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Understanding cultural context to detect satire (2020)

Summary: During the somewhat controversial Senate confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, there were a few moments that gained extra attention, including a confrontation between Senator Mazie Hirono and the nominee concerning statements regarding LGBTQ rights that Barrett had made in the past. Hirono, who had separately called the hearings themselves illegitimate, was then criticized by traditionally right-leaning media for what they felt was overly aggressive questioning.

The satirical site The Babylon Bee, which frequently targets Democrats for satirization, published a piece roughly parodying a famous Monty Python sketch in which villagers in a medieval town try to determine if someone is a witch, including by weighing them to see if they weigh the same as a duck. The Babylon Bee took that sketch’s premise and ran a satirical article claiming that Hirono demanded that Barrett be weighed against a duck.

Facebook had the article removed, saying that it was “inciting violence.” The Babylon Bee appealed the decision, only to be told that upon a further “manual” review, Facebook had decided that its original analysis stood, and that the article “incites violence.”

Decisions to be made by Facebook:

  • How do you handle moderation that requires understanding both current political controversies and historical cultural references?
  • How do you distinguish actual satire from that which only pretends to be satire?
  • How do you determine what is actually likely to incite violence?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • How can rules against “inciting violence” be written to take into account satire and cultural references?
  • Is it reasonable to expect that content moderators will understand cultural references as satirical?
  • How much should a platform be expected to take into account the target audience of a particular website?

Resolution: As the tweet from The Babylon Bee’s CEO started to go viral, leading to another round of news coverage in traditionally right-wing focused publications, Facebook eventually apologized and said that the moderation decision (and the manual review) were a mistake.

"This was a mistake and we apologize that it happened. Satire can be difficult for our systems to identify, but we've restored the article and their ability to monetize," a Facebook spokesperson told Fox News.

As often happens in these situations, the CEO of the Babylon Bee insisted that this response was implausible, apparently believing that everyone would recognize the cultural references his site’s article was making use of for satire.

"Why did it have to take getting the media involved to fix this? And why did it happen in the first place?" Dillon asked in response to Facebook. "This was not just an algorithm flagging an article in error. Yes, that happened. But then a manual review took place and the ruling to penalize us was upheld. I notice they left that part out."

Written by The Copia Institute, November 2020

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