I recently opened my email to the article “Is Facebook censoring the Babylon Bee, or does Mark Zuckerberg just not get the jokes?” I think this article (and this issue) raises some interesting free speech and media literacy points, as well as highlighting the extra challenges posed by satire.
The article discusses a complaint by the Babylon Bee, a satire site that bills itself as “fake news you can trust,” that Facebook has been censoring the company’s page. The CEO of the Babylon Bee believes Facebook is “suppressing” content and points to a “drastic, steady decline in reach and engagement” through Facebook, despite an increase in followers.
“We’d have reached more people if we had printed the article and posted it on a single telephone poll in a small town,” CEO Seth Dillon said about a recent post, according to Deseret.com.
Deseret ties the problem to Facebook’s decision to prioritize visibility of “legacy” news organizations. Dillon points out that it’s problematic for The Bee to be treated – and scored poorly – as “news” as “we’re not actually a news source.”
While some argue that Facebook and other large tech companies are suppressing or censoring conservative viewpoints, the companies argue they are only taking down “false information.” But how does satire fit in?
First, assuming that it’s true that Facebook is – intentionally or by virtue of algorithms – suppressing The Bee’s (or any other conservative outlet’s) content, let’s remember that Facebook is ultimately a private company and can “censor” whomever they want; if they want to allow “anything goes” for “left wing” media outlets and ban/minimize exposure of “right wing” media outlets, or vice versa, they’re allowed to do that in our society. As I find myself endlessly reminding internet-goers, the 1st Amendment prevents the government from censoring, not private companies.
However, just because they can doesn’t mean that they should or that we should not be concerned about it, especially given the role social media plays in our society. I also think this raises a broader issue as to how to handle satire in an era where there is so much focus on “fake news.” According to Deseret, Facebook’s Oversight Board acknowledges the problem (at least to some extent), saying they “need a better way of dealing with satire.” The board has said the company needs new procedures to deal with satirical content based on context. As a result, Facebook announced it would not “automatically” flag satire as misinformation. Facebook community standards also mention the “fine line” between false news and satire.
One of the things I like to ask my students when we discuss so-called “fake news” is what the difference is between fake news, satire, opinion or biased reporting? Is biased reporting “fake news”? Is “opinion?” When, if ever, does satire cross a line into “fake news?” Is satire journalism?” If I had more time, I’d probably also ask them to think about the social value (see here and here for discussion on this) of opinion and satire.
Penn State had a good item several years ago discussing how impactful satire is in today’s society – specifically citing the popularity of satire commentary shows like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. When I checked, The Onion had more than 6 million followers on Facebook and the Babylon Bee had over 917,000. Andy Borowitz, of the satire page The Borowitz Report, had over 1 million followers. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had almost 2 million.
Clearly satire is popular, and some would argue that it is an important part of democracy and society. But it’s clearly not news and in many cases is not accurate, or at least skews the truth. It certainly cannot be trust to present all the information on an issue or tell multiple perspectives. Does that make it “fake news?” And with increasing pressure for social media companies to curb “fake news” where does satire fit in? Should satire be lumped in? Should it be excluded from any anti-misinformation measures? And is it even possible to always easily tell the difference?
I think this is especially likely to be difficult when large companies like Facebook attempt to use computers and algorithms to do some of this work for us; it can be hard for people to tell the difference between satire and news (as I fess up to my students, I fell for an Onion story back in the day when it was less well known); how are computers going to do it? How much does it matter when the system “gets it wrong” and flags satire as misinformation? Do we care? How much do we care, and why?
And, of course, as the article about the Babylon Bee addresses, what if these attempts to curb misinformation disproportionately impact specific viewpoints? It’s simple to say that Facebook (or other social media site) is a private company and can do whatever it wants, but as Congress is beginning to recognize, social media plays a huge role in our society and what we think about it. At what point does that impact mean we – society – should have a say in what they can and cannot do? We could also have a conversation about the responsibilities of those who create the satire, but that’s a whole other post!
Obviously there are lots of big picture questions here, but some of it comes back to the same stuff we – librarians – are always saying. We need better information literacy, including media literacy. We – society – need to do better at teaching our kids critical thinking. We need to help them understand and contextualize satire, opinion, news and fake news. Unless we do that, it’s likely any measures we take – or make social media companies take – won’t fix our problems.
Lisa Hoover is a public services librarian at Clarkson University and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about First Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017, teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York, with their cats Hercules and Pandora, and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex).