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‘Irony poisoning’: when nasty humor spirals downward into something far worse

In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, executives of the world's top social media companies were praised for their efforts so far to eliminate Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist content from the internet. / AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCELOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

After Dirk Denkhaus, a young German firefighter, attempted to set a house full of refugees on fire, The New York Times diagnosed him with a novel malady: irony poisoning. Denkhaus had spent hours on Facebook, ironically exchanging Nazi greetings and racist memes with friends — until deciding to turn jokes into violent action.

In other words, he was kidding, until he wasn’t.

The term “irony poisoning” first appeared on the Internet about four years ago, and can describe the altered state of people so deeply enthralled in a culture of ironic “humor” that they find themselves mouthing odious sentiments merely to be provocative. When director James Gunn’s decade-old Twitter jokes about child molesting resurfaced this summer, he insisted they had only been an attempt to be, as he put it, “outrageous and taboo.” (Disney fired him anyway.)

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But a more acute level of irony poisoning can lead someone to a point where, to quote Urban Dictionary, “the joke becomes real and you start to do things that are immoral or wrong from a place of deep nihilistic cynicism.” Denkhaus is only the latest example. A “viral hoaxster” wound up creating a real campaign of threats and harassment against video game developer (and now congressional candidate) Brianna Wu. And Michael Cernovich, the Internet troll who dredged up Gunn’s offensive tweets, has explained his own history of rape apologism, white supremacy, and conspiracy-mongering as “satire” — despite the real actions of his followers, one of whom famously showed up at a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor with a gun.

Writer Miles Klee has described irony poisoning as “metaphorical black lung.” It’s only a matter of time before we’re all in the mines.