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Helen Andrews

When Facebook’s fact-checking rings FALSE

March 4, 2018

5:45 PM

4 March 2018

5:45 PM

“To give one’s property to comedians is a great sin,” says Saint Augustine, as quoted by Aquinas under question 168 of Book II the Summa, “Whether There Is a Sin in the Excess of Mirth.”

The scowling precisians at Snopes.com are apparently in agreement with the Bishop of Hippo on that one. Their site, which fact-checks news stories in the manner of Politifact, awarded a great, big FALSE rating to an obviously satirical news story published by the Babylon Bee headlined “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication.” The Bee, as its readers know, is the Onion for evangelical Christians.

This would have been a matter for the red-faced Snopes writer and his immediate supervisor, except that Snopes is one of the sites being used by Facebook in its crackdown on “fake news.” Facebook users attempting to share the surrealistic washing machine story received a pop-up notification warning them that the page “contains info disputed by Snopes.com, an independent fact checker” and directing them to the Snopes site for “additional reporting.”

Facebook further warned the Babylon Bee that further infractions would result in its Facebook advertising being removed and its traffic strangled, which of course would be death for an online publication. The Bee itself noted the magnitude of the threat in its follow-up story: “Facebook Sends Warm Reminder To Publishers That It Is In Complete Control Of Their Livelihood.”

To be fair to Snopes, I have been fooled by Babylon Bee stories myself. “New Prayer App Delivers Shock Every Time User Says ‘Just’”? Anyone who has ever belonged to an American Protestant congregation wishes someone would develop such an app. “Historical-Critical Scholar Doubts Authorship of Paper He Wrote”? The first professor to do that for real will make his career.

In this case, it is hard to see what someone who took the story literally could possibly have envisioned. Television news segments in a washing machine? Do the cameras go into the washing machine, or just the scripts?

“This was a mistake and should not have been rated false in our system,” Facebook has admitted. “It’s since been corrected and won’t count against the domain in any way.” But it will stand as a warning to any news publication that might have forgotten how much power Facebook wields, and how arbitrarily.

In the Summa, Aquinas adds one exception to Augustine’s general rule against giving money to comedians: “. . . unless by chance some comedian were in extreme need, in which case one would have to assist him.” The proprietor of the Babylon Bee may find himself in precisely such a position, if he ever finds himself on Facebook’s bad side again.

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