Snopes Fact-Checkers Finally Label Satire -- Sort Of

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Snopes, one of the nation’s leading fact-checking outfits, has quietly introduced a new category for rating claims: “Labeled Satire.” While a request for comment from Snopes was not returned, the change is presumably a result of the fact checkers’ spat earlier this summer with satirical website The Babylon Bee.

To recap, the Bee is a conservative-oriented humor website that published a mocking account of a real-life confrontation between a Democratic politician and a heckler. Snopes rated the story’s “claim” as false and seemingly suggested that the Bee may have intended to “muddy the waters” around the real story. The founder of the Bee issued a series of blistering tweets in response, and the Bee announced it had retained legal representation.

Shortly thereafter, Snopes softened the language of its original fact check and appended an editors’ note addressing the flap, which concluded that “[w]e are in the process of pioneering industry standards for how the fact-checking industry should best address humor and satire.”

It is unclear whether Snopes has any additional measures in the works. But simply noting that a piece under scrutiny has been labeled by its author as satire is a notable development within the fact-checking world. Other industry leaders, such as Pulitzer Prize winner PolitiFact and CNN-collaborator, still label satirical pieces as false, while reporting in the text of their fact-checks that satirical claims are being addressed.

The move is commendable on Snopes’ part. There will always be readers gullible enough to take satire as truth, but that does not mean the satirist’s intent is deception. For that reason, Snopes’ core strategy — continuing to report on the veracity of satirical claims for the credulous, yet marking them as satire, rather than untruth — is a solid one.

The chief drawback to this approach comes from a curious product of our age of fake news. Some sites that define their work as satirical are also on a mission to fool readers. Take, for example, the work of Christopher Blair. He operates an ever-expanding network of fake news sites, and though he labels his work as satire, he has stated that it is his intent is to troll conservative readers who don’t catch the disclaimer. He has been called “the godfather of fake news,” “one of the country’s biggest publishers of fake news,” and a “fake news troll.” He is also the subject of an illuminating profile by PolitiFact, which notes that “if you’re fooled by fake news, this man probably wrote it.” And yes, Snopes has debunked his work countless times — though it only started labeling such pieces as satire after the dust-up with the Bee.

There is a wide gulf between the work of Blair, whose goal is to fool the susceptible, and sites like The Onion and The Babylon Bee, which engage in legitimate social satire. Careful readers will note that Snopes’ new category does not state that a piece is satire; it simply informs readers that a piece has been “labeled satire.”

Snopes opens the archive for this nascent category by saying that “[t]his rating indicates that a claim is derived from content described by its creator and/or the wider audience as satire. Not all content described by its creator or audience as ‘satire’ necessarily constitutes satire, and this rating does not make a distinction between 'real' satire and content that may not be effectively recognized or understood as satire despite being labeled as such.”

This precisely sidesteps what makes Blair different from actual satirists. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate between perception and shades of meaning, it hardly seems right to lump sites that don’t intend to fool anyone with those that do.

Still, Snopes is on the right track. It was too simplistic, and arguably unfair, to label works demarked as satire as simply “false.” The additional context is crucial, and hopefully leaves room for further distinction in the future.

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

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