A ‘Fact Checker’ Declares War on Satire
A ‘Fact Checker’ Declares War On Satire
When we make fun of liberals, Snopes pretends to take us seriously and labels our jokes ‘false.’
Aug. 21, 2019 6:57 pm ET
If your job is to make people laugh, what do you do when your brand of humor is classified as dangerous?
I run the Babylon Bee, a satirical website, and we’ve had to face that question a lot lately. The “fact checkers” at Snopes.com—once a reliable source for distinguishing reality from urban legends—have been smearing the Bee as “fake news.” They don’t seem to have a problem when we make fun of Trump-worship, conservatives, fundamentalism and megachurches. But when we target Democrats and the left, suddenly we’re branded liars.
The most recent controversy began when Snopes published a thorough “debunking” of our satirical take on Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas ’s false claim that a white man in a supermarket told her to “go back to where you came from.” Our humorous headline: “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-fil-A Employee Told Her to Go Back to Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said ‘My Pleasure.’ ”
Snopes knew this was a joke but questioned our “brand” of satire. The website called us “junk news” and a “ruse.” It accused us of intentionally “muddying the details” of a current event to “fool” people.
In response our CEO, Seth Dillon, instructed our lawyers to demand an edit of the article and appealed to the public on social media. The scolds at Snopes seemed to comply and removed the worst bits from their piece. But they then rolled out a new rating, “Labeled Satire,” which is meant to suggest that we are somehow making jokes in bad faith. Here’s the explanation of the new rating: “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.”
Snopes proceeded to publish a long-winded piece explaining why it “fact checks” humor in the first place and reposted a summary of an unpublished Ohio State University study on satire in which the authors claim the Bee’s material is “among the most shared factually inaccurate content” they’d found.
If I told you the Ohio State study looks like a setup, with researchers providing grossly inaccurate summaries of the Bee’s stories and asking participants if they’re true or false, you might think I was satirizing these people. Nope—it’s true. Our headline “Nation Awaits Apology From Media That Pushed Fake News Story for Two Years,” for example, was summarized as “Most Americans believe that major media companies should apologize for pushing the now-debunked news story of collusion between President Trump and Russia.” Our article never made that assertion, and their hacked-up version misses the joke—which assumes the nation isn’t holding its breath for an apology for the collusion hoax.
In short, they drained the humor from our jokes, then feigned shock when research subjects failed to see it.
This ugly dispute has demonstrated the danger of assigning authority to supposedly unbiased fact-checkers. They have the power to slap a joke they don’t like with a “false” rating and defame the authors as purveyors of lies and fakery. Last year Facebook threatened to forbid us to collect money from ads, and even to boot us entirely, after Snopes “fact checked” a piece of ours headlined “CNN Purchases Industrial Washing Machine to Spin the News.”
Life isn’t always “true” or “false,” and mockery, like art, is especially averse to easy labels. Scams and hoaxes are fairly called lies. Opinion and satire involve layers of context and interpretation—and, yes, bias. It’s dishonest for “fact checkers” like Snopes to treat satirical sites like ours as if we claimed to be objective news sources simply in order to saddle us with the “fake news” sobriquet.
Lies claiming to be objective truth are a problem, and sometimes people mistake satire for fact. But let’s not give up our sense of humor just because some “fact checker” pretends not to have one.