Are you considering a tax on breathing in a US state? Is it forbidden to celebrate the goals during the World Cup in Qatar because it is “too gay”? Did the bug spray makers hire a guy from Uganda for his mosquito-killing farts?
Satires, parodies and jokes generally elicit laughter, yet are often taken for granted around the world, urging fact-checkers to debunk what they consider to be a major source of misinformation.
Several online satirical sites imitate legitimate news outlets, often confusing readers with what appear to be ordinary news articles but are in fact fictional stories. Sometimes, even with notices that clearly mark articles as satirical, many readers take them at face value.
“Satire can be more misleading than you think,” Shannon Poulsen, a humor-disinformation researcher at Ohio State University, told AFP. “I would say it is a significant and consistent form of disinformation,” she added.
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A version of an article about a man with “death farts”, which AFP traced to a parody website, was published by the British tabloid The Sun and generated thousands of reactions on Facebook. In the United States, stories from the popular online satirical outlet The Onion are taken for real so often that forums have sprung up to ridicule those who fall for them.
But despite these errors, satirists have lashed out at fact-checking websites to discredit their content. In September, the Indian satire site Fauxy sent a legal notice to the Mumbai-based fact-checker Boom Live, accusing it of damaging his reputation after he labeled one of his articles as false.
Boom Live editor Jency Jacob said the move was necessary since many gullible readers were sharing it as legitimate news on social media. “Usually we avoid exposing satire because we think it’s a valid way of expressing yourself,” Jacob told AFP. “But we did so when we felt it was created without proper disclaimers and if the satire was widely believed to be true,” she added.
Platforms like Facebook and Instagram claim they reduce the circulation, visibility—and the potential for monetization—of links that are labeled as disinformation. But some websites that sell disinformation get around the barrier by labeling their content as satire, researchers say.
Still, the restriction faces pushback from American satirical sites like Babylon Bee, which last year accused Facebook of suppressing its content with a radical loss of reach. This follows an altercation in 2018 over a Babylon Bee article flagged as false on Facebook, which researchers highlight as a fine line between satire and misinformation.
“Satire shouldn’t be treated as disinformation, which seems to be a key to the frustration of satirical sites,” Poulsen said. “We should communicate the intent to be satirical in a message because it reduces the chances that people will misinterpret it as true. But many don’t want to label satire, worried that it will make their content less funny.”
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Last year Facebook announced that it would add tags like “satirical page” to post what appears in users’ news feeds to clearly differentiate them from real information. Third-party fact-checkers working with Facebook, including AFP, may add their own fact-checks to the bottom of satirical posts for the same reason. But the problem persists.
Fake or authentic-looking accounts posing as celebrities or businesses proliferated on Twitter last month after the social network launched a paid subscription service for the first time. The platform suspended the service, known as Twitter Blue, but relaunched it this week with a stronger review process, according to the company.
“Impostor content is the evil twin of satire or parody content,” Philip Mai, co-director of the Toronto-based Social Media Lab, told AFP. “Bad actors often go to great lengths to create content that imitates their real counterparts in order to take advantage of users’ inattention (…) We need to encourage the public to pause before sharing,” he added.
La Nación / Humor sites that imitate legitimate media sow misinformation