Since May, a string of viral Facebook posts have led some to ask: what’s the difference between satire, and fake news? Producer Taylor Quimby investigates.
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)
There’s a squat gray building off the side of Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack, shaped vaguely like a castle. It’s so small it looks almost cartoonish, surrounded as it is by a vast moat of pavement. And yet, the castle’s signature product speaks for itself.
“The King Kone is probably like… close to a foot in height. They can barely fit it through the window,” says Sarah Burke, a lifelong resident of Merrimack who visits the King Kone at least four or five times every summer.
“It’s soft serve, it’s delicious. They also have great tacos which is another reason that I go.”
As far as local ice cream shops, this one is iconic - and not just because of its shape. The King Kone has been in business for a whopping forty-six years. People who remember going there in the ‘70s as teens can go back with their grandkids. It’s a staple.
“That would be very sad,” Sarah said, when I asked her how she would feel if it ever closed down. “Very sad actually.”
Indeed, King Kone fans were shocked and dismayed to see a news post in May that announced in all caps “BREAKING NEWS: King Kone in Merrimack To Permanently Close Shop After Summer 2018.”
Luckily for Sarah, the post was a hoax.
It had been written by a group called The New England News Network. They have a logo, and a newsy sounding name. But they don’t have a website. They only exist on Facebook, where they explain: “We are a satirical news source based out of New Hampshire. Proceed with Caution.”
Basically, they’re like The Onion - but for New England. Scroll through their many posts and you’ll find headlines like:
BREAKING NEWS: President Donald J. Trump Signs Executive Order That Requires A Nine Month Waiting Period Before A Pregnant Woman Can Have An Abortion.
BREAKING NEWS: NH National Guardsmen Deploy To Canadian Border To Control Illegal Flow Of Maple Syrup Pouring In From Canada.
But the King Kone post is different. For an unsuspecting Facebook user who sees it shared by a friend or family member, there is no context to let readers know that the posts are intended as satire.
George Soffron, who has owned the King Kone for 16 years, wasn’t sure what he was looking at when an employee sent him a link to the fake news post - but he could tell it was bad news. The post was already being shared by hundreds of customers.
“By the end of the next day we were inundated with phone calls saying, ‘You’re closing? Oh no!’”
George and his staff spent a day fielding phone calls and responding to emails. He also made his own Facebook post to help counter the hoax. Some of the commenters there thought he was overreacting - that he didn’t get the joke.
“You know somebody had commented back, you know this is satire - and I said, no this is not satire. This is deception."
Most of New England News Network’s posts get a few dozen shares at most.
But over the past few months, these fake stories - about businesses closing down - have been getting more attention than the rest.
That might explain why New England News Network has made them a regular part of their comedic repertoire.
In May, they posted a false story about the Alvirne Memorial Chapel in Nashua being torn down. It was shared 419 times. Then came the King Kone post: 658 shares. On June 1st, they put up a new post. It said:
BREAKING NEWS: Popular NH Theme Park Set to Close Down This Fall.
That post was shared 17,422 times.
Lauren Hawkins is Director of Marketing at Storyland.
“By the time we started our work day, there were endless FB messages. The phones were ringing off the hook. And we had at least a full day telling people it was fake news.”
The post spread so quickly, local (real) news took notice: stories debunking the rumor appeared on WMTV in Maine, in The Concord Monitor, on Snopes dot com, even the Boston Globe.
Lauren says Storyland took it in stride.
“No, no one was mad. We don’t like that they are attacking businesses with this satirical site. But we understand that there’s free speech, and they can make jokes as they please, but we weren’t happy with the joke that was made.”
After doing some detective work on Facebook, I was able to determine that the posts were written by Jonathan Marcum. He pretended that he had never heard of NENN when I first reached out to him, but eventually agreed to do an interview.
“I wanted to create kind of fake news that blurred the line between truth or not, and drop it off at local coffee shops, or go to newspaper dispensers and drop them off there… It more turned into a Facebook page because that was just easier to do.”
He and a group of friends started the page in 2016 as a way to cover the presidential election. Back then it was named “The Nashua News Network." Since then, his friends have abandoned the project.
Jonathan Marcum is now the sole contributor.
“If you look back, it was pretty tame. Almost lame. There was nothing mean-spirited. It’s gotten more mean-spirited in the past eight months,” he told me.
Jonathan works third shift, and publishes stories on his breaks. He says his fans love to read the comments - he says they’re even funnier than his posts.
“People have responded more to inappropriateness, than when it was longer drawn out stories. Like the heroin epidemic is going on right now. People respond really well to seeing a story about heroin.”
As for the fake posts about Storyland and King Kone, Jonathan says it’s really turned into a social experiment.
“In that case, as far as satire goes, who is the subject in these sorts of cases?” I asked him.
“The public,” Jonathan told me. He recalled an old post, from back when it was The Nashua News Network.
“I made a post saying that Hampton Beach was infected with chlamydia [it was actually syphilis] ... It took like 15 minutes for it to have like 5,000 shares... People were losing their minds,” Jonathan told me.
“The only way to get chlamydia is through sexual contact. You’re not going to get it by going in the water. People just believed it. And it was unbelievable.”
Jonathan says it he has nothing against King Kone or Storyland. He grew up going to these places. His comedy is aimed at the people who are fooled into sharing fake news. The joke's on them.
“For the most part, a lot of people enjoy it. If someone can laugh at it, my job is done.”
While I was researching this story, I read up on some legal blogs about defamation. I wanted to know - is this legal? Did any of these posts break the law? Could businesses like Storyland have grounds to sue?
The issue isn’t very cut and dried, but needless to say: it’s hard to sue writers of satire for defamation. Even if you have a good legal case, it doesn’t look good. You might just wind up looking like you can’t take a joke.
Maybe the right question to ask isn’t, is this legal?'… but is this funny?
So I reached out to veteran satirist Danny Mulligan, senior editor at The Onion. I showed him the Storyland post from NENN and asked him to evaluate it from a comedic perspective.
“Ok,” he said, after a while. “Well there’s not a joke.”
I explained Jonathan’s social experiment: that the public is the target of this special brand of satire.
Satire, Danny told me, has to have a target - and often comedy writers talk about the concept of ‘punching up’. Satire should be targeted at people in power: politicians, people of wealth and privilege. You don’t make fun of homeless people, he says.
“If the comedy you’re doing is about hoodwinking people less sophisticated than you are, that’s pretty lame? I guess I don’t think that’s satire, I think that’s a prank. That’s a practical joke. We all sometimes enjoy practical joke and sometimes we don’t.”
Since June, Jonathan Marcum has posted fake stories about the closing of Old Orchard Pier in Maine, and The Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua.
They don’t seem to be getting the same traction as his previous posts, so it’s possible that the public is getting wise to his social experiment.
Lately, he’s taken to putting up posts about his eventual unmasking in anticipation of his first on-the-record interview as a satirist. Still, I doubt anybody will care. His readers, he says, respond well to stories about heroin. It’s hard to imagine a name will generate nearly that much controversy.