'South Park' Tackles Hypocrisy of Facebook Users Being Anti-Fake News and Critical of Tech Titans


Even if you don't normally watch "South Park," you might want to check out this week's episode, "Franchise Prequel." (Yes, you can jump into it even if you're unfamiliar with the show's characters and story arcs.) For the Facebook-addicted, it brings up some timely reasons to reconsider using the platform.

In the episode, concerned about the 'news' that masked vigilantes are performing disgraceful acts, the South Park community's parents discuss how to prevent their impressionable children from being targeted by disturbing Facebook stories. Unbeknownst to the parents, their children (the show's main characters) actually are those vigilantes—and the news is fake.

"We all know there's a lot of mixing of truth and fiction that's been on Facebook lately," the parents agree.

The solution they propose? "Let's invite Mark Zuckerberg here and hear what he has to say. I'm sure he's a reasonable person."

Cue ominous music.

(Warning: Spoilers follow.)

The moral of the story is if you have opted into giving Zuckerberg (a metonym for Facebook) your personal data in exchange for access to his social media empire, don't be surprised when it's used, over and over again, for evil purposes. And once he gets past that first gate, you may never be able to block him (and the targeted advertisers and fake news dealers) again.

The other valid point the episode makes is just how easy it is to use Facebook's cache of personal information for any purposes. As Vulture's Charles Bramesco writes, "The sharpest jab of the half-hour comes in the suggestion that the money advertising clients pay Facebook, a whopping sum of $17.23, is all the incentive the company needs to turn a blind eye to deliberate fakery." A child (moonlighting as supervillain Professor Chaos) is able to use Facebook to spread fake news that harms others. When the show's heroes confront Mark Zuckerberg about why he is protecting Chaos, he responds, "Simple. He paid me $17.23," alluding to Facebook's troubling policy toward advertisers under the guise of free speech.

The episode's image of an abandoned Circuit City filled with a supervillain and his tinfoil-hat-wearing minions bent on creating chaos, with Mark Zuckerberg protecting them like some awkward "Street Fighter" video game character, is almost enough to make viewers consider giving up this Facebook culture gone awry. Not to mention, it delivers a chill to think we are living in a post-truth world, where people seek news only to confirm their own opinions and "fake" can become a synonym for "doesn't align with my worldview."

Outside of fiction, it's perfect timing for talking about the possibility of deactivation—life without Facebook. Early Facebook employees "regret the monster they created," a Vanity Fair headline points out. And in the episode, Zuckerberg shutters the site when the heroes catch him in a Facebook Live video recording—very problematically, in what could be twisted by the alt-right as a conspiracy-fueling staged alt-left framing of—Zuckerberg beating up disabled, black, and Jewish children. Uncannily, here in the real world, the morning before the episode ran, Facebook was down for an hour or so for many users.

The bizarre animated series is well equipped to serve up cold truths about a good chunk of our culture that's addicted to Facebook. But mixed reviews agree it's not Matt Stone and Trey Parker's most comically genius work. One basic criticism not yet raised, perhaps because the "Coon and Friends" franchise is absurd to begin with (and, unrelated but significantly, playing with racist themes), is the timeline: If this is a prequel to the 2010 "Coon and Friends" trilogy, what are the grounds for commenting on the Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, mentioning Instagram casually (Instagram only began a month before the trilogy was released), and using Facebook Live (which came out last year)? Not to mention the blink-and-you-miss-it but sharp dig at Harvey Weinstein, only publicly outed this week. Admittedly, thinking back to seemingly innocuous times of Facebook and the news in 2010 does help to make you think how very different our digital lives were just a handful of years ago.

Bramesco neatly sums up the episode's appeal despite its limited satiric power:

"Parker and Stone take all the expected Facebook potshots, dutifully pointing out that spreading fake news is technically not illegal, and then parrying with the fact that what’s legal can still be, and often is, highly unethical. It’s a pretty broadly supported stance — nobody really supports fake news, though the more deluded deny its existence — that lacks the usual 'did they really just say that?' quality that South Park fans crave."

Watch the full episode at Comedy Central.

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