Donald Trump, the gorilla channel and the blurred line between satire and fake news
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Donald Trump, the gorilla channel and the blurred line between satire and fake news

Depending on how you look at it, 'The Gorilla Channel Incident' is either a sign of the imminent collapse of critical thought and public discourse or the first great meme of 2018.

For those just catching up: last week, cartoonist Ben Ward posted on Twitter what appeared to be a screenshot of an excerpt from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, a new book by Michael Wolff.

Even among the various controversial excerpts circulating, which include descriptions of President Donald Trump asking who John Boehner, the former House speaker, was, and promising his wife, Melania, that he wouldn't win the election, this one stood out. It recounted the president supposedly complaining on his first night in the White House that his bedroom television was broken because it didn't have "the gorilla channel", which screened only videos about gorillas.

According to the excerpt, aides hurried to cobble together primate documentaries to create a "makeshift gorilla channel". When Trump bemoaned the lack of gorilla-on-gorilla fighting, they edited the documentaries to include only footage of the animals hitting one another. The president, the passage said, could watch for up to 17 hours a day.

'The gorilla channel' meme highlights how easy it is for satire and fake news to become confused.

'The gorilla channel' meme highlights how easy it is for satire and fake news to become confused.

Photo: Paul Jeffers
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"Wow, this extract from Wolff's book is a shocking insight into Trump's mind," Ward wrote in his tweet.

The post exploded. As of Saturday morning, it had been shared more than 24,000 times and liked more than 80,000 times. More than a few prominent Twitter personalities reposted it and appeared to believe it was real.

To be clear: It wasn't. Ward, who also spawned the Milkshake Duck meme, changed his Twitter display name to "the gorilla channel thing is a joke," and Snopes, the fact-checking website, debunked the post.

By the weekend, various news outlets, including Esquire and Vice News, had created their own versions of the gorilla channel. Animal Planet, Netflix and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a conservation group, jumped in on the joke.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has sparked no shortage of reaction - both serious and satirical.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has sparked no shortage of reaction - both serious and satirical.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast

But because social media jokes and political discourse are sometimes indistinguishable, in a time when Twitter and the White House have become inextricably linked, the satirical post also became fodder for political and societal commentary.

Fox News pounced on the viral tweet as evidence of how easily "Trump trashers" could be fooled into believing anything negative about the president. Farhad Manjoo, a New York Times columnist, admonished people for sharing fake screenshots, saying "the jokes just don't work in a partisan-echo-chamber-feed world."

Jennifer Stromer-Galley, the former president of the Association of Internet Researchers and a professor at Syracuse University, said the gorilla channel meme had spread thanks to people's willingness to suspend disbelief and their susceptibility to confirmation bias - the same reasons that fake news accounts are able to take hold, she said.

"This is a bit more harmless, but it's part of a larger challenge," she said Saturday. "It does raise questions for how we try to empower the public to better sort out what's true from fiction."

In an email, Ward wrote that he has been doing fake screenshots on Twitter for a long time, and he always tried "to make them ridiculous enough that it's clear they're jokes".

"But there's always at least a few people who think the joke is real," he continued. "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 realise they're looking at a joke unless you explicitly say 'this is a joke.'"

In defence of those who fell for the gorilla channel gag, art - or in this case, Twitter jokes - might imitate life. A 1997 New Yorker profile of Trump described a scene aboard his jet as he flew to Mar-a-Lago, Florida, with Trump watching the 1988 martial-arts film Bloodsport and tasking his son Eric with fast-forwarding to the fight scenes.

The gorilla channel tweet is certainly not the first joke post about Trump to generate partisan debate. A 2015 tweet purporting to show Trump attacking the rock band Pavement, for example, sent some potential voters into crisis about whether they could support a candidate who didn't appreciate '90s-era indie rock.

As for whether the viral reach of Ward's tweet is a harbinger of the death of critical thought and democracy, experts offered some solace.

"I think this is just yet another signal that we live in a social media society now," said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University's school of communications. "If there's a decline in society, there's probably better examples."

The New York Times

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