The Babylon Bee has a Snopes problem.
The Bee, which was founded by Christian comic Adam Ford, is sort of like The Onion for people who love Jesus. It occasionally pillories Trump (a recent headline reads, “Trump Proves He's Not A Racist By Showing His Rejection Letter From The KKK”) and religion (“Local Christian Would Do Anything For Jesus Except Believe Things That Are Unpopular”), but more often, it targets the left. For example: “‘Abortion Is Healthcare,' Says Woman Who Apparently Thinks 'Healthcare' Means Tearing A Human Being Limb From Limb.”
The tagline on the site is “Your Trusted Source for Christian News Satire,” and they do not hide the fact that it's humor. That, however, has not stopped fact-checking site Snopes from debunking dozens of Babylon Bee stories.
This is causing something of shit storm in conservative media, especially after a recent incident in which the site wrote farcical take on Georgia lawmaker Erica Thomas, who accused a man of telling her to “go back where you came from” (a claim the lawmaker later walked back). The Bee’s story was called, “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back To Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said 'My Pleasure'.” Snopes quickly debunked it.
Snopes, which is based in Tacoma, prides itself on being nonpartisan, but in this case, the site went beyond just a fact-check. Their original story accused the Bee of “fanning the flames of a controversy” and “muddying the details of a news story" in an "apparent attempt to maximize the online indignation." They also called the piece of satire a "ruse."
This, clearly, crossed the line into editorializing, and the site later amended it. Now, there’s an editor’s note, if not quite an apology: “Some readers interpreted wording in a previous version of this fact check as imputing deceptive intent on the part of Babylon Bee in its original satirical piece about Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas, and that was not the editors’ aim. To address any confusion, we have revised some of the wording mostly for tone and clarity. We are in the process of pioneering industry standards for how the fact-checking industry should best address humor and satire.”
Still, to some readers, particularly those on the right, this was more evidence that Snopes has a liberal bias. “To its credit, Snopes has since substantially revised its report and added an editor’s note,” wrote David French in the National Review. “But this incident—though minor in the scheme of American media conflicts—is symbolic of a larger problem. As American partisanship grows more intense, respected media outlets and organizations are throwing away years of accumulated goodwill through partisan misjudgments and partisan attacks. Ideological uniformity can blind them to their own biases, and a sense of national emergency can lead them to betray their own principles.”
David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes, disputes that the site is biased against conservatives. “That post should have been worded better but it's a classic example of the maxim that the exception proves the rule,” he told me. “If our intent had been to push a narrative about the site, we wouldn't have done it just once, we would have done it in every post.”
As for why Snopes fact checks the Babylon Bee more than, say, The Onion, Mikkelson says it’s because they get more queries about Babylon’s stories.
“Our topic selection methodology is driven by whatever the most people are asking about or questioning,” he said. “We don't just sit around and decide that something looks interesting. We don't make any subjective decisions about whether something is important enough or if it's too obvious or silly or frivolous. If people are asking about it, we address it.”
Mikkelson says the question people should be asking is not why does Snopes write so many articles about some sites, including the Bee, but what it is about those sites that confuses so many people?
It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s just branding—The Onion is more famous; everyone knows that it’s satire—but I suspect it’s cultural as well. Babylon Bee stories tend to spread in conservative circles, where satire and other forms of irony just aren't as much a part of the culture. That can be a problem, because while there is an important difference between fake news and satire, some people absorb jokes as though they were fact.
There can be real consequences to this. After I spoke to Mikkelson, he sent me a link to a Twitter thread by Josh Raby, a filmmaker in Nashville who accused the Babylon Bee of driving a wedge between him and his father. Raby said he got dogpiled by his dad’s friends on Facebook when he pointed out that the Babylon Bee headline “Senate Democrats Demand Supreme Court Nominee Not Be Unduly Influenced By U.S. Constitution” is satire. They refused to accept it even when he pointed out that it’s labeled as satire right there on the website. This caused a massive fight, Raby and his dad are no longer speaking, and he blames the Babylon Bee for not grasping the site's impact on the audience. “They lob jokes and close their eyes as to how they’ll land,” he wrote on Twitter.
I have no idea if Raby’s story is true. Snopes has not fact checked it, he declined to comment for this piece, and he does have a history of making things up: In 2015, he became briefly famous after a story he posted to Twitter about an outlandish encounter with McDonald’s employees went viral. He did several interviews confirming the details, including with BuzzFeed, and then, well after his story had been viewed, and presumably believed, by thousands of people, he admitted he made the whole thing up. “I am a man who writes funny and stupid stories about weird southern characters, I hope one day, for a living,” he tweeted after.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine people confusing satire as fact. I’ve seen it here, at this very paper, but there are probably more effective ways to combat the spread of misinformation than the silent treatment.
Jevin West—the director of the newly announced University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, a multidisciplinary project established to research and combat the problem of misinformation—teaches a course on fake news, and he says the first thing he talks to his students about is how to have a civil discussion with someone (often, as in Raby’s case, a family member) who posts fake news online.
“Start with the assumption that the individual has good intentions, and don’t go after their character,” West told me. “Don't assume malice when stupidity is more likely, and don't assume stupidity when something could be an honest mistake.” West says to start by establishing common ground and then be genuinely inquisitive about where the person came across the misinformation in question.
West says he hasn’t done much research on the impact of satire, but there are possible technical solutions. Facebook reportedly considered adding a “satire” tag to some posts, although a banner reading “JOKE HERE” would kind of kill the joke. Regardless, it never came to fruition.
Mikkelson, the Snopes founder, says publishers need to think more about the potential impact of their content—even if it’s meant to be in good humor. “In the modern digital information ecosystem, the humorist/satirist—and all publishers, really—have to be cognizant that a significant portion of a very large audience may not understand their work, and therefore also have to be mindful of what the potential manifestations of that misunderstanding might be.”
To me, the big story here isn’t liberal bias at Snopes. Nearly every outlet has some internal bias, but Snopes fact-checks the stories that people are asking about. The big story here is how the hell are people going to learn to tell the difference between fact and fiction?
There’s no easy solution to this, but for now, the Babylon Bee, which declined to comment for this piece, has every right to publish satire, just as Snopes has every right to fact-check them. And so it keeps going: Before the Democratic debates this week, the Bee published the headline, "Snopes Issues Pre-Approval Of All Statements Made During Tonight's Democratic Debate.” This one, Snopes declined to debunk.