Politics

Can the Right Make Good Satire Without Collapsing Due to Fake News?

The Babylon Bee has been trying it for years now, but the conflicts it keeps finding itself in point to the problem.

A screenshot of the website the Babylon Bee, with a photo of an article asking if a baby is racist.
The Babylon Bee’s website. Photo by Slate

On June 3, a conservative news satire website called the Babylon Bee demanded a retraction from the New York Times, threatening a defamation lawsuit over a March article that claimed the site “trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.” On June 10, the Times corrected the story, and was right to do so. The story at the heart of this conflict was headlined, “For Political Cartoonists, the Irony Was That Facebook Didn’t Recognize Irony,” but the true irony of the piece is that the Times itself repeated Facebook’s error: The Babylon Bee, like the Onion, may be “fake news,” but it is not misinformation.

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For decades, the left has dominated political satire. So ironclad was this hold that some even wondered whether the right could be funny at all. The most notable conservative response to The Daily Show and its countless imitators was Fox News’ The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which was critically panned and remains to this day the worst-rated television show on Metacritic. But recently, the Babylon Bee has seemingly lifted the curse on conservative satire, at least in terms of popularity, as it is now garnering more interactions on Facebook than the Onion. As a researcher interested in political humor and online discourse, I was spurred by this unprecedented popularity to regard the Babylon Bee as an object of serious research rather than a mere curiosity. I have now studied the site closely for a year, but I’d been observing it since soon after its inception in 2016.

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The Babylon Bee’s conflict with the New York Times over whether it publishes misinformation was a familiar one: The site has previously been flagged as misinformation by Twitter, Facebook, and Snopes. In one sense, the Babylon Bee does obviously write “fake news.” For instance, the Bee’s “report” on a survey that suggests that “100% of Americans Will Continue to Wear Masks in Walmart Bathrooms” is purely fictional. But there is also a clear difference between satire and misinformation, even if both are factually untrue things written in the style of news.

The New York Times was wise to issue its correction, as was Snopes to create a fact-checking label for satire in 2019. But these media corporations and others should never have characterized the Bee as misinformation in the first place—this only makes them appear unable to take a joke from the right and fuels the notion of a “liberal media establishment” advanced by the Bee and other conservative outlets.

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Snopes committed the original sin in the matter of presenting the Bee’s satire as fake news, giving a rating of “False” to a Bee article titled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication,” a notion so punny and outlandish that to offer a straight-faced fact-check was absurd. Conflict ensued. A quick peek at the Babylon Bee’s website offers more clear indicators that its content is farcical: reports that Disney is giving a “villain” “origin story” film to Kamala Harris, multiple articles about orcs, and the headline “God Puts Rainbow in Sky Promising Never to Punish the Earth With ‘Friends’ Reunion Again.” On the “About Us” page, the Bee explicitly labels itself as satire, with a winking “100% verified by Snopes.com.”

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Even so, the phenomenon of audiences and even news sources mistaking news satire for reality is well-documented. What is more, a study from the Ohio State University suggested that conservatives are more likely to believe Babylon Bee stories are real than liberals are to believe stories from the Onion, when the indicators of satire are removed in both cases. But this has less to do with the Babylon Bee itself and more to do with the penchant for conspiratorialism and questionable reporting in the conservative media ecosystem.

Because satire rests on irony—the rhetorical technique of implying a meaning other than what is explicitly communicated—satiric messages are often ambiguous. As Dannagal Goldthwaite Young argues in her book, Irony and Outrage, decades of social science research have suggested that when faced with this ironic ambiguity, audiences resort to interpretations most in line with their existing beliefs and experiences: Conservative viewers of All in the Family frequently identified Archie Bunker as a sympathetic character rather than the butt of the joke, and sometimes incorrectly interpreted The Colbert Report as anti-liberal satire.

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And where the Onion riffs on the news, the Babylon Bee often riffs on riffs, building referential jokes atop the already referential right-wing commentary about the untrustworthiness of the news. With misinformation and conspiracy theories such as QAnon becoming increasingly commonplace on the right and in conservative media, audiences are already conditioned to embrace the emotional resonance of a story over its plausibility or iability to survive a fact-check, leaving them more credulous toward even the Babylon Bee’s satiric and exaggerative brand of fake news.

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Donald Trump provided the perfect example of this possibility last October, when, in a fit of characteristic outrage and ignorance, he retweeted a story from the Babylon Bee headlined “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network to Slow Spread of Negative Biden News.” Fuming, Trump tweeted, “Wow, this has never been done in history.” He was correct: It had never been done, of course. It was pure satire. But because the story aligned with Trump’s persistent victim complex with regard to media corporations, he was more likely to believe it to be real.

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While better described as satire than misinformation, the Babylon Bee is certainly not fighting the spread of misinformation. In my research on the Bee, I have found that the site is adept at writing ironically ambiguous material that lets audiences from different sections of the right reinforce their own beliefs. This is especially true in articles about Trump, such as this one, which compares Trump’s 2021 CPAC appearance to Jesus Christ’s biblical arrival to Jerusalem: Readers in the more closed-off, conspiracy-prone bubble can read this and agree with the depiction of Trump as a divine political savior, whereas the never-Trump crowd can find humor in Trump’s cultlike following and the ridiculousness of the depiction of Trump as any kind of messianic figure. Even if the Babylon Bee’s satire itself should not be considered misinformation, its satire draws on and reinforces actual misinformation and conspiracy—a joke about Democrats agreeing to reverse the 2020 presidential election could be read as mocking right-wing wish-fulfillment fantasies, but it also affirms for those readers the false notion that the election was stolen.

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Beyond its drawing attention to existing misinformation, there are other reasons to be wary of the Bee. The site has a nasty tendency to punch down with humor parts of its audience finds “refreshingly politically incorrect.” The site is often “ironically” misogynistic, as when it “defended” the place of women soldiers in the American military by reporting how “they don’t throw grenades well, so the enemy will never know what to expect” and how “you can pay them way less, which gives you more money for weapons and ammo.” The site is also frequently antagonistic toward the LGBTQIA+ community, with quizzes like “What Gender Are You” (Spoiler alert: the only possible answers are “man” and “woman,” with the outcome solely determined by the question “What chromosomes do you have?”) and countless “identifies as” jokes—for example, “Man Identifies as Woman Just Long Enough to Voice Valid Opinion on Abortion.”

For millennia, satirists have publicly played with and challenged ideas, and invited their audiences to join them. In this way, satire does more than just entertain: It can persuade and even educate. Critics accusing the Babylon Bee of misinformation aren’t just missing the joke; they’re missing the problem. The Babylon Bee isn’t trying to fool its audience about the content of its made-up news stories—but it is letting them believe they’re correct.

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