G.K. Chesterton believed reality would one day kill satire. He wrote in 1911: “Satire has weakened in our epoch for several reasons, but chiefly, I think, because the world has become too absurd to be satirised.”
That’s even truer in 2020. No satirical article is so absurd that people won’t believe it to be true. Snopes has fact-checked articles as bizarre as the Onion’s “Shelling From Royal Caribbean’s M.S. ‘Allure’ Sinks Carnival Cruise Vessel That Crossed Into Disputed Waters” and the Babylon Bee’s “Ocasio-Cortez Appears on ‘The Price Is Right,’ Guesses Everything Is Free.”
But there’s a new threat to satire that Chesterton couldn’t have foreseen: social media. As
desperately try to prevent a repeat of 2016, in which some believe Russian propaganda spread unchecked on their platforms, the social-media giants are cracking down hard on sites that report on politics. That includes humor sites, as we at the Babylon Bee have discovered.
Last week we posted the satirical headline: “Senator Hirono Demands ACB Be Weighed Against a Duck to See If She Is a Witch.” It’s a reference to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”—not a particularly believable joke, nor an original one (we did something similar during the Mueller investigations). But because we included the Pythonesque line “We must burn her,” Facebook accused us of “inciting violence” and deleted our post. The platform demonetized our page and gave us an ominous warning of future repercussions should we commit further violations. We attempted to appeal the violation. Facebook declined our appeal.
In what world does a joke lovingly appropriated from Monty Python constitute incitement to violence? These kinds of mistakes happen because Facebook relies more and more on algorithms to catch potentially offensive content. What’s strange is that the social media giant stands by its humorless AI filter’s judgment.
Comedy suffers under “community standards,” as Facebook calls its algorithm-driven rules that can’t tell the difference between comedy and a threat of violence. “There is simply no money in making comedy online anymore,” writer Matt Klinman tweeted in 2018. “Facebook has completely destroyed independent digital comedy.”
At the Babylon Bee, my primary question when considering a headline should be, “Is it funny?” Instead, I often ask myself things like: “Will Facebook kill this joke for mentioning the election?” “Should we say the word ‘pandemic’ in the headline here, or will that run afoul of the algorithm?” “Facebook kills clickbait. Does this headline sound too clickbaity?” Instead of writing jokes for the audience, we’re writing jokes for a robot with ever-changing standards that can only be identified through painful trial and error as headline after headline gets shot down.
Chesterton might as well have been writing about Facebook’s robotic response to satire when he observed that “it is impossible to caricature that which caricatures itself.” Indeed, we’re having trouble coming up with a satirical headline more absurd than “Satire Site Demonetized for Telling Joke About Weighing Judge Against a Duck to See if She Is a Witch.”
Mr. Mann is editor in chief of the Babylon Bee.
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Appeared in the October 22, 2020, print edition as ‘Facebook Has No Sense Of Humor.’