefully reject the “just trolling,” “just joking,” and “just saying words” excuses so endemic in 2016. In a given context, you may be “just trolling,” “just joking,” or “just saying whatever,” because you have the profound luxury of dismissing the embodied impact of your words. It may also be the case that the people in your immediate circle might get the troll, or joke, or words, because they share your sense of humor and overall worldview.
But even if you and your immediate circle can decode your comments, your troll or joke or words can be swept into the service of something else entirely, for audiences who know nothing of the context and who have exactly zero interest in both your sense of humor and overall worldview.
In short, regardless of anyone’s self-satisfied “don’t blame me, I was just X-ing,” all actions online have consequences—at least the potential for consequences, intended or otherwise. So for god’s sake, take your own words seriously.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.