The Babylon Bee is considering a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times after America’s newspaper of record baselessly accused the Christian satire site of having “trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.” The Times‘ accusation was baseless and the Babylon Bee probably has a good case, but the whole situation is extremely ironic because of the article in which The New York Times made the false accusation.
“For Political Cartoonists, the Irony Was That Facebook Didn’t Recognize Irony,” ran the headline of Mike Isaac’s now infamous article. Ironically, Isaac himself appears to have been too blinded by his own leftist partisanship to grasp the irony of attacking The Babylon Bee for the same kind of satire Isaac himself defends in the article.
Most of Isaac’s article focuses on Matt Bors, a left-leaning cartoonist who runs a site called The Nib, which gets most of its traffic from Facebook and Instagram.
The Times journalist praised Bors for running cartoons “that regularly skewer right-wing movements and conservatives with political commentary steeped in irony.”
One cartoon in December took aim at the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mr. Bors titled it “Boys Will Be Boys” and depicted a recruitment where new Proud Boys were trained to be “stabby guys” and to “yell slurs at teenagers” while playing video games.
Days later, Facebook sent Mr. Bors a message saying that it had removed “Boys Will Be Boys” from his Facebook page for “advocating violence” and that he was on probation for violating its content policies.
Wait, so The Nib published a satirical cartoon mocking a political group, but Facebook didn’t grasp the irony and wrongly removed the cartoon? Where have I heard that before?
Well, some conservative Christian satire site called The Babylon Bee — have you ever heard of it? — published an obviously satirical article headlined, “CNN Purchases Industrial-Size Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” Yet Snopes decided to “fact-check” the claim, and since it was false, Facebook flagged the article, hurting the Bee’s traffic.
Ultimately, Facebook acknowledged the error. “There’s a difference between false news and satire,” Facebook’s Lauren Svensson told PJ Media at the time. “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.”
Isaac’s article explains Facebook’s dilemma, the dilemma which led the social media platform to target both Bors and the Bee.
“What Mr. Bors encountered was the result of two opposing forces unfolding at Facebook. In recent years, the company has become more proactive at restricting certain kinds of political speech, clamping down on posts about fringe extremist groups and on calls for violence,” Isaac explained. “At the same time, misinformation researchers said, Facebook has had trouble identifying the slipperiest and subtlest of political content: satire.”
“While satire and irony are common in everyday speech, the company’s artificial intelligence systems — and even its human moderators — can have difficulty distinguishing them. That’s because such discourse relies on nuance, implication, exaggeration and parody to make a point,” the Times author explained.
Isaac included an important quote that summed up the issue succinctly: “If social media companies are going to take on the responsibility of finally regulating incitement, conspiracies and hate speech, then they are going to have to develop some literacy around satire,” Bors told The New York Times.
Yet Isaac appeared to forget this principle just a few short paragraphs later. Citing Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow for the Atlantic Council, he smeared The Babylon Bee.
But satire kept popping up as a blind spot. In 2019 and 2020, Facebook often dealt with far-right misinformation sites that used “satire” claims to protect their presence on the platform, Mr. Brooking said. For example, The Babylon Bee, a right-leaning site, frequently trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.
It seemed as though Isaac had not read his own article. How could he be so blind as to not see that The Babylon Bee faced the exact same situation as Matt Bors?
It seems that Isaac’s political bias has blinded him to the obvious allegory. After all, he described Bors as “left-leaning,” and went on to explain why Facebook was wrong to target Bors’ satire. He quoted Bors. Yet when it came to The Babylon Bee, Isaac did not present the Bee’s perspective. He made his arguably defamatory accusation as something of an afterthought.
In Isaac’s “reporting,” Bors is a misunderstood satirist, while The Babylon Bee traffics in “misinformation under the guise of satire.”
It is ironic that, in an article critical of the fact that Facebook failed to understand Bors’ irony, Isaac ironically failed to grasp The Babylon Bee’s irony. It seems The New York Times will have to “develop some literacy around satire.”
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.