Going viral is ordinarily pay-dirt for a small website: new readers, more subscribers, and a bigger slice of that sweet, sweet Google Ads revenue pie. Unfortunately for satirical Christian news-site the Babylon Bee, it went viral in the wrong way: it made fun of Democrats. Last week, its spoof story ‘Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of Soleimani‘ attracted 750,000 shares on social media. The headline and the body of the text are patently absurd and obviously satirical. Of course Democrats didn’t call for the flag to be flown at half-mast for Soleimani. It’s not like he was Osama bin Laden or anything.
Donie O’Sullivan, who covers ‘disinformation, politics and technology’ for CNN, saw darker forces at work. He intoned: ‘To put this in perspective, this is the same number of engagements the top NY Times and CNN stories on Facebook had over the past week. A lot of people sharing this “satirical” story on Facebook don’t know it is satire.’
Highlighting the fact your global news organization is level-pegging with a spoof Christian newspaper run out of south-east Florida. Sick self-burn, Donie.
O’Sullivan continued: ‘Having a disclaimer buried somewhere on your site that says it’s “satire” seems like a good way to get around a lot of the changes Facebook has made to reduce the spread of clickbait and misinformation.’
This is a website that says it was ‘created ex nihilo on the eighth day of the creation week, exactly 6,000 years ago’, boasts about its unrivaled coverage of the Tower of Babel, and advises readers: ‘If you would like to complain about something on our site, take it up with God.’ This may be the best MSM-does-God incident since Sam Brownback quoted Matthew 7:16 (‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’) in an interview with Rolling Stone and they condemned him for using a homophobic slur.
There is a problem with social media users sharing articles without reading past the headline, but it’s not an innovation of the ‘fake news’ era and has nothing to do with the mind-bending cyber powers of Russian Twitter bots. It’s because people are stupid and lazy and after confirmation rather than revelation. As the banner ad for the Bee’s email newsletter reads: ‘Fake news you can trust, delivered straight to your inbox.’
News outlets currently settling out of court after they brought the full force of their hysterical woke-rage down on the heads of a class of Catholic schoolboys because dubious hate crimes are the new high-speed cop chases are natural guardians of media ethics. But it’s not just CNN; the Babylon Bee has been the target of a gloriously unhinged progressive pushback for some time now. Snopes.com, once a respectable and useful debunker of online urban legends, spent the past two years in a deranged war on a tiny Christian satire site.
It began when the Bee published a story headlined ‘CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication’, prompting Snopes to fact-check the article on the grounds that, Jesus redeem us, some readers may have ‘interpreted it literally’. With the stone-cold solemnity of the internet humor void, Snopes rated the claim that CNN ‘invested in mechanical assistance to help their journalists and news anchors spin the news before publication’ as ‘false’. Eventually, after further outings in its self-crashing clown car, Snopes changed its ‘false’ ratings to ‘labeled satire’, the salt content of that ‘labeled’ appearing dangerously high. Fact-checking a satire site might sound like something from the Babylon Bee itself but it’s a serious business: acting on Snopes’s ‘false’ rating, Facebook warned the Bee that a repeat offense would see ‘their distribution reduced and their ability to monetize and advertise removed’.
Much of the Bee’s content is geared towards Christian self-deprecation, with spoof articles like ‘Baptists Prepare To Celebrate New Year With Finest Bottle Of Sparkling Apple Cider’, ‘Local Mom Has More Crosses On Wall Than Number Of Crucifixions Actually Carried Out By The Romans’, and ‘Chick-Fil-A Debuts Fully Clothed Chicken Breasts’. Secular pieties are also jabbed with the satirical stiletto: ‘Recording Industry Adds “Explicitly Christian” Warning Label To Kanye’s New Album’ smirks one headline; ‘Concerning Study Finds Fewer People Pretending To Be Christian’ teases another. What gets the Bee into trouble is its forays into politics. Although it takes plenty of shots at the president (‘Trump Claims He Personally Pushed Al-Baghdadi Off Nakatomi Plaza’), its targets are more often on the left (in the same way that the Onion mostly satirizes the right). So there are articles like ‘Democratic Candidates Clash Over Most Effective Plan To Destroy Economy’, ‘AOC Says There Is Too Much Division In Our Country When Addition And Subtraction Are Hard Enough’, and ‘Millennial Wishes There Were Some Historical Examples Of Socialism We Could Study To Have Some Idea How It Might Turn Out’.
The humor may or may not be to your taste but it’s hardly about to bring the republic crashing down in a slurry of ignorance. That’s what the Department of Education is for. Mainstream media animus towards the Babylon Bee is motivated by political and social insecurity. The ruling class always had its dancing fools — Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee — and they entertained their patrons by mocking the beliefs and sensibilities of the masses. Now the court jester has gone freelance and he’s poking at the sacred pretensions of the elites for the entertainment of the lower orders. Conservative satire of this kind would never be commissioned for a TV show or a movie but social media has swept aside the gatekeepers and the gates. Laughter terrifies petty tyrants because it cannot be controlled and because it opens up spaces to think differently, and sometimes in that moment of disruption people think the wrong things.
In Arnold Bennett’s comic novel The Card, the raffish Denry Machin resolves to become mayor of Bursley and bribes the voters by buying an ace center-forward for the local soccer team. When his scheme pays off, a detractor, Councillor Barlow, huffs: ‘What great cause is he identified with?’ ‘He’s identified,’ comes the reply, ‘with the great cause of cheering us all up’. In progressive self-mythologizing, they are the Denry Machins of this world — fun, easygoing, daringly transgressive — and their opponents the stern and officious Councillor Barlow. In fact, it is progressive culture, the dominant culture, that is censorious and intolerant, always scolding and deadeningly certain. It’s the kind of culture that not only invites satire but makes it essential. The Babylon Bee is engaged in the same great cause as Denry Machin and its satire, and the auto-satire its very existence provokes in progressive critics, sustains us in cheer through the long, dark nights of the culture war.