Hoax about a hoax.

Have you ever heard of Mediamass? They describe themselves as a satirical website. Their goal is to skewer contemporary media by pointing out the flaws of mass production. I have no problem with satires that target the mass media, if they are done in a way that most people would  identify the content as satire without further explanation. That’s behind the success of The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. They’re court jesters, reminding society of its flaws, one exaggeration at the time.

Unfortunately, that is not Mediamass. The problem is execution. You can’t tell it’s satire just by looking at their content because their concept is “to select the most typical, representative and recurrent articles across Gossip magazines and to make them available for all the celebrities in our database.” In praxis, that translates into a stockpile of articles that Mediamass uses for everyone. Nelson Mandela, Henry Cavill, and Brian Wilson are just a few examples. I did not post screen captions of any of these pieces, though I have them available. The reason? Mediamass doesn’t want you to “reproduce” any of their stuff, “even with permission.” Protective much?

There is a clue that these news are fake. The update link takes you back Mediamass’ “About us” page, which explains their project. I have mixed feelings about this strategy. On the one hand, once your read the description of what Mediamass is/does, then it is clearly a satire. On the other hand,  satire doesn’t need to add a disclaimer. You can recognize the satire in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal because no sane person would propose  cannibalism as a remedy for poverty. The exaggeration is evident, as is the object of the satire.

When taken as a whole, the exaggeration and its object are also evident in Mediamass, once you read the “about us” section of their website and other disclaimers they have posted. In their words, “Mediamass articles in the People section are inherently fictitious – but based on real news. Thus, the theoretical possibility of each story, multiplied by thousands of celebrities in our database, makes it statistically inevitable that once in a while one of our fictionnal [sic] story fits the reality.” This is what happened when actor James Gandolfini died. On that day, Mr. Gandolfini received the Mediamass treatment, joining Mandela, Cavill, Wilson, and everyone else. The story has since been taken down, probably due to the backlash that ensued. I highly doubt that, though.  Mediamass replaced the Gandolfini piece with this article, but they also published a second piece, claiming Gandolfini is still alive.

That is standard operating procedure at Mediamass when it comes to confirmed celebrity deaths. They shift gears, and they can do so easily. After all, that’s the beauty of their collection of stock articles. They can just switch out the story.  That is how Gandolfini  received the same treatment as Pierre Mauroy, former French Prime Minister, and Jean Stapleton.

I think the best way to describe Mediamass is not satire. The site is a great example of Simulacra. Mediamass sticks very close to being plausible by design, because their brand of satire relies on the aggregation of content. They are skewering mass production, and what better way is there to mock mass production than to mass produce? However, their “network of artificial signs [is] inextricably mixed up with real elements” (Baudrillard,, 1994, p. 20), which winds up leading the reader back to “the real.” The sad part, though, is not what happens when someone seeking information stumbles upon one of Mediamass’ articles and believes it. The real problem is when media organizations do it. It’s even worse when they copy and paste material from Mediamass to debunk a hoax without acknowledging that they got it from Mediamass. Hoax debunking site Wafflesatnoon bemoaned this practice in their entry about Mediamass.

Perhaps the best lesson to take away from Mediamass is that we need to hone media literacy skills. Even then, we might fall for a hoax, or a hoax about a hoax. As for it’s ability to make society reflect upon the ills of mass produced media, that’s plausible, but only if you read the disclaimer. Otherwise, you would have a hard time figuring out what they’re trying to do.

Does that defy the purpose of the project? You tell me.