An increasingly ubiquitous term describing a seemingly modern phenomenon, what is irony poisoning, where does it come from, and is it as new as it appears?
No Laughing Matter: Understanding And Defining Irony Poisoning
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
From extremism to cat memes, expansive digital global networks have reshaped the world by redefining how people gather and communicate within their communities. One concept to emerge from perpetually online spaces is “irony poisoning,” a term that describes the process by which individuals become entangled in layers of irony and the distinction between offensive (and often hateful) humour and sincere belief becomes blurred or non-existent altogether.
While often batted around the field of extremist and terror studies as a fully understood concept, there is little to no academic discussion of irony poisoning and only a general – and often far too broad – definition.
Experts spoken to by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network were mixed on the subject, with most seeing irony poisoning as a useful term to describe the modern iteration of a very old phenomenon, while others warn it could provide too simple an excuse or explanation for the nihilism and hate that festers on and offline.
Sardonic Satire Or Something Else
The term ‘irony poisoning’ was reportedly coined on online message and image boards. While there is some variance, irony poisoning is typically regarded as a process by which people, especially young people, are exposed to so much hateful content couched in detachment-based humour and irony that they may adopt these views unironically.
The language and humour that moves the process of irony poisoning along are often as absurd and outrageous as possible. Multiple fringe online communities include aspects of embracing hopelessness. This need to invoke shock and offence is why Holocaust denialism is such ripe ground for this type of discourse.
One of the simplest examples of irony poisoning remains American white nationalist and Groyper Nick Fuentes’ 2019 deployment of a mishmash of Sesame Street and Holocaust denial.
"If I take one hour to cook a batch of cookies, and Cookie Monster has 15 ovens working 24 hours a day every day for five years, how long does it take Cookie Monster to make six million batches of cookies?” he read to his audience. “I dunno, that's a good question. It doesn’t really sound correct to me… The math doesn’t really add up there."
While Fuentes has become much more explicit in his antisemitism – saying in November "The Jews hate me. And do you know what else the Jews hate? Jesus Christ" – the live streamer’s above response to a paid message in a chat room connected to his broadcast shows how conspiracism can infiltrate subversive humour. Fuentes and his supporters dismiss any criticism of his rhetoric as jokes taken out of context, despite a growing catalogue of racist statements.
“When someone is immersed in so much ‘ironic’ hate speech and ‘ironic’ extremism, the points eventually stop being ironic,” WF Thomas, a US-based researcher of misinformation, far-right extremism, and the spread of social movements, told CAHN during an interview. “These positions cease to be jokes and become the sincerely-held beliefs of someone.
“I would position irony poisoning as a step in that process, when the beliefs are becoming sincere, but that fact is not realized by someone. They have become so immersed in these ‘ironic’ positions that they are parroting them and believing in them, but may claim (whether they actually believe it or not) that it's ‘just a joke.’”
Agreeing there is a need for an academic definition of irony poisoning, Thomas also believes it first needs to be made clear that there is zero tolerance for hate no matter how it is framed as ironic expressions of hate make spaces for sincere expressions.
Second, he wants to show how many of the people claiming to be expressing hate in a joking or ironic way are using that as a cover to express their sincerely held beliefs. He sees irony as an “incredibly effective means” of indoctrination that is being “purposefully being instrumentalized” as such.
“[Trolls] know they hold these beliefs but present themselves as ‘comedians.’ Irony poisoning is the way they convince their audiences to hold the same beliefs as them.”
A Pathway To Radicalization
Understanding how individuals come to adopt racist and hateful beliefs continues to be an important avenue of study. Though one expert warns against relying too heavily on concepts like irony poisoning as a cause or excuse for odious behaviour and beliefs because they feel it can diminish the severity of the problem.
“It kind of strikes me as a rationalization or like a downplay of what are clearly hateful beliefs,” Jared Holt, senior research manager with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told CAHN over the phone. “This idea that it is okay being ironically racist or they are getting addicted to edgelord internet culture.”
Adding later, “Purveying hateful rhetoric, it’s just kind of as simple as that a lot of the time. I don't think that there's no utility in exploring the idea of irony poisoning, because it is one of the main pathways to radicalization.”
The distinction between those who purvey and encourage hateful rhetoric through irony and those who get swept up in it is significant, according to Holt. He points to individuals like the Canadian founder of the Proud Boys Gavin McInnes and Fuentes as building their brands around irony and use getting a laugh as a “permission slip” for their rhetoric.
“You get people laughing at what you're saying. This kind of has the effect of softening it a little bit, making the pill go down a bit easier if it will,” Holt said.
“I think like how it gets used is by appealing to … that nihilism, that cynicism and then sort of channelling these immature or like childlike desires for attention or to be outrageous and be offensive just for the sake of it. Through the years it's proven to be a potent blend. Fuentes has done it. Gavin McInnis built his audience doing this. Right. Tons of folks have been quite successful on the hate circuit, if you will, by deploying this.”
Nothing New Under The Sun
The speed at which information – whether through images, video, or text – can be replicated and spread exceeds any other time in human history. Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates deployed irony that disparaged his own intelligence or praised his latest conversational target in the marketplace to draw the subject into a place they could be challenged. And while Socratic Irony relies on the faux ignorance of a questioner to lead the person answering into exposing their own ignorance, irony poisoning can be framed similarly as disguising one’s own “hidden knowledge” in a feign of ignorance that still allows the content to carry forward – whether it is interpreted seriously or not.
As the study of communication has evolved, so has the understanding of how individuals interpret and internalize data. This includes a deeper knowledge of what causes certain information and sources to impact some people more than others.
“Persuasion is a very complex social phenomenon. It has to do with who we know, who we trust, the social assumptions that are already all around us and then the personal, sources of gratification, whether we get a charge out of this or that form of antisocial media,” Brian Hughes, associate director at the Polarization And Extremism Research And Innovation Lab (PERIL), said during a phone interview.
PERIL is an organization creating evidence-based tools to reduce political polarization and disinformation. Based out of American University, the organization offers intervention strategies to address polarization and violence. This includes demonstrating how and why humour and irony provide such a fertile ground for hateful ideas and ideologies.
“A person might harbour on some level, let's say antisemitic attitudes or the kind of resentments and grievances that are strong motivators towards adopting Jews as scapegoats,” Hughes said, offering an example, “but let's say that they had a good upbringing, a good education, that included, education against antisemitism. There are going to be some barriers to them exploring and going more in-depth into that world. The irony and the humour allows them to begin that exploration in a way that doesn't trigger the same expectation of social censure.
“Part of socialization is internalizing that if you do bad things, people will yell at you, basically. The humour allows a workaround.”