The Corner

Politics & Policy

BuzzFeed Publishes a Misleading Story About the Babylon Bee Controversy

Buzzfeed employees work at the company’s headquarters in New York, January 9, 2014. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about the fact-checking website Snopes and its bizarre and seemingly hostile approach to the Babylon Bee, a website for conservative Christian satire. It routinely fact-checks the Bee’s clearly satirical stories. One of its fact checks last year caused Facebook to threaten the Bee with sanctions, and a fact check last week was so clearly flawed that Snopes substantially corrected and clarified its post. The issue, as I saw it, was that the controversy was yet another example of how ideological blindness was causing previously respected institutions to throw away their credibility through partisan misjudgments and partisan acts.

Well, today BuzzFeed covered the controversy, and its report is something else. First, here is how it frames the story:

The Babylon Bee, a self-proclaimed Christian satire site with half a million followers on Facebook, has accused fact-checking site Snopes.com of unfairly debunking some of its satirical articles as fake news. The accusation has jump-started a conspiracy theory that fact-checking websites are targeting conservative humor in an effort to de-platform right-wing publishers.

“Conspiracy theory” is a strong accusation. What’s the evidence? Well, the writer does explain that the Bee was angry at Snopes for its “fact check” last week — the very fact check that Snopes had to substantially revise. But that’s not a conspiracy theory. Snopes did write a flawed post, by its own admission.

Moreover, there’s a curious omission from the story (at least the version that’s online as I type this post). Although the writer links to the Bee’s statement against Snopes that provides the background of the Bee’s concerns, he fails to note some rather important context. Last year Facebook actually threatened to take action against the Bee because of a Snopes fact check.  So the “conspiracy theory” I suppose is that the Bee is concerned that something that happened once could possibly happen again.

Here’s Facebook’s warning to the Bee from last year:

Note the “info” that was disputed by the “independent fact checker” — the claim that CNN “purchases industrial-sized washing machine to spin news before publication.” The Snopes fact check was absurd (who fact-checks that story?), and Facebook’s warning was absurd. To its credit, Facebook apologized, and Snopes subsequently ended its formal relationship with Facebook, but it’s hardly a conspiracy theory to be concerned about something that almost actually happened. In fact, Snopes still sometimes presses Facebook to respond to its fact checks or reports.

Then there’s this amazing paragraph:

The Snopes–Babylon Bee feud has been building for a while now. But recently, far-right internet personalities like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and Ben Shapiro have been using the controversy to paint Snopes as a left-leaning partisan website intent on de-platforming conservative voices.

Got that? The writer lumped together an Infowars personality with Ben Shapiro — Ben is not “far-right,” and lumping him with truly bizarre and extremist figures is a common tactic of ignorant, lazy, or malicious writers. And what is the Ben Shapiro tweet that the writer uses to claim that Snopes is a “left-leaning partisan website intent on de-platforming conservative voices”? This one:

Here’s what actually happened this week. Snopes launched an unfair attack on the Bee and got caught. Now it’s getting criticized. Oh, and the Bee is right to be concerned since a previous misbegotten Snopes fact check had threatened its business. That’s it. That’s the story. There is no conspiracy theory, only troubling facts that are worth criticizing. But somehow BuzzFeed managed to make the story primarily about Snopes’s critics, not about the fact that Snopes persistently (and sometimes misleadingly) fact-checks obvious conservative humor and satire.

Update: BuzzFeed has substantially updated its article and added this note:

This post has been updated to note that Facebook last year threatened to reduce the Babylon Bee’s distribution on its platform citing a bungled Snopes fact check of one of its satirical articles; to characterize Ben Shapiro as right wing; and to remove a description of the notion that Facebook had unfairly hurt the Bee as a “conspiracy theory”, although there is no evidence the publication was targeted by Facebook for being conservative, and Snopes is no longer connected to Facebook’s fact checking program.

The entire article is now far more fair and includes proper context. Thank you, BuzzFeed.

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