When reality is stranger than fiction, satire sounds more real than the news.
This has been a problem in the making. It has found its apex in President Donald Trump's America.
I'll never forget when my credibility took a hit in 2009. I was reading a blog that included a Newt Gingrich "quote" mocking Supreme Court candidate Sonia Sotomayor for an ankle injury she had suffered. If you know anything about Gingrich, you know there isn't a bright bold line in his character that prevents him from saying awful things.
I read a quote where Gingrich had said, "She's only wearing that fake cast to help her rack up votes. The minute she's confirmed, she'll whip it off and start dancing a jig."
I didn't take it at face value. I tried to find the quote in other locations to confirm the content or determine that his words were twisted. Finding no second mention anywhere, I was left to make a decision. I decided to include the quote and shared my humble opinion about it in a column. I made that decision for all the wrong reasons.
That was what we call a mistake.
It turned out to be a quote from an Andy Borowitz satire column in the New Yorker.
It wasn't long before one of Gingrich's personal assistants was on the phone with me. There were even columns calling me pathetic. In general, I would take issue with that characterization. In that specific instance, yeah, I was pathetic.
I think that is why almost a decade later, I take more joy in others mistaking satire for real news. Almost a decade later, I am still a lot more careful about what information I allow into my columns.
The people at Snopes recently learned their lesson as well. The fact checkers recently fact checked a fun Christian satire site named The Babylon Bee. It's like The Onion for religious folks.
I will still defend myself by saying the Borowitz-created faux quote was not as outlandish or unbelievable as many things Gingrich has actually said. Snopes doesn't get that much credit.
The Bee put out a satirical story about CNN buying a giant washing machine to help them spin the news before they air it. Since the story fits the recent narrative of "fake news" by President Trump and his supporters, Snopes found it necessary to fact check it.
They felt the need to tell people CNN didn't really buy a giant news spinning washing machine. Welcome to America in 2018.
Believe it or not, Snopes determined that CNN has not, in fact, purchased that machine. One troubling aspect of the story is that Facebook sent a warning to the Babylon Bee because their "news" had been determined to be incorrect. About a year ago, after realizing how their site was being used as a major distributor for fake news and false information, Facebook asked for helped from fact checkers. It didn't go so well in this case.
The Babylon Bee is clearly labeled as a Christian satire site. Other recent headlines include:
—"Megachurch Stage Collapses Under Pastor's Massive Ego"
— "Report: Closeness To God Linked To Constantly Telling Friends What You Gave Up For Lent"
— and "Seminary Offers Degree In Advanced Meme-Making"
Obviously, no one checked into the source before starting the fact checking process. Facebook's warning cited Snopes' "independent fact checking" and warned the Bee that, "repeat offenders will see their distribution reduced and their ability to monetize removed."
Facebook built itself into the world's paperboy. I can't think of a site that has helped digital news sites find readers for their stories. Because of that, Facebook constantly tinkers with how they deliver that news so they make more money. At first, the goal was to build a huge audience. Then, Facebook started only allowing you access to part of that audience. Then they created methods that you could spend money to reach more of the audience you created.
They control the news people see and make tons of money doing it. During the 2016 election, they were used by nefarious characters to push fake stories. Now they are being forced to use fact checking to try to rebuild their credibility.
News distribution going to the highest bidder had obvious issues even before people with impure motives started buying access to American voters for fake news stories.
The social media giant's attempt to fact check all sites including satire sites a year after the process began hasn't exactly been a confidence builder that things are going to get a lot better soon.
— Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.