Seth Dillon, CEO of The Babylon Bee, told PJ Media that the Christian satire site is considering legal options after The New York Times published an article accusing the Bee of having “trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.” In an email to subscribers, Dillon had said the Times’ claim “is false and defamatory.”
“The New York Times is using deceptive disinformation to smear us as being a source of deceptive disinformation,” Dillon wrote to subscribers. “This is not the first time this has happened. … The ongoing mischaracterization of our site in the liberal media is a blatant attempt to discredit and deplatform us. If they can convince the social networks we’re abusing the ‘satire’ label, then they can shut us down.”
On Friday, the Times published a story entitled, “For Political Cartoonists, the Irony Was That Facebook Didn’t Recognize Irony.” In the article, tech reporter Mike Isaac explained the dilemma that Facebook and other social media platforms face when it comes to satirical and ironic content. The article focused on left-leaning cartoonist Matt Bors, whose aggressive cartoon jabs against former President Donald Trump and Trump’s supporters occasionally triggered Facebook crackdowns.
When Facebook and other social media platforms decided to crack down on “misinformation” and calls for violence, the platform “had trouble identifying the slipperiest and subtlest of political content: satire.” In Bors’s case, Isaac noted that “Facebook has sometimes misunderstood the intent of political cartoons, leading to takedowns. The company has acknowledged that some of the cartoons it expunged — including those from Mr. Bors — were removed by mistake and later reinstated them.”
The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian satire site, has often fallen between the cracks in this particular dilemma. In 2018, Snopes “fact-checked” a Babylon Bee article entitled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Size Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication.” Yes, Snopes actually fact-checked that hilarious and obviously satirical claim. Since the claim was false, Facebook flagged the article, reducing 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 could have cited The Babylon Bee as an example of the same dilemma that Facebook faced with Matt Bors. Instead, he made a blatantly false and arguably defamatory statement.
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.
In Isaac’s “reporting,” Bors is a misunderstood satirist, while The Babylon Bee traffics in “misinformation under the guise of satire.”
Isaac’s words “trafficked in misinformation” link to a New York Times profile of The Babylon Bee that never claimed the satire site trafficked in misinformation. That article focused on the Bee’s conservative slant — which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The closest that article ever got to accusing the Bee of misinformation came in one paragraph:
The Bee found itself walking the thin line between satire and fact in 2018, when it joked that CNN purchased an “industrial-sized washing machine for spinning the news.” However obvious it should have been that the comment resided on the satirical side of the ledger, it still led to an awkward vetting by the fact-checking website Snopes and Facebook.
Yet the story gets even worse for the Times. Last October, Kevin Roose wrote an article in the “Tracking Viral Misinformation” section.
Roose interviewed Emma Goldberg, another New York Times reporter. He asked her whether the Bee uses its status as a satire site “to traffic in misinformation under the guise of comedy.” Goldberg refused to say whether or not she thought this was “a deliberate strategy,” instead arguing that “their pieces can sometimes be easily mistaken for real news.”
At the end of the interview, however, Roose and Goldberg concluded that “The Babylon Bee is not a covert disinformation operation disguised as a right-wing satire site, and is in fact trying to do comedy, but may inadvertently be spreading bad information when people take their stories too seriously.”
The worst accusation Goldberg brought against the Bee was that the site’s team members “seem to find it pretty funny when their content is mistaken for real news — and they’re not exactly going overboard to stop that.”
In other words, a reporter at The New York Times leveled a false accusation against The Babylon Bee that other Times reporters explicitly rejected, while linking to another article that provided no evidence to back up the accusation.
This accusation is no small matter. As Dillon noted in his email to subscribers, “Wikipedia, for example, only allows ‘reliable sources’ to determine how a website is characterized. And guess which sources they consider reliable? The New York Times, The Rolling Stone, CNN, etc. The sites that shamelessly mischaracterize us are deemed credible and quotable, whereas sites that appreciate and defend us are dismissed as ‘unreliable.'”
Snopes has repeatedly targeted The Babylon Bee, declaring in one instance, “We’re not sure if fanning the flames of controversy and muddying the details of a news story classify an article as ‘satire.'” It appears Snopes has been trying to deplatform the conservative satire site. USA Today has also gone after the Bee.
Last October, Facebook demonetized The Babylon Bee, claiming that a satirical article that quoted Monty Python and the Holy Grail constituted an incitement to violence.
The Babylon Bee faces very real threats, and this blatantly false and unsupported New York Times accusation is only likely to embolden the social media witch hunt.
Given the fact that The New York Times published an article explicitly dismissing Isaac’s claim that the Bee “trafficked in misinformation in the guise of satire,” it seems Dillon may have a very good defamation case against America’s newspaper of record.
Neither the Times nor Mike Isaac responded to PJ Media’s requests for comment by press time.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.