Fact-Checking Satire -- Is Snopes Serious?

Fact-Checking Satire -- Is Snopes Serious?
Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Fact-Checking Satire -- Is Snopes Serious?
Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
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Humor website the Babylon Bee is like The Onion for the politically conservative and evangelical Christian set. That is, it offers satirical articles written in the style of a legitimate news outlet. Recent headlines include “Futuristic, Utopian Paradise of Baltimore Completely Baffled By Trump’s Attacks,” “Alyssa Milano’s Political Activism Prompts Millions To Ask Themselves ‘Who Is Alyssa Milano?,’” and “Youth Pastor Rocking Beanie Just In Case Blizzard Hits In Middle Of July.”

In case the playful tone does not make it obvious that the editors are joking, their “About Us” page clearly labels the site as satirical. Search for “Babylon Bee” on Google and the top result is a link to the site accompanied by the line “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire.”

But the Bee is dead serious about its threat of legal action against venerable fact checker Snopes. At the heart of the dispute is a fact check written last week by Snopes’ content manager, Dan Evon. The Snopes article concerns a piece from the Bee that jabs at Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas, who issued the muddy claim that a man in a supermarket told her to go back to her own country. In the Bee’s version, which pokes fun at the dubious nature of Thomas’ assertion, the confrontation occurred at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. The fictionalized Thomas claimed that an employee told her to go back to her country, only to later recall that he actually said “my pleasure.” While the Bee was making light of a divisive current event, Snopes gave the piece the full fact-check treatment.

This is not the first time it has fact-checked the Bee’s work. In a particularly notable example, Snopes took up the Bee’s obviously absurd claim that CNN had purchased industrial washing machines to launder the news. The consequences of fact-checking can be grave. In previous coverage, RealClear Fact Check Review reported that pieces deemed false by fact-checking outfits stand to lose as much of 80% of their Facebook audience. This is because the social media giant uses such verdicts to justify reducing the distribution of pieces deemed false. It hardly seems just to treat an openly satirical story with the same censorious hand as misleading or outright untruthful journalism. And, in fact, Facebook apologized to the Bee for its threat of censorship that resulted from the initial Snopes story.

In this latest instance, the Bee’s founder and minority owner, Adam Ford, took particular exception to the tone of the Snopes assessment. In a lengthy Twitter thread, he called Snopes’ handling of the piece on Thomas “particularly egregious” and “disturbing.” He pointed to a subtitle that castigated the Bee for “fanning the flames of controversy” and “muddying the details of a news story” to the point that it was unclear if the piece qualified as satire. Ford complained that throughout the Snopes story, supposedly an “objective fact check,” the assessment “veered towards pronouncing a moral judgment,” seemingly accusing the satirical site of willful deception. It is certainly understandable how Ford could feel this way: Snopes referred to the Bee’s “ruse” and offered that “the Babylon Bee has managed to fool readers with its brand of satire in the past.”

In an emailed newsletter sent July 29 to subscribers, the Bee wrote that “by lumping us in with fake news and questioning whether we really qualify as satire, Snopes appears to be actively engaged in an effort to discredit and deplatform us.” The message said that the Bee had retained legal representation. In an exchange of private messages over Twitter, Ford declined to comment beyond the email to subscribers and his tweets. Seth Dillon, the Bee’s CEO, did likewise.

Reached via email, Snopes’ publisher and CEO David Mikkelson said he is unaware of any pending legal action by the Bee, but pointed to revisions to the fact check along with a newly appended editors’ note. The note says that while “[s]ome readers interpreted wording in a previous version of this fact check as imputing deceptive intent on the part of Babylon Bee …  that was not the editors’ aim.” It added that “[w]e are in the process of pioneering industry standards for how the fact-checking industry should best address humor and satire.”

In the past, RealClear Fact Check Review has praised Snopes for its tendency to stick to verifying facts rather than committing the cardinal sin of “fact-checking” opinion. But in the same breath, we observed a tendency to use opinionated language when assessing claims. In short, we argued that Snopes does not fact check editorials, but it does editorialize. The piece on the Babylon Bee is another example of this tendency.

Mikkelson did not answer a follow-up request for information on the new standards for fact-checking satire, but such measures are sorely necessary. Lacking any change, sites like Snopes might just get stung by a Bee.

Bill Zeiser is the editor of RealClearPolicy. He oversees the RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review.

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