Is it satire or fake news? Depends on who you ask

April 30, 2018
Category: Fact-Checking

LYON, France — Michele Bedard and Chianna Schoenthaler didn’t think they’d be going to France.

“For us it was just like, ‘OK, let’s just do it. If we get it we get it, and if we don’t we don’t,’” Chianna Schoenthaler told Poynter in Lyon on Tuesday. “I remember when we got that email. We were like, ‘OK, we actually know what we’re talking about.’”

Schoenthaler and Michele Bedard — both Colorado State University-Pueblo undergraduate students — presented their paper at The Web Conference’s journalism, misinformation and fact-checking track on Wednesday. The paper, titled “Satire or Fake News: Social Media Consumers' Socio-Demographics Decide,” addresses a growing concern among fact-checkers, journalists and technology companies grappling with how to address online misinformation.

In March, Snopes — one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners — debunked a story from a satirical site about CNN and a washing machine and flagged it on Facebook, lowering its reach. The move sparked an outcry, and Facebook later reversed the decision. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition to being one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners.)

The debacle led to some interesting questions: Should satire be included in fact-checkers’ efforts to debunk misinformation? What’s the difference between the two, and how should they be distinguished?

In Schoenthaler and Bedard’s study, they found that the latter two questions have something to do with reader demographics. Through online surveys and focus groups, they quizzed participants on the difference between fake news and satire by showing them 27 screenshots of posts in a Facebook feed and giving them 12 seconds to read it and pick a category.

They found that the youngest and oldest participants were least likely to accurately distinguish between fake news and satire. Women and more educated people fared better, while political orientation did not have much of an effect on the outcome.

Poynter caught up with Schoenthaler and Bedard about their work — as well as its implications for tech platforms and fact-checkers — before they presented their paper to The Web Conference’s misinformation track on Wednesday. This Q-and-A has been edited for clarity.

You’re presenting a paper on the difference between satire and fake news. What inspired you both to research that topic?

Chianna Schoenthaler: It started in our audience research class in our mass communications program … And he came in with this idea: “We’re going to do fake news this semester. That’s everyone’s point of research; you can take a different area that you want to research within that topic, but that’s your focus.” So we ran with the fake news and we decided to do it based of sociodemographics, because we found it very interesting to see how different age groups, genders or political affiliations might have different correlations.

Michele Bedard: We decided to focus on satire because when we were starting to do our major (literature) review for everything, finding our research question, there just wasn’t much at this point. And this was in March of last year when we started to narrow it down. We found all these articles from maybe 10 years ago talking about satire and the old shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So there were some research articles on those, but there wasn’t anything that current … This is something that needed to be explored more.

Was there an article or a moment when you knew this was an issue and that you wanted to research it?

Bedard: It really was this Miley Cyrus, CNN and The Onion (story) — there was a whole thing written about that. That’s when I was like, “Wait, that’s what was fake news, now it’s satire, but no one can understand the difference between the fake news and the satire, and oh my God there’s a problem.”

They called satire ‘fake news’ because it wasn’t real. And now that has totally flipped.

Why do you think there’s such a disparity in those two concepts? Can’t we all just agree on what satire is? It’s funny — it should be self-evident, right?

Bedard: It’s what different people find funny.

Schoenthaler: We noticed that even in just age groups.

Bedard: Age and political affiliation in our focus groups. A Democrat found something funny and a Republican did not; she said, “I don’t see anything funny about that.” So it’s like, “OK, well how clear do we have to be here that it’s funny?” Are you going to be like the Borowitz Report where it says “not real?” That defeats the purpose of the satire because it makes it less funny.

Schoenthaler: It’s the way you’re raised — I think that has a lot to do with it. I’m from Colorado, I’m a native. I grew up in a small town, so what people in my town would think is funny other people in Colorado Springs wouldn’t.

Bedard: It’s just that point of reference, that framework that you look at the world through — what’s funny and what isn’t — and then you got this mass amplification with the web throwing it all together and there’s your problem. There’s no differentiation anymore; there are 100 people looking at the same thing and seeing it 90 different ways. How do you fix that?

In your paper, you say that demographics could shed light on that dissonance. What do you find, and was most surprising to you?

Bedard: A lot of it confirmed what we already thought. Age was interesting — the mean score with the younger (group of 18- to 22-year-olds) and then 60 (years old) plus — (was) a curved linear relationship. So we’re looking at that and we’re like, “OK, why is this?” Clearly, for the younger generation: exposure and knowledge base and education. The older generation: newspapers. They read newspapers, they’re not getting their stuff from the web, so they’re not even exposed to satire. There’s not satire in your daily newspaper.

Schoenthaler: The education wasn’t surprising because the more educated you were, the better your score was in our 27 screenshots.

Bedard: That was a perfect line. So some of our prior research had exposed the difference between conservative or Republican affiliation with Democrat affiliation, and said there was a differentiation between those two and their ability to recognize fake news. Our results, we had such a small sample — less than 500 and it was a convenience sample — but ours slightly reflected that, but not enough to really say, “Oh yeah, Republicans can’t tell what’s fake news.” That was actually surprising because we expected to see that.

We talked a little bit about how our younger focus group participants not knowing any of the big headlines, national news — that was shocking.

Schoenthaler: They don’t look at dates, they don’t look at names, they don’t look at sources. They just read the headline.

Another one that we found in our findings is that corrections didn’t really work.

Bedard: ProPublica had a tweet, and rightfully below it said “Correction:” and then whatever it was. Our participants No. 1: Didn’t recognize that a correction was actually something real — they thought it was fake. OK that was horrifying. Second: They didn’t know what ProPublica was.

I want to read a line from the age section that I found to be particularly terrifying: “Most participants from these age groups” — the youngest and oldest groups — “had little to no awareness of even credible news sources, much less nuanced fake or satirical news sites.” Are we hopeless?

Schoenthaler: I think it’s going to be: What are we doing to educate the younger generations? Because they’re the ones coming up into this world where they don’t trust anyone … A lot of them follow the basic celebrity (news outlets) or just see what other people share. Honestly it’s going to boil down to what are we doing to teach people when they’re younger so that when they get to this point in society where they have to be media literate, what are they going to understand?

Bedard: If we had to do this again we would narrow some things down, because we just asked people, they had to choose one source as their primary source of news. And social media was one of the choices, so what (one of our professors) asked us was, “So does that mean social media, like, could they be getting CNN or NBC or whatever on their feeds? Did you ask that?” And we said no. She goes, “Oh, so there is hope for humanity,” and I said no — not according to what we’ve seen.