In July, the website Snopes published a piece fact-checking a story posted on The Babylon Bee, a popular satirical news site with a conservative bent.
Conservative columnist David French criticized Snopes for debunking what was, in his view, “obvious satire. Obvious.” A few days later, Fox News ran a segment featuring The Bee’s incredulous CEO.
But does everyone recognize satire as readily as French seems to?
Our team of communication researchers has spent years studying misinformation, satire and social media. Over the last several months, we’ve surveyed Americans’ beliefs about dozens of high-profile political issues. We identified news stories – both true and false – that were being shared widely on social media.
We discovered that many of the false stories weren’t the kind that were trying to intentionally deceive their readers; they actually came from satirical sites, and many people seemed to believe them.
Sometimes satire is easy to spot, like when The Babylon Bee reported that President Donald Trump had appointed Joe Biden to head up the Transportation Security Administration based on “Biden’s skill getting inappropriately close to people and making unwanted physical advances.” But other headlines are more difficult to assess.
The truth is, understanding online political satire isn’t easy. Many satirical websites mimic the tone and appearance of news sites. You have to be familiar with the political issue being satirized. You have to understand what normal political rhetoric looks like, and you have to recognize exaggeration. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to mistake a satirical message for a literal one.
Do you know it when you see it?
Our study on misinformation and social media lasted six months. Every two weeks, we identified 10 of the most shared fake political stories on social media, which included satirical stories. Others were fake news reports meant to deliberately mislead readers.
We then asked a representative group of over 800 Americans to tell us if they believed claims based on those trending stories. By the end of the study, we had measured respondents’ beliefs about 120 widely shared falsehoods.
Satirical articles like those found on The Babylon Bee frequently showed up in our survey. In fact, stories published by The Bee were among the most shared factually inaccurate content in almost every survey we conducted. On one survey, The Babylon Bee had articles relating to five different falsehoods.
For each claim, we asked people to tell us whether it was true or false and how confident they were in their belief. Then we computed the proportion of Democrats and of Republicans who described these statements as “definitely true.”
If we zero in on The Babylon Bee, a few patterns stand out.
The larger question, though, is what we should do about this problem.
In other recent work, we compared the effectiveness of different ways of flagging inaccurate social media content.
We tested a couple of different methods. One involved including a warning that fact-checkers had determined the inaccuracy of a post. Another had a message indicating that the content was from a satirical site.
We found that labeling an article as “satire” was uniquely effective. Users were less likely to believe stories labeled as satire, were less likely to share them and saw the source as less credible. They also valued the warning.
This suggests that clearly labeling satirical content as satire can help social media users navigate a complex and sometimes confusing news environment.
Despite French’s criticism of Snopes for fact-checking The Babylon Bee, he ends his essay by noting that “Snopes can serve a useful purpose. And there’s a space for it to remind readers that satire is satire.”
On this point, we couldn’t agree more.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a link providing additional details about the study’s methodology.
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The doomsayers of Australian journalism will have to hold their tongues this week as the Huffington Post breathes some fresh life into the local media scene.
Launched in Australia today, HuffPo, as it’s affectionately called by journalists, joins a growing number of international news organisations which have found a new audience – and it hopes advertisers – in Australia.
The opening of HuffPo Australia’s doors (temporarily in the old Fox offices at Darling Harbour) is indeed welcome news for the 28 or so local staff who have been hired by the global journalism player which has already extended its reach to 13 countries.
The global takeover isn’t a bad effort from the team behind editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington who only established the online site in 2005 as an alternative left wing (Americans would say “liberal”) outlet and alternative to news aggregators.
The Huffington Post deal in Australia is interesting, with a 49% stake in the venture held by Fairfax Media. The commercial details of the arrangement haven’t been publicised, but some have suggested Fairfax fought hard for the deal as a way of “keeping its friends close and its enemies even closer”.
There are however fears from a few media watchers that HuffPo will cut Fairfax’s audiences which are already feeling the pinch from locally grown digital sites such as Crikey, The Conversation, New Matilda and Mumbrella as well as the relatively new international players, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, and BuzzFeed.
The Huffington Post’s chief executive in the US Jimmy Maymann however is buoyant about the deal, which mirrors that in other international ventures.
“Our ability to partner with established local players has been critical to the success of our rapid international expansion over the past two years. We have created a very effective repeatable model that has enabled us to enter new markets and establish strong positions very quickly.”
HuffPo can credibly claim to be an international news organisation, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It boasts 214 million unique visitors each month, and there is no reason to believe it will not achieve its stated target of becoming a top-five publisher in Australia in three to five years.
HuffPo Australia boasts a strong team with good local connections. The chief executive Chris Janz comes lately from blog publisher Allure Media, which was bought by Fairfax in 2012, and the editor-in-chief Tory Maguire brings a long News Corp pedigree.
Also in the news crew is Canberra-based political editor Karen Barlow, one of the many talented journalists axed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in its cull of international services, a former executive producer of video at AAP Tom Compagnoni, and a former assistant Daily Mail editor Chris Paine. The list of highly regarded journalism hires goes on, but features many who have either jumped or been pushed out by the seismic change in the country’s newspaper landscape.
So while the local industry is no doubt delighted that high calibre journalists are finding work with the Australian edition of HuffPo – the one question readers should be asking is will the Huffington Post bring them anything different to the already established media outlets.
Point of difference?
Certainly HuffPo gains much by linking its brand to the high standard of journalism that many Fairfax reporters demonstrate. Look for example at the coverage of tax avoidance by multinationals operating in Australia, or the revelations and reporting of Australia’s scandal ridden financial services sector.
If HuffPo Australia champions more of this reporting, and helps grow advertising revenue for both it and Fairfax, then that will auger well for all. But The Huffington Post has built much of its reputation on providing a space for bloggers, for insiders, to write about their passions.
HuffPo does not restrict itself to the normal crew of footy commentators, political analysts and think tank spruikers. HuffPo asks everyone to write. And it is this network of real-time bloggers in Australia that could be the making of the site, even if it is the use of such unpaid writers that has caused the organisation the most criticism at home and abroad. Although to be truthful, there are many sites in Australia and internationally who do not pay writers, however good they maybe, including The Conversation.
What really matters is whether or not HuffPo can attract new and emerging thinkers who can write, or if they will lean on the same-old crew who pop up on QandA on a Monday night.
It’s a now a truism that the internet provides us with what it thinks we want to know, not what we need to know. As readers, we hope the paid Australian curators at HuffPo can help change that adage. If they can, it might be enough to save Fairfax.
The past few years have been positively revolutionary for the Australian news landscape. From a static and highly concentrated media market, dominated by News Corporation, Fairfax, and the ABC, new players have gradually entered the market, and the next new entry lumbering up to the starting blocks is the Australian version of The Huffington Post.
Emerging from founder Arianna Huffington’s earlier forays into political blogging in the mid-2000s, HuffPo has become a major political voice in the United States, and has recently expanded into a number of global markets, with over a dozen localised editions now available. Huffington Post Australia, in partnership with Fairfax Media, is slated to launch on Wednesday, August 19.
Does Huffington Post Australia stand a chance of gaining a foothold in the increasingly crowded Australian news and commentary market? The fate of some of the other recent additions to the media mix may provide a useful guide here.
Comprehensive data on site visits collected by Experian Hitwise shows a range of crucial trends: first, with the general shift towards online news consumption, the total number of site visits to the leading news sites has been trending strongly upwards – from an average of just under 6 million visits per week during 2013, leader news.com.au has grown to over 13 million weekly visits since June 2015, for example.
Second, while the shape of the market has long remained stable, with news.com.au, the Sydney Morning Herald, and nineMSN (now 9 News) fairly evenly matched, since early 2014 the fortunes of the market leaders have diverged. Having embraced a more populist, tabloid content strategy, news.com.au has established itself as the clear market leader, while the SMH’s growth has merely followed the overall trend, and 9 News has stagnated both before and after its rebranding.
Meanwhile, the entrance of two UK-based news organisations into the local market has affected the status quo considerably. The Guardian and the Daily Mail had already been reasonably popular with Australian audiences well before their local spin-offs were announced and launched, but their dedicated domestic coverage has been able to boost their appeal considerably.
Growth in visits to Daily Mail Australia has been especially pronounced, from a weekly average of just over 2 million in 2013 to nearly 8 million visits per week since June 2015 – well above the average growth trend. The trajectory shows a clear bump in readership since the transition to dedicated Australian content in May 2014, and since the start of 2015 Daily Mail Australia has been clearly established as the third most popular Australian news site.
Even before its Australian launch, in fact, Daily Mail was easily more popular with Australian internet users than local tabloids Herald-Sun or Daily Telegraph.
Guardian Australia’s progress has been somewhat slower, building from a lower base. Even after its official launch in May 2013, the site struggled to break through the barrier of 1 million visits per week, until the 2013 federal election campaign provided it with the opportunity to establish a stronger profile as a new space for quality political coverage; since June 2015, the site has averaged some 3.7 million visits per week, and sits comfortably in the top ten of Australian news sites.
Buzzfeed’s official launch on 31 January 2014 did cause at least a momentary spike in visits, and marks the point at which the site becomes more strongly competitive in the Australian media landscape. Long running neck-and-neck with Guardian Australia and the international edition of Huffington Post, during the remainder of 2014 Buzzfeed Australia gradually pulls ahead of both sites. It is now established as a popular site in Australia, rivalling 9 News, The Age, and ABC News: it has attracted an average of nearly 5 million visits per week since June 2015.
Ahead of its Australian launch, the international edition of the Huffington Post remains a considerably more niche publication – yet still ranking ahead of more established Australian titles such as The Australian (whose partial paywall may affect visitor numbers, however) or the Canberra Times. Notably, HuffPo’s Australian visitor numbers have been trending downwards over the past year, averaging some 1.7 million visits per week since June 2015.
It will be interesting to see whether the launch of an Australian edition of the Huffington Post can arrest or even reverse this decline. The performance of other recent entrants into the Australian online news and commentary market has clearly shown that such sites can establish themselves as viable and even leading players in the media landscape. However, the greatest successes have been reserved for comparatively populist and tabloid outlets like Daily Mail Australia and Buzzfeed Australia.
By contrast, Guardian Australia’s achievements to date have been more limited. Its parent organisation is recognised as a globally leading, quality news brand, whose closest Australian equivalents are perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. However, in spite of its undoubted contributions to Australian political journalism, Guardian Australia has yet to even come close to rivalling the visitor numbers attracted by these Fairfax titles’ sites.
Huffington Post, in turn, caters to a considerably more narrow audience. By boosting its coverage of Australian politics and current affairs, it should be able to at least maintain the established Australian audience for its international edition, which would leave it placed above titles such as The Australian in total weekly visits.
It seems unlikely, though, that it could catch up again with a site like Guardian Australia – whose numbers it matched, one year ago – in the immediate future.