Hoaxes have spread quickly online, whether it’s celebrities, politicians, or anyone else. But lies qualified as satire can slip through the defenses of social media companies, allowing people to pass fiction off as fact, while making a financial profit.
The claims tend to be spectacular: Bill Gates arrested for child trafficking, Tom Hanks executed by the US military, or Pope Francis declaring that a Covid-19 vaccine would be needed to enter heaven.
These bogus claims originate from articles on websites that contain warnings that they are satirical.
The problem is, a lot of people believe them. In some cases, the claims go viral and never get debunked online, or in the minds of those who read and shared them.
Claire Wardle, co-founder and executive director of First Draft, a coalition that seeks trust and misinformation online, said satire and parody tags can be deliberately used to circumvent moderation by social media platforms.
“We see bad actors and disinformation agents labeling their content as satire knowing that it is likely to be shared without the label of satire,” Wardle told AFP.
The platforms face a conundrum because satire has long been considered an important part of political discourse, implicitly protected by the US constitution.
Using the satire tag can allow someone to avoid being demoted by Facebook’s algorithm and in some cases escape the scrutiny of fact-checkers.
It has become “a strategic way to make money or to sow discord,” Wardle said, adding that it can be difficult to separate legitimate satire from content posted by those “who label their news as satire and know that they are likely to cause harm “.
During the 2020 U.S. election campaign, the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact fact-checking operation found more than 100 websites posting political satire out of context, calling it “a common tactic for informants who want to earn money. ‘money online’.
The Gates and Hanks hoaxes originate from “Real Raw News”, a site repeatedly verified by AFP, which has a warning that its content “is for information, education and entertainment purposes.” and “contains humor, parody and satire”. . “
Another recent post shared on social media claimed that Walt Disney’s body had been cryonically frozen after his death in 1966 and an effort would be made to revive it. This story is from Daily News Reported, which bills itself as “a satirical newspaper and comedy website.” Social media users often find it difficult to separate fact from satire, said R. Kelly Garrett, professor of communications at Ohio State University.
“If you’re unfamiliar with the news, you see a headline and it looks like so many other headlines,” said Garrett, who has researched the topic. “And the types of claims that would have seemed far-fetched just a decade ago are becoming more common.”
Facebook said in April it would use the satire tag on some pages and posts to avoid “confusion.”
Similar cases around the world highlight the problems with satire going viral and mistakenly turning into suspected fact.
A claim that French President Emmanuel Macron felt “dirty” after shaking hands with poor people in the 2017 election came from the satirical site Le Gorafi. Ihlaya News, a South African parody site, has been behind several AFP-verified viral stories, including one claiming that a student had hacked into her university to alter her grades.
Popular websites such as The Onion in the United States and The Beaverton in Canada have long been recognized for their satire and parody. There was a slightly lower level of belief in The Onion, with Democrats more likely to accept these bogus stories as fact.
But Garrett, who led the research, said satirizing fact-checking may not be an effective way to curb the spread of disinformation.