Is Satire “Fakenews”? – How Fact-Checkers Peddle Snake-Oil

When professional fact checkers are flagging up satirical publishers for “fake content”, perhaps it’s time to worry

Cross-posted from Moon of Alabama

Since the issues of alleged “fake news” and “Russian influence” have cropped up, several media institutions highlight their public fact-checkers. Social media companies hire them to filter “fake news” from their content.

Traditional fact-checkers within a newsroom considered the veracity of the pieces their own reporters wrote up. They corrected factual mistakes before those were printed or aired. The new crop of fact-checker is testing the veracity of claims made by other media outlets and public entities.

The Tampa Bay Times‘s PolitiFact is one of the oldest and biggest of these organizations. It was founded in 2007 and has offices in several states. Like all such entities it has a certain political flavor. Thus the supposedly neutral fact-checking site PolitiFact gets fact checked by a site named PolitiFact Bias.

Last week Amy Sherman wrote an important piece for PolitiFactFacebook users had pointed her to this month old report about a military court case:

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant facing charges of desertion, walked out of a military courtroom during a pre-trial hearing Monday and has not been seen since approximately 10:35 AM, prompting a statewide manhunt for the missing soldier.Sources inside the courtroom say that Bergdahl took only a half-full Camelbak and a long hunting knife with him as he calmly made his way to the exit during his own lawyer’s remarks to the judge regarding a possible plea deal.

Pentagon leadership is offering an unusual reward for information on Bergdahl’s whereabouts: $25,000 or seven Guantanamo detainees, depending on the credibility of the information.

The fact-checker applied the best of her abilities to debunk the assertions of the above piece:

“Bowe Bergdahl wanders off during court-martial,” said the October headline in Duffel Blog.

Facebook users flagged the post as being potentially fabricated, as part of the social network’s efforts to combat fake news. This story is fake.

We rate this headline Pants on Fire.

Multiple news outlets including the AP reported that Bergdahl entered a plea of guilty during the Oct. 16 hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He didn’t wander off during his hearing.”I understand that leaving was against the law,” Bergdahl testified.

(Liar Liar) “Pants on Fire” is the worst rating on PolitiFact‘s truthiness scale.

But something is wrong with “fact-checking” when such rating is applied to satirical content. For those brain-dead folks who do not recognize satire in the hilarious screwiness of its content the Duffel Blog‘s About page provides it in very clear words:

Everything on this website is satirical and the content of this site is a parody of a news organization.

Each and every story the well known Duffel Blog ever published is “fake news”. It is the essence of its existence. Satire is “fake news” and the anti-thesis that we need to synthesize with the thesis of “real news” to then develop new insight. It increases our knowledge and understanding. It is also fun.

One may laugh about a fact-checker rating satire as “fake news” but such ratings have serious consequences. PolitiFact is working with Facebook to flag “fake news” on its (a)social network.

When PolitiFact ratings influence the way Facebook displays or handles information, then satirical news will no longer be ranked out of view of most Facebook users. Indeed user may be blocked or kicked off the network for spreading “fake news” when they post links to Duffel Blog pieces. Facebook and others automate such processes. When PolitiFacts labels something as “fake news” the consequences can be serious and may hit immediately.

How does satire fit into such the very confined concept of “fake news”? And what about “conspiracy theories”? Are they”fake news”? Here is a list of 58 historic cases of alleged “false flag” attacks. In most of these cases the “conspiracy theorists” turned out to be right. Governments committed the attacks under a false flag, blamed them on their enemies and used them to influence the public. People who were doubtful when these government assertions were made were labeled “conspiracy theorists”. But what was really “fake news” – the governments’ claims or the opinions of those who did not believe them? How would PolitiFact have judged them?

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