I used to love the website Snopes. It was one-stop shopping for fact-checking and debunking urban legends old and new.
For years — to take one example — I had lamented the tragic death of Little Mikey of Life cereal fame. According to everyone in my school, he died when he mixed Pop Rocks candy with Coca-Cola. The resulting chemical reaction caused a grisly stomach explosion, and Mikey passed into the Great Beyond.
But after decades of grief, Snopes lifted my heart. Mikey lived, his real name was John Gilchrist, and as of 2012 he was the director of media sales at the MSG network. For good measure, in that very same article, Snopes revealed that my favorite gum from childhood did not, in fact, contain spider eggs.
Snopes, however, was not content with performing its vital public service of debunking crazy rumors and easing childhood fears. It had pretensions to be something more. It took the cultural goodwill built up over years of truth-telling and decided to make a real difference. It kept fact-checking urban legends (Is the “zombie chicken” video real? Click here to find out), but it also began fact-checking politicians and news sites, and conducting its own investigative reports. For a time it entered into a relationship with Facebook to help combat “fake news.” Thanks to this pivot, Snopes is — and has long been — one of the most powerful and influential fact-checkers on the Internet.
And that brings me to one of my favorite websites, the Babylon Bee. It’s distinctly conservative, it’s distinctly Christian, it’s very, very funny (especially if you’ve grown up as an Evangelical Christian), and it’s obviously, clearly satire. Click on the site, and the banner advertisement describes it as “fake news you can trust.” By contrast, the well-known secular satire site The Onion calls itself “America’s finest news source.”
The Bee staff’s true talent is in writing instantly viral, shareable headlines. They can be hilarious and cutting — and the site loves taking on hipster Christianity, Trump-worship, and political correctness. Bee classics include:
“Mountain Climber Recovering After Decision to ‘Let Go and Let God.’”
“Man Drowns While Politically Correct Passengers Describe What Just Went Overboard.”
“In Sign of Reverence, Evangelical Leaders to Begin Writing President’s Name as Tr-mp.”
What does this have to do with Snopes? The Bee’s viral satire of progressive politicians is apparently intolerable, and so Snopes has taken upon itself the task of fact-checking satire. Go to the site, type in “Babylon Bee,” and you’ll find page after page of fact-checks.
Snopes has fact-checked whether Democrats demanded that “Brett Kavanaugh submit to a DNA test to prove he’s not actually Hitler.” It’s fact-checked whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly “guessed ‘free’ on TV show ‘The Price is Right,’” and whether Ilhan Omar actually asked, “If Israel is so innocent, then why do they insist on being Jews?” Perhaps my favorite (non-political) fact check was of the Bee’s “report” that VeggieTales had introduced a new character named “Cannabis Carl.” If you peruse Snopes’s many, many Babylon Bee fact-checks, you’ll find it’s quite diligent in policing hits on progressive politicians and far less concerned about the Bee’s many satirical swipes at Trump.
It’s absolutely true that some readers are unable to distinguish between truth and obvious fiction. Moreover, when satire doesn’t come from an obvious satire site — as with today’s viral claim from a writer for HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley that GOP representative Jim Jordan had claimed that, on 9/11, “While Obama and Biden were cowering in fear on Air Force 1, Mr. Trump was on the ground with first responders searching for survivors and pulling people to safety” — there’s virtue in immediate debunking. But Snopes’s actions against the Bee have had real teeth.
In 2018, after Snopes fact-checked a Bee article titled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication” (no, really), Facebook warned the Bee that it could be penalized with reduced distribution and demonetization. Facebook later apologized for its warning.
And last week Snopes escalated its attack. It fact-checked an article called “Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back To Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said ‘My Pleasure.’” But rather than merely noting that the story was clearly satire from a known satire site, it launched an attack on the Bee’s motives and methods.
In its original fact-check, it questioned whether the article was satire, accusing the Bee of “fanning the flames of a controversy” and “muddying the details of a news story.” It posted a misleading and incomplete summary of the ridiculous Erica Thomas incident in Georgia (where a black Georgia lawmaker accused a fellow Publix customer of telling her to “go back” where she came from and then walked back her accusation) and then called the Bee article a “ruse” and an “apparent attempt to maximize the online indignation.”
It bears repeating that the Bee is obvious satire. Obvious.
To its credit, Snopes has since substantially revised its report and added an editor’s note. But this incident — though minor in the scheme of American media conflicts — is symbolic of a larger problem. As American partisanship grows more intense, respected media outlets and organizations are throwing away years of accumulated goodwill through partisan misjudgments and partisan attacks. Ideological uniformity can blind them to their own biases, and a sense of national emergency can lead them to betray their own principles.
Yet even as they slip into partisan advocacy, these institutions often maintain their influence over important American institutions. Snopes had a formal relationship with Facebook. Major American corporations still look to the Southern Poverty Law Center for guidance in defining hate groups.
Snopes can serve a useful purpose. And there’s a space for it to remind readers that satire is satire. But if it wants to serve its purpose, it must not use its remaining cultural power and its remaining commercial influence to target the satire that stings its allies. Hands off the Babylon Bee.
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