No person or topic is safe from the gaze of Latin America's satirical news publications

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  • December 1, 2016

By Molly Smith*

These days, headlines around the world often seem absurd, and Latin American writers have capitalized on the outlandish nature of their countries’ political and economic situations to create content for the region’s growing list of satirical publications.

The headlines of the most popular articles from Colombian satirical news site Actualidad Panamericana spare no one: “Colombian neo-Nazis were brutally beaten by German neo-Nazis”; “Cases of attached [sexual] partners increases during Holy Week”; “Subliminal messages discovered on Rafael Correa’s shirts”; and “Cell phones from lost Malaysia Airlines flight found in Bogotá’s black market.”

Unlike The Onion, the U.S. publication it resembles whose content focuses almost exclusively on the U.S., Actualidad Panamericana’s writers cast a wide net. Colombian domestic politics, international news events, pop culture, the Catholic Church and soccer are all targets of its bold humor.

Yet, it is just one of the various Latin American publications and sites that spoof the news. There are satiric magazines like The Clinic (Chile) and Barcelona (Argentina), as well as fake news sites like El Panfleto (Peru), ElDeforma (Mexico) and Sensacionalista (Brazil). Mexico’s El Pulso de la República  and Caiga Quien Caiga, or CQC, in Argentina are popular satirical TV news programs. CQC has been so successful that it was adapted in Chile and Brazil.

Paul Alonso, an assistant professor in the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Knight Center that satire has a long tradition in Latin America. Satire is the use of humor, irony or exaggeration to expose and criticize an individual or an event.

“Satire has rooted literary traditions in Latin America. Its evolution and contemporary media forms have usually been negotiated within political and media systems, local popular cultures, and the socio-cultural tensions of a country,” Alonso said.

Latin America’s satire has been largely unexplored, with most research in the Western Hemisphere focusing on U.S. satiric infotainment programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Alonso is in the process of writing a book about satire in the Americas that will help to fill the absence of literature on Latin American satire. His research on satire and infotainment has been published in journals such as the Bulletin of Latin American Research, The Journal of Popular Culture and the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies.

“Since ancient Greece, the role of satire has been to say what otherwise could not be said, to speak truth to power,” Alonso said of how satirical publications and TV programs often respond to a specific political and media context.

According to Alonso, in the U.S., the popularity of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s late night TV political satire developed as a reaction to the George W. Bush administration, the Iraq War and the “Foxification” of the news, in which media outlets began to deliver news with a known political viewpoint.

Alonso mentioned, for example, satirical TV shows like Brozo’s El mañanero (2000-2004) in Mexico, which reflected the opening of the media after 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to an end. More recently, the show El Pulso de la República (2014–present) was a reaction to the role of Televisa, one of the country’s top broadcasters, in the PRI’s return to power through the election of Enrique Peña Nieto.

“Satiric infotainment has functioned as a media critic, as a watchdog of the watchdogs,” Alonso said of the primary motivation behind the fake news genre.

Given the decline in what Alonso calls “democratically useful” news and public affairs coverage and programming across the Americas, satirical outlets can sometimes be more informative than mainstream media outlets. Through deconstructing news events and political rhetoric, satirical media challenge dominant media outlets’ factual errors and inconsistencies. “This becomes a tool to enforce accountability,” he explained.

One of the founders of ElDeforma, a Mexican fake news site whose name is a play on one of Mexico’s biggest newspapers, Reforma, told a reporter from Maclean’s Magazine, “I wouldn’t say that we’re changing Mexico, but we’re opening a path so that people can be critical.”

Similarly, Actualidad Panamericana describes itself as “a space to speak truths with humor.”

“The ideal [way satire would help Colombian society] would be through encouraging the ability to laugh at ourselves, something that does not abound here. Also using humor to demystify the leaders that people blindly follow, and thus giving up a bit of the fanaticism and polarization,” Leovigildo Galarza, a writer for Actualidad Panamericana, told the Knight Center. “Perhaps these tasks correspond to the family or to the State, but not to us, who ultimately seek to laugh, and if we are lucky, make others laugh,” he said.

Actualidad Panamericana’s seven main writers all produce and conduct interviews under a pseudonym in an effort to separate their jokes from their personal and professional identities.

Since founding their respective sites, the authors of ElDeforma and Actualidad Panamericana have seen their fake headlines appear on the Twitter feeds of politicians and republished by journalists. Many first time visitors to the sites mistakenly think the headlines they are reading are real.

“Many people do not know how or do not want to read, and those that do not read between the lines do not understand the humor. We’ve also noticed that people are very inclined to become outraged by anything and, therefore, fall into the trap of believing what we wrote,” Actualidad Panamericana said in an interview with Semana magazine.

Satire remains an elitist genre in Latin America. In order for it to be understood, it requires high levels of media literacy, social and political education and an awareness of current events, all of which are not characteristics of mass audiences, Alonso said. “The more interesting, sophisticated or risqué the satiric product is, the more reduced or niche its audience becomes. And there is always the risk that satire is going to be misunderstood or perceived literally by some audiences,” he explained.

Even though most subjects are fair game for Actualidad Panamericana, it said that some topics are off limits. These include those that re-victimize a person or a group and those that could generate panic or disinformation with concrete negative effects.

Unsurprisingly, the recent U.S. election gave its writers a wealth of material. “Donald Trump will translate into English the names of cities in Spanish” and “‘I voted for Trump so that we don’t fill up with more Latinos,’ a Latino that just received citizenship” came out within days of the vote, headlines that might get a laugh out of readers in both countries.

Actualidad Panamericana shows no signs of slowing down, if its social media presence is any indication. In the nearly three years since its founding, it has racked up more than 120,000 Twitter followers and 280,000 Facebook followers as well as released a book of its most popular articles along with previously unpublished stories.

*Molly Smith is a master's student at the University of Texas at Austin where she is pursuing a dual degree in Journalism and Global Policy Studies. She will graduate in May 2017.

**This story has been updated to include details about Paul Alonso's research on satire.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.