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Curriculum Connection: Facebook, satire and fact-checking

NLP Updates


The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Facebook plans to exempt satire and opinion content from its fact-checking program. This would mean that posts that contain demonstrably false claims, but which the platform deems to be either satire or opinion, would not be referred to its network of third-party fact-checkers.

Thus, Facebook would not downgrade this content in its algorithm, and fact-checks would not appear alongside them.

News of the expected policy change came just a week after Facebook, citing a “newsworthiness exemption,” said it would continue to exempt politicians’ posts from its fact-checking program.  The exemption would not apply if the politician shares “previously debunked content.” In such cases Facebook would demote the post and would display fact-checking information.

It also follows several contentious incidents involving satirical and opinion content and the company’s third-party fact-checking partner. This includes a debate in July between Snopes and the Christian satire site The Babylon Bee. Another example is a disagreement in August between Health Feedback, which focuses on accuracy in health and medical coverage, and Live Action, an anti-abortion group.

Fact-checking debate

At issue is an ongoing debate about whether satirical and opinion content should be fact-checked, and how Facebook plans to determine which publishers and posts to exempt. A study published in August by three Ohio State University researchers found that false satirical claims are believed by a significant number of people. This is no doubt partially because people don’t always recognize the satirical sources they see on social media. It is also because satire is often insufficiently labeled or is copied and shared out of context.

“Fake news” websites that engage in wholesale plagiarism of satirical pieces as clickbait for ad revenue is well-documented. But individual elements of these stories also go viral. For example, a fake tweet attributed to President Donald Trump and created as a graphic for a piece by a Canadian satire site, The Burrard Street Journal, has a life of its own. (The comments on the piece itself seem to indicate that it, too, was mistaken as legitimate reporting).

Those who intentionally spread disinformation online often claim to have been joking, or merely sharing an opinion, once fact-checkers call them out. That makes Facebook’s enforcement of this anticipated new policy even more difficult.

“Live-trolling”

Satire took on another form when an activist from the far-right conspiracy group LaRouche PAC engaged in a piece of “live-trolling” at a town hall hosted last Thursday by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York). The group later claimed the activity was satirical.

Discuss

Do false claims on Facebook based on a staged “satirical” stunt qualify as satire under its new policy? Would a clip or a meme of the satirical performance presented out of context be protected under the new policy?

Go deeper

Put students in the place of decision-makers at Facebook and ask them to issue a ruling for the following cases. Which would they exempt under the platform’s policies, either anticipated or existing, regarding satire, opinion and statements by public officials?

  • A well-known satire publication publishes a genuine piece of satire. People online largely mistake it as legitimate. It is clearly labeled as satire in the URL preview on the platform.
  • An obscure satire publication posts a genuine piece of satire. People largely mistake it as legitimate. It is not clearly labeled as satire.
  • A single element — such as a doctored photo or a fake tweet — of a legitimate satire piece is copied and goes viral outside of its original satirical context.
  • An individual celebrity, known for pulling online hoaxes, posts a satirical video that many people mistake as serious.
  • A politician repeats a false claim that originated in a satirical publication, but doesn’t attribute it.
  • An online troll posts a piece of misinformation but says it’s just a joke.
  • A partisan activist posts a piece of misinformation but says that it illustrates an opinion about a larger truth.

Learn more

 “Opinion: Facebook just gave up the fight against fake news” (Brian A. Boyle, Los Angeles Times)

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