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Why the 'fact-checking' of Christian satire worries this Catholic writer

Snopes labeled an obviously satirical story as 'false', potentially threatening the future of the Babylon Bee website

Did you know that Veggie Tales, the beloved Christian cartoon for kids, recently introduced a new character named Cannabis Carl in celebration of recreational marijuana?

They didn’t, actually. That was just a funny article from satirical Christian website The Babylon Bee.

Nevertheless, the story got fact-checked by the website Snopes, which assured parents: “For the time being, at least, ‘VeggieTales’ characters remain based on things mothers would approve of their kids consuming.”

That was the kind of fact-checking that did not bother the leadership of The Babylon Bee.

“…it was almost like we’d wear it like a badge of honor. It was like, ‘Oh, we got Snoped!’ and we would share it and kind of laugh it off,” Seth Dillon, CEO of Babylon Bee, told Fox News.

“But lately it’s taken a darker turn where they’re questioning what our motivation is for putting out, you know, misinformation, which is kind of silly and ridiculous,” he added.

The most recent fact check of the Babylon Bee by Snopes was of a satirical article that riffed off of a real-life story (as good satire often does) involving Georgia state representative Erica Thomas.

Last month, Thomas shared a story in a tweet and an emotional video, in which she claimed that a fellow customer in a Publix store had yelled at her to “go back to where I came from” after she was in the express lane with too many items. The alleged remark is similar to a controversial tweet from President Donald Trump aimed at four women of color in Congress.

Eric Sparkes, the accused customer who said he is also a Democrat, has admitted to calling Thomas “lazy” and an expletive word, but has denied making any comments suggesting she “go back” to anywhere.

The Babylon Bee’s satirical take on the story was headlined: “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back to Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said ‘My Pleasure.’”

In their original fact-check of the piece, Snopes said: “we’re not sure if fanning the flames of controversy and muddying the details of a news story classify an article as ‘satire.’” Snopes called the story an “apparent attempt to maximize the online indignation” surrounding the real-world incident, and labeled it as “false.”

In a newsletter about the incident posted to Twitter, The Babylon Bee said that the fact-check went too far in questioning “whether our work qualifies as satire” and insinuating that the publication was “fake news.”

The Babylon Bee noted that the last time a story of theirs was labeled as “false” by Snopes, the Bee was threatened with “limitations and demonetization” by Facebook. After “making a stink” about the incident, Facebook relented, but Bee leadership said that the recent Chick-Fil-A article incident was “dishonest and disconcerting.”

“By lumping us in with fake news and questioning whether we really qualify as satire, Snopes appears to be actively engaged in an effort to discredit and deplatform us. While we wish it wasn’t necessary, we have retained a law firm to represent us in this matter.”

“The reason we have to take it seriously is because social networks, which we depend on for our traffic, have relied upon fact-checking sources in the past to determine what’s fake news and what isn’t,” Seth Dillon, CEO of the Babylon Bee, told Shannon Bream of Fox News, in an interview reported on by the New York Times.

“In cases where they’re calling us fake news and lumping us in with them rather than saying this is satire, that could actually damage us,” Dillon added. “It could put our business in jeopardy.”

The subheading on the Chick-Fil-A story fact-check has since been revised on Snopes, and now reads: “Many readers were confused by an article that altered some details of a controversial news story.” It labeled the story as “satire” and included an editorial note, saying that the fact-check had been revised for “tone and clarity.”

S.C. Naoum is behind the “Eye of the Tiber”, a Catholic satirical website that is “Breaking Catholic news so you don’t have to.” Naoum told CNA that he was concerned by the classification of The Babylon Bee’s satire as “fake news” by Snopes, because he worried it could lead to censorship of other satirical websites.

“It’s very concerning to me as a Christian satirist. In fact, it should also be a concern to all satirists, whether Christian or not. It should be a concern to anyone who enjoys reading satire,” he added.

“Once you allow an organization to cross the line of lumping satire in with fake news, I’m afraid that it’s not much of a leap to believe that censorship will soon follow,” he added.

“Fake news” became a buzzword in media and politics around the 2016 presidential election, when President Donald Trump used it against media brands that appeared to be unfavorable to him. The term has also been used to describe organizations that “published falsified or heavily biased stories…to capitalise on Facebook advertising revenue,” according to the New Daily.

Concerns about fake news prompted social media platforms such as Facebook and Youtube to crack down on accounts that were renowned for sharing “misinformation.” In 2016, Snopes entered into a fact-checking arrangement with Facebook following the presidential election, an agreement that ended in February of this year, according to Snopes.

Still, Naoum said satirical sites should worry if they are beginning to be viewed as “fake news” instead of as comedic websites.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most satire websites today depend heavily on social media to help build their brands. If sites like Facebook begin to take down articles they deem to be fake news because another site said it’s fake, as opposed to satire, that could have a big impact on sites like Eye of the Tiber, Babylon Bee, and others to continue to operate,” he said.

Fake news and satire differ a lot in form and intent, Naoum added. While fake news intends to mislead people into thinking that falsities are true, satire uses humor as a tool to point to inform people.

“A lot of people think that fake news and satire are closely related, but they’re actually very different things,” Naoum said.

“Fake news is the intentional and deliberate use of deception to mislead its readers. Satire is the opposite—its purpose is to inform, not deceive, the readers of topics in the news by using a veil of humor.”

Kyle Mann, editor in chief of The Babylon Bee, said on Twitter on August 12 that Snopes’ new label of “satire”, rather than “true” or “false” labels, did not seem to be much of a step in the right direction, as it still appears to make a judgement on the articles labeled as such.

“This rating indicates that a claim is derived from content described by its creator and/or the wider audience as satire. Not all content described by its creator or audience as ‘satire’ necessarily constitutes satire, and this rating does not make a distinction between ‘real’ satire and content that may not be effectively recognized or understood as satire despite being labeled as such,” Snope’s description of its new “satire” label reads.

“…it’s still pretty bad, insinuating that the content may still fall under some kind of nebulous ‘satire but not really’ category,” Mann said on Twitter.

Mann said he did not think the label was a bad idea for “fake news” sites that hide behind satire labels to avoid litigation, “but they’re now using it for Babylon Bee stories, so we’re back to where we were with the CFA piece: Snopes labeling us supposed satire wink wink.”