Poe's law is an adage of Internet culture saying that, without a clear indicator of the author's intent, every parody of extreme views can be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.
Poe's law is based on a comment written by Nathan Poe in 2005 on christianforums.com, an Internet forum on Christianity. The message was posted during a debate on creationism, where a previous poster had remarked to another user: "Good thing you included the winky. Otherwise people might think you are serious".
The reply by Nathan Poe read:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.
Its original conceptualization held that online parodies or sarcasm on religious views are indistinguishable from sincere expressions of religious views. In part, Poe was simply reiterating common advice about the need to clearly mark online sarcasm or parody (e.g. with a smiling or winking emoticon) and that without these unmistakable cues, it would be interpreted as the real thing or used by online trolls, extremists, and/or fundamentalists as sincere expressions of their authors, particularly if they match their own views. As early as 1983, Jerry Schwarz, in a post on Usenet, wrote:
Avoid sarcasm and facetious remarks.
Without the voice inflection and body language of personal communication these are easily misinterpreted. A sideways smile, :-), has become widely accepted on the net as an indication that "I'm only kidding". If you submit a satiric item without this symbol, no matter how obvious the satire is to you, do not be surprised if people take it seriously.
In 2017, Wired published an article calling it "2017's Most Important Internet Phenomenon", and wrote that "Poe's Law applies to more and more internet interactions." The article gave examples of cases involving 4chan and the Trump administration where there were deliberate ambiguities over whether something was serious or intended as a parody, where people were using Poe's law as "a refuge" to camouflage beliefs that would otherwise be considered unacceptable. Some treat Poe's law as part of contemporary kitsch culture; another view maintains that Poe's law could lead to nihilism, a situation where nothing matters and everything is a joke.
- Poe, Nathan (August 11, 2005). "Big contradictions in the evolution theory, page 3". christianforums.com. Archived from the original on January 14, 2017. Retrieved January 14, 2017.
- Aikin, Scott F. (January 23, 2009). "Poe's Law, Group Polarization, and the Epistemology of Online Religious Discourse". SSRN 1332169.
- Chivers, Tom (October 23, 2009). "Internet rules and laws: the top 10, from Godwin to Poe". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 19, 2017.
- Harcoff, Pete (August 10, 2005). "Big contradictions in the evolution theory". christianforums.com. Archived from the original on January 14, 2017. Retrieved January 14, 2016.
- Aikin, Scott F.; Talisse, Robert B. (2014). Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement. Oxford, England: Routledge. p. 127. ISBN 9780415859042.
- Singer, Peter Warren; Brooking, Emerson T. (2018). Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 174. ISBN 978-1-328-69574-1.
- Stępień, Justyna (2014). Redefining Kitsch and Camp in Literature and Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 29. ISBN 978-1443862219.
- "Emily Post for Usenet". Newsgroup: net.announce. November 1, 1983. (Emily Post)
- Ellis, Emma Grey (June 5, 2017). "Can't Take a Joke? That's Just Poe's Law, 2017's Most Important Internet Phenomenon". Wired. Archived from the original on January 25, 2019. Retrieved May 21, 2018.
- How to Tell a Joke on the Internet, The Atlantic