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Opinion Facebook admits mistake in flagging satire about CNN spinning the news with a washing machine

The ____ (adjective) news cycle of a tweet. (Video: Dave Jorgenson/The Washington Post)

No, CNN doesn’t actually use a household appliance to prepare its daily output of scoops and analysis. That was the point that fact-checking site Snopes made in a March 2 story under the headline: “Did CNN Purchase an Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News?”


As it turns out, Snopes felt the need to set the record straight after the Babylon Bee published a story with precisely that implication. “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication,” reads its headline. If you thought that headline was a satirical stretch, your suspicions were confirmed by the text of the “story,” which includes this: “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,” it reads.

Snopes busies itself with investigations into plausible falsehoods — stuff about Harvey Weinstein, about the Parkland school shooting, about public health and so on. So why was it checking into the notion that the 24/7 network was spraying OxiClean on its interviews and then putting them on “Prewash”?

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Here’s the site’s explanation:

Although it should have been obvious that the Babylon Bee piece was just a spoof of the ongoing political brouhaha over alleged news media “bias” and “fake news,” some readers missed that aspect of the article and interpreted it literally. But the site’s footer gives away the Babylon Bee’s nature by describing it as “Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire.” The site has been responsible for a number of other (usually religiously themed) spoofs that have been mistaken for real news articles.

Adam Ford, founder and editor of the Babylon Bee, tells the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “I didn’t see people sharing it as though it were meant to be a real news story, no. I don’t see how anybody could think that. It’s about as over-the-top as satire can be. Even if someone tried to take it literally, it’s completely nonsensical. A washing machine to put news in?” We’ve asked Snopes for examples of earnest sharing and will update with any responses.

This particular hoax story has another, very compelling layer. In the aftermath of the fake-news scare following the 2016 presidential election, Facebook teamed up with fact-checking sites to deliver warnings to users alerting them to problems with the content they encounter. One of the partners is Snopes.

Facebook enabled its users to flag stories as bogus. If a particular piece receives enough such designations, it’s sent to the inboxes of a fact-checking organization with which Facebook has established a partnership. The organization then evaluates the story. As this Facebook explainer notes, it’s still possible to share stories dissed by the fact-checkers, but a warning box will mar the conscience of anyone who chooses to do so.

The system “worked” against the CNN washing machine story:

Facebook admitted its bad: “There’s a difference between false news and satire. 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,” an official statement from the social media giant said. According to a Facebook source, fact-checking protocols provide for the labeling of something as satire by outside fact-checkers. Apparently it didn’t happen on this occasion.

In his comments to the Erik Wemple Blog, Ford strikes a tone of frustration: “There is no question in my mind that Snopes and Facebook are biased against conservative-leaning content. It’s clear that this is the case,” he writes. “There are always going to be some people who misinterpret satire, but we were intentional from the get-go about not blurring the line between satire and misinformation. This is why, for instance, we identity ourselves as satire in our tag line. And our tag line is on every page of our website, and in every social media bio. ‘Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire.'”

Ford in publicizing Facebook’s alert on Twitter whipped up public interest, which preceded the response from the company. But: “When this exact thing happens to smaller sites, or to people who are unable to make sufficient noise about it when it happens, what can they do? The answer is nothing. They’re out of luck,” Ford notes.