“Trump Sees New Polls and Orders Ukraine to Investigate Elizabeth Warren.” “Obama to Produce Netflix Series About Trump’s Impeachment.” Like everything “comedian” Andy Borowitz writes for The New Yorker, these headlines aren’t particularly funny, even if you spot the “joke.” But they are, technically speaking, satire. That is, until they appear on Facebook, and as you scroll quickly on your feed, where they are nearly indistinguishable from actual fake news.
(In case you wonder if people are confused, go ahead and google “The New Yorker top stories.” The search engine’s first “People also ask” result is, “Is the New Yorker real news?” Yeah . . . it’s bad.)
To The New Yorker’s slight credit, it’s taken steps to more clearly label these stories as “satire.” And according to new research out of Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Facebook should place overt labels on all satirical stories that appear in its feed. Because it found that whereas we tend to cringe at and debate the veracity of “fake news,” we all agree upon the fiction of “satire.”
The paper presents two studies, run with hundreds of participants. Each was given a simulated version of their Facebook feed and told it was real and based upon their browsing. The first compared the efficacy of Facebook’s “disputed” flags that it was using to fact check news articles in 2016 with a simpler “satire” label. What researchers found was that the “disputed” flags didn’t appear to work at all in convincing someone something was false. But calling it satire did.
In fact, when Republicans were shown a fake story about Democrats voting twice, they reported to “somewhat agree” on average when it was flagged as disputed but reported to “somewhat disagree” when it was labeled satire. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, when Democrats were shown a fake story about Russian hacking, they also reported to “somewhat agree” when it was flagged as disputed and “somewhat disagree” when it was labeled as satire.
“We are confident that the difference is not the product of chance,” says OSU professor and lead author Kelly Garrett.
A second study compared how that satire label might work more specifically, as in, would it be more effective if Facebook labeled a story as satirical, or the publication itself called the story satire? Would people trust the conclusion more or less depending on the source? Researchers found no difference. As long as it was flagged satire, people got the point equally.
As Garrett puts it, the solution here is incredibly simple for Facebook (and any other news aggregator, for that matter) and can be worked into their interface. “I think labeling things as satire is such a straightforward solution,” says Garrett, who points out that the research found there’s really nothing to lose. “The humor of satire is not grounded in fooling someone. Satire isn’t less funny just because someone tells you it’s satire. You’re not harming the satire, and you’re potentially helping the people who might be fooled.”
But, if the satire label works so well, might it make sense for Facebook just to label all fake news as satire?
When I pose the question to Garrett, he walks me through Facebook’s approach to fake news thus far. He points to the way Facebook has labeled fake stories with the message “this story has been disputed by . . . ”
“[That’s] an interesting choice of words. It’s intentionally, I think, Facebook’s attempt to avoid being an arbiter of truth,” he says. “It [also] risks having false equivalence.” Garrett’s point is that in not choosing a side on arguments, punting to third-party fact checkers, and labeling stories “disputed” rather than simply “false,” Facebook had basically mirrored the way climate coverage used to work. The media would present both “sides” of the argument equally when, in reality, the science is indisputable. In short, Facebook’s flagged approach (which ended in 2017; Facebook has since announced exploring vague, new initiatives), simply opened the door to false equivalence.
As for labeling all fake news as satire—a fib, perhaps, but a fib in the name of people believing the truth —Garrett cautions against it. “We have to be careful not to abuse the label. We don’t want to start labeling stuff not intended as satire as satire, because then audiences would rightly be suspicious of the label,” he says.
In any case, he admits that disinformation, like organized propaganda of foreign governments, is a rampant problem that transcends any “silver bullet” solution. But satire, it appears, is a rare, easy fix for social media.
“I think it’s great; we should have satire. It’s a useful form of communication,” says Garrett. “[But] satire shouldn’t come at the price of actually understanding the political environment. “