On Thursday evening, the cartoonist Ben Ward, who tweets as @pixelatedboat and is perhaps most famous for coining the phrase Milkshake Duck, posted a photoshopped image designed to look like an excerpt from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. The fake passage purports to describe a scene from the early days of the Trump presidency in which the new executive expressed frustration that his television didn’t display “the gorilla channel.” When his aides “compiled a number of gorilla documentaries into a makeshift gorilla channel,” the president remained frustrated, insisting that the animals should fight one another.
Those paying attention to context saw the joke for what it was immediately. The fundamental silliness of the scenario aside, Ward’s prior tweet was an even more explicit dig at Fire and Fury. In this image, the volume has been retitled, President Trump Was Eating McNuggets on the Toilet and he Dropped a McNugget in the Toilet and Fished it out and Ate the McNugget: Inside the Trump White House. Despite the occasional sincere political opinion, the rest of his feed is filled with similar jests, and famously includes a series of fake Mark Zuckerberg Facebook posts. (One example has the social network’s CEO burying a humble farmer alive and assuming his identity.)
In other words, assessing the veracity of the gorilla channel tweet shouldn’t have been challenging, so long as you were willing to do a modicum of investigation. Nevertheless, many believed that the “gorilla channel” anecdote was real, among them the anti-Trump conspiracy theorist Eric Garland. Ward himself temporarily changed his Twitter display name to “the gorilla channel thing is a joke,” explaining that he’d been attempting to parody Wolff’s flexible relationship to the truth.
It wasn’t the first time that Ward’s seemingly obvious jokes begot confusion. Consider this one, from late December:
There are clues aplenty here that this is a spoof—even for those who are unfamiliar with the original meme—from the fictional Soros University to the casual murder. As the tweet spread, however, some overlooked those details in their rush to debunk something that needed no debunking. “OMG what a bunch of BS. Trump never served in the military or the peace corps,” one Twitter user wrote in a message that concluded, “#resist.” After seeing several similar rebukes, Ward himself slyly apologized “for misleading you all about Trump being a marine.”
Little in Ward’s oeuvre gives any sense that he intends to deceive the gullible—his bio not only states that he is “Prince of Lies,” it references his comics on Instagram. But deceive them he does, seemingly in spite of himself. Consider this tweet from Jan. 1:
This quoted “tweet” is hilariously long, perhaps the first sign that it is a fake. But a few of Ward’s followers still evinced confusion. “I don’t see this on Neil’s tweets for today. Did he delete?” one asked. While Neil deGrasse Tyson does generate a degree of animosity from many, it’s harder to attribute this confusion to willful blindness than it is in the Trump examples. And yet still, he fooled a few. “Okay wait this cannot be real,” wrote another Twitter user who would later admit to being “briefly” deceived by the gorilla channel story.
Speaking to the New York Times about his “gorilla channel” tweet—and his approach to parody more generally—Ward speculated, “I’m not sure this says anything about the state of society. I think it’s just that people assess what they’re reading in the context it’s presented in, so some people won’t realize they’re looking at a joke unless you explicitly say ‘this is a joke.’ ” If he’s right, it’s easy to imagine a nightmare scenario in which the Federal Communications Commission requires comedians to acknowledge when they’re joking, much as celebrities do when brands sponsor their posts. Ultimately, though, even such a clumsy fix would do little to counteract the issue, if only because the problem is built into the formal structure of Twitter itself.
The replies to Ward suggest that something is broken about the ways we process information on the internet, and Twitter in particular, today. By nature, the platform generates fuzzily defined discursive communities: groups of users who share particular ways of writing and reading.
Because of the way the site works, however, the boundaries of these communities—unlike those of, for example, private Facebook groups—are often permeable, making them intermittently accessible to outsiders, even if the language spoken within remains incomprehensible to those outsiders.
Because users often belong to multiple communities, and because those who follow them may not share their affiliations, these messages can still spread widely. In this regard, it diverges from the echo chamber model through which we often understand social media, wherein like-minded individuals amplify and affirm the views of their ideological allies. On Twitter, to the contrary, it’s all too easy to butt up against ideas from elsewhere—and there’s no guarantee that you’ll understand them when you do.
The resulting confusion further complicates the way we interact with Twitter, wherein we tend to experience each individual missive as an isolated fragment rather than as a part of the larger conversation from which it derives. As I’ve written before, this experience invites us to read tweets expansively precisely because they are small, imaginatively extrapolating on their context instead of actively researching it. This may be the real reason that so many miss the proverbial pixelated boat. Encountering Ward’s jokes in isolation, readers apply whatever intellectual paradigms come most readily to mind, meaning that pre-existing views about Trump become inadvertently deceptive tools for overcoming confusion rather than the source of that befuddlement.
In this sense, it’s possible that many users believed the “gorilla channel” tweet for the same reason that the president himself is so successful on Twitter. As many have noted, Trump relies on our expectation that we won’t dredge through his past tweets to find contradictory proposals. There’s no clearer indication that he’s right than the way news organizations, including Slate, circle around each of his remarks like sharks to chum, fixating on the specificity of each new assertion, even when we try to put it into context. An individual discursive event (say, a tweet threatening nuclear war) becomes an occasion for more discourse about the event, furthering our sense that whatever was said stands alone.
The effect has rarely been clearer than it was after Ward’s “gorilla channel” tweet began to spread. Many outlets responded with articles discrediting his fake excerpt, each seemingly attempting to optimize for search traffic from potential visitors who hoped to find out if it was real. Others, again including Slate, patched together footage from the imagined channel, simultaneously debunking and laughing along. There’s a service-y quality to the former, and nothing fundamentally wrong with building on someone else’s joke, as in the latter mode.
But if misreading the original tweet was a failure of critical thinking—and it obviously was—then such responses might represent the media’s partial abdication of critical responsibility: Instead of seeking to call out the fakeness of fake news, we might do better to help frame its context, forgoing denunciations of the unreal for explorations of how these fictional facts came to be. If we do our jobs right, it might be just a little easier to retweet.