Media critic

The corporate logo on the headquarters of CNN in Atlanta in 2011. (iStock)

The Babylon Bee last week took it on the digital chin. A satirical Christian site, the Bee had published a story alleging that CNN had acquired an industrial-caliber washing machine to “spin” the news. “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,” noted the “story.”

Adam Ford, the site’s founder and editor, didn’t see anyone taking the piece literally — as sometimes happens in the satirical news business. “Even if someone tried to take it literally, it’s completely nonsensical. A washing machine to put news in?” Ford told the Erik Wemple Blog in an email. Yet Snopes.com found it serious enough to fact-check. Not true, declared the site. Obviously.

The story didn’t end there, because Snopes.com is among the fact-checking partners of Facebook in the social-media site’s pushback against fake news. When enough users flag certain pieces of content as factually shaky, Facebook passes them along to a partner — whose ranks also include PolitiFact — for a serious pat-down. If the fact-checkers find the piece to be bogus, Facebook will slime the offending article with a warning that a fact-checking partner has delivered a concerning verdict.

That happened with the nicely turned Babylon Bee story on CNN’s laundry facilities. Just like that, Facebook users were being discouraged from checking out Ford’s brainstorm:

As reported in this space, a Facebook source indicated that fact-checking partners have the ability to designate a piece of content as satire, thereby avoiding the circumstances laid out in Ford’s tweet.

Not so, protested Snopes.com CEO David Mikkelson in an extensive email to the Erik Wemple Blog. “Facebook does not provide a means for the ‘labeling of something as satire by outside fact-checkers,'” wrote Mikkelson. “Our only options are to apply truth ratings to such articles or to do nothing — there’s no provision for our identifying or flagging any articles as ‘satire.’ And even if there were such a provision, it would be an impossibly problematic one: Virtually every fake news site claims to be ‘satirical’ in nature, even though most of them are simply engaging in clickbaiting and political trolling that is devoid of any qualities of genuine satire, so what standard should we (or any other Facebook fact checking partner) use to determine what’s ‘real’ satire and what isn’t for Facebook’s purposes?”

Well, what about that, Facebook? Well, there is this guidance page on classifications. It lays out various rating options for fact-checkers, including “false,” “mixture,” “true”… and this: “NOT ELIGIBLE: The information in the article is not eligible to be fact checked, but may still benefit from additional context (e.g., satire, opinion, polls, quizzes, etc.)”

That said, Facebook spokeswoman Lauren Svensson indicated that there’s more to do on this front:

*Facebook and Snopes share a common goal in reducing the spread of misinformation online.
*Satirical content is particularly tough to apply a blanket rating toward; while content can be marked satirical, there is a broad spectrum of content that can be considered satire. We’re collaborating with our partners to give better context and better distinguish between stories that are clearly satire, like this one, and ‘self-identified’ satire that can be more nefarious— for example, this story.
*We’ll continue to work in partnership with our third-part fact-checkers to get this right.

The “more nefarious” form of satire identified by Svensson appeared on a site called freedumjunkshun.com under the headline, “BREAKING: Black Soldier Killed In Niger Was A Deserter.” Indeed, the “satire” in the piece is harder to tease out than in the plainly absurd CNN rinse-cycle piece. The Erik Wemple Blog wishes Facebook and its fact-checking partners a whole lot of luck in drawing off-the-cuff lines between all the various forms of bogus and satirical stuff on the Internet.

One last piece of business: Snopes.com justified its fact-check of the Bee story by alleging that “some readers…interpreted it literally.” Ford disputed that assessment. In his email to the Erik Wemple Blog, Snopes.com’s Mikkelson wrote, in part:

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. We used to include examples of people asking about things in every article, but we’ve largely stopped doing that because once the Internet shifted from a place where viral pieces were circulated as emailed text to one which in which they were shared as links and memes via social media, those examples didn’t add any value and just cluttered up the page. We now only do that in cases where the inclusion of an example is necessary for the audience to understand what we’re analyzing. (Providing an example that literally reads “Is this true? http://babylonbee.com/news/cnn-purchases-industrial-sized-washing-machine-spin-news-publication/ [babylonbee.com]” doesn’t add any value or clarity to an article.)

Another important point is that we use a variety of metrics for determining what to write about, and one of the more important inputs is what search terms people are using. If we suddenly see a spike in people searching on “CNN bought washing machine,” we can’t presume that all of those people necessarily saw the original article in its full context (and therefore did, or should have, recognize it as a spoof) — all we can glean is that a lot of people are interested in the idea that CNN bought a washing machine, and we can’t tell from that data exactly what they’ve heard about that subject, or how and where they heard it