March 2, 2018

A recent debunk from Snopes exposed a grey area for Facebook’s fact-checking tool.

It started as a joke. On Thursday, satire site The Babylon Bee published an article titled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” It likened the network’s perceived left-leaning bias to a literal spin cycle.

The custom-made device allows CNN reporters to load just the facts of a given issue, turn a dial to “spin cycle,” and within five minutes, receive a nearly unrecognizable version of the story that’s been spun to fit with the news station’s agenda.

The piece, clearly a comment on a common conservative accusation against CNN, had racked up more than 22,000 engagements on Facebook as of publication — gaining more than 20,000 in a matter of hours Friday, according to BuzzSumo. But then users started getting warnings before sharing the post, and the page’s administrators received a notification that their reach and monetization could be reduced.

That’s because Snopes published a debunk of The Babylon Bee’s story the same day and, as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners, the post was submitted for flagging. Because of that, several commenters on the original satirical post reported seeing similar warnings and messages.

Per Facebook’s partnership, independent fact-checking outlets are able to review flagged stories on Facebook and, if false, append a related fact check. (Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for participation in this partnership.)

After The Babylon Bee complained about Snopes’ debunk, the Facebook flag was removed. That was confirmed by a statement emailed to Poynter by Facebook spokeswoman Lauren Svensson.

“There’s a difference between false news and satire,” the statement reads. “This was a mistake and should not have been rated false in our system. It’s since been corrected and won’t count against the domain in any way.”

The fracas highlights the notoriously thin line between satire and misinformation. Even if a story’s intention is to entertain, the effect could still be misinformation if the headline is believable enough. And The Babylon Bee says they like to play it safe.

“We don't like to be blurry about our intentions, which is why we self-identify so clearly as a satire website,” founder and editor Adam Ford told Poynter in an email. “It's literally in our tagline, which is on every page of our site and in every one of our social media bios.”

Fake news sites often claim they’re satirical, only to fabricate entire stories without a semblance of humor or irony — all the while profiting off clicks. Christopher Blair’s network of websites regularly publishes false stories that go viral, capitalizing on salacious headlines like “Black Soldier Killed In Niger Was A Deserter” to amass shares and advertising money. In the footer of each site is a cheeky satirical fiction label.

Snopes has extensively covered The Babylon Bee in the past, debunking stories with headlines ranging from “Playing Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving Now A Federal Crime” to “Steven Furtick Signs 6-Year, $110 Million Contract With Lakewood Church.” In the latter case, people were confused enough for Furtick to publish a video dispelling the rumor.

But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine how someone could take a washing machine designed to spin the news as anything other than a joke. Snopes justified debunking it by saying in its article that “some readers missed that aspect of the article and interpreted it literally.”

Poynter asked Snopes how it determined that readers were duped by the piece in question, whose original post received mostly comments acknowledging the piece as satire, with the occasional exception.

In an email to Poynter, Founder David Mikkelson said that, while Snopes no longer includes examples of people doubting specific claims in their stories, they had received several inquiries about the story in question. And their policy is to fact-check any site’s content that might be misconstrued as true — including stories from other satirical publications like The Onion.

“Our standard has always been that we tackle whatever people are asking about or questioning at the moment; we don't make any value judgments about what's too silly or obvious or unimportant to cover,” he told Poynter in an email. “There are scads of web articles and websites dedicated to poking fun at people who mistook Onion material for literal news reporting, so clearly nothing is so obvious that at least some portion of the audience won't question or believe it.”

Mikkelson said that, while Snopes may have published the debunk, Facebook’s existing fact-checking tool leaves little room to distinguish between misinformation and satire since there is no way to label content as such.

“The issue in this case seems to be that Facebook is apparently flagging and/or penalizing The Babylon Bee site for this one particular article that many people think should be obviously recognizable as satire, and the social media audience is perceiving that action as unfair,” he said. “But we don't have any control over what articles Facebook flags for their audience, or what measures they choose to implement, in response to fact checks.”

Mikkelson echoed concerns about fake news sites posing as satirical outlets, and said that Snopes can’t be “the Facebook arbiters of what is or is not ‘real’ satire based upon our presumptions of the creator's intent.”

“It's up to Facebook to decide for themselves what sites or articles they want to exclude from their flagging/penalty system on that basis,” he said.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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