I’ll admit my bias right up top: I’ve found Snopes’ “fact-checking” of the satire news site the Babylon Bee extremely humorous.
But not until I saw a Religion News Service headline this week reporting on the kerfuffle between those two entities did it strike me that there might be a meaty news story there.
So kudos to RNS for doing what the best journalists do: seeing a scenario that a lot of people are talking about, and maybe even chuckling over, and recognizing an opportunity to present the facts in impartial manner.
Hey, I know I’m interested in knowing more about this clash.
Let’s start at the top:
(RNS) — A feud between a website that specializes in religious and political satire and a fact-checking powerhouse is raising questions about the role of short-form internet satire in the era of fake news.
Last week (July 22), the Babylon Bee — a website that got its start in primarily religious satire but has since waded into more political waters by satirizing liberal political figures — published a story in which a Georgia state lawmaker accused a Chick-fil-A employee of telling her to “Go back to your country!” only to later learn that the cashier actually said “my pleasure.”
According to the Babylon Bee’s website, the article was shared nearly 400,000 times on Facebook and more than 53,000 time on Twitter.
There was just one problem: Although written for a satirical site, the account was mostly true. A Georgia lawmaker did have a similar encounter with a store worker in the past month, but it was in a Publix, not a Chick-fil-A, and the exact wording of the worker was unclear.
Maybe this is my bias showing, but I am not certain “powerhouse” is the term I would have chosen to describe Snopes. I mean, is Snopes really a powerhouse?
Yes, Snopes — “the internet’s definitive #factchecking source” — has 230,000 Twitter followers, so a lot of people are familiar with it.
But the Babylon Bee — “Your Trusted Site for Christian News Satire” — has 200,000 Twitter followers, so it’s not far behind. What’s the dividing line between a normal website and a “powerhouse?”
Unfortunately, neither Snopes nor the Babylon Bee talked to RNS, which tried to land interviews with both. So the story relies on what has been said publicly on social media and elsewhere.
RNS does talk to a professor who offers some thought-provoking insight on the issues at play:
But Jeremy Littau, a professor in Lehigh University’s journalism department who has published research on the impact of satire on news, says the back-and-forth represents the complicated landscape that digital satire occupies in an era where fake news has become a national concern that many argue can impact presidential elections.
“’Saturday Night Live,’ Weekend Update and Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ — those were rooted in traditional legacy media,” Littau said, noting that satirical website The Onion also once had a print edition. “(But) what’s happening in the age of the internet is not any satire creator’s fault, per se. It’s a combination of factors that involves how info spreads virally, and people sharing on platforms without the platform fact-checking.”
Littau said the issue can get tricky. Effective satire typically relies on the audience to get the joke, he said. He noted satire can work without changing much about the original story: In 2008, “Saturday Night Live” staged a skit in which comedian Tina Fey portrayed then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in satirical reenactment of a very real television interview with Katie Couric.
But Littau argued there is a difference between the SNL skit, which played on a well-known interview, and the Babylon Bee story about the Georgia lawmaker, which far fewer Americans knew about.
I wish RNS would have talked to a smart source (David French perhaps?) willing to suggest that “satire is satire,” the First Amendment is the First Amendment, and that Snopes is failing to fool anybody with its left-leaning “fact-checking” of a website that often laughs from the other side of the aisle.
Then again, maybe that’s my own bias showing.