Hoaxes spread quickly on the internet, be it through celebrities, politicians or others. But falsehoods branded as satire can permeate the defenses of social media companies and allow people to sell fiction as fact while making financial gain.
The allegations are usually spectacular: Bill Gates was arrested for child trafficking, Tom Hanks was executed by the US military, or Pope Francis declared that a Covid-19 vaccine was required to go to heaven.
These false allegations come from articles on websites that contain disclaimers that they are satirical.
The problem is, a lot of people believe them. In some cases, the claims go viral and are never 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 researching online trust and misinformation, said satire and parody tags could be used on purpose to bypass moderation through social media platforms.
“We see bad actors and disinformation agents calling their content satire, knowing that it will likely be shared without the satire label,” Wardle told AFP.
Platforms are puzzled as satire has long been recognized as an important element of political speech, which is implicitly protected by the US Constitution.
Using the satire tag can allow someone to avoid being downgraded by the Facebook algorithm and in some cases evade fact-checker verification.
This is “a strategic way to make money or sow discord,” Wardle said, adding that it can be difficult to separate legitimate satire from content posted by those “who describe their information as satire and.” know they are likely to cause harm “.
– From fun to politics –
During the 2020 US 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 misinformation trying to make money online.”
The Gates and Hanks hoaxes are from Real Raw News, a website that has been repeatedly fact-checked by AFP and contains “information, educational and entertainment purposes” and “humor, parody and satire.”
Another recent article on social media claimed that Walt Disney’s body was cryogenically preserved after his death in 1966 and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him. This story comes from Daily News Reported, which describes itself as a “fabricated satirical newspaper and comedy website”.
Social media users often struggle to separate fact from satire, said R. Kelly Garrett, professor of communications at Ohio State University.
“If you don’t know the news, you see a headline and it sounds like so many other headlines,” said Garrett, who researched the subject. “And the kinds of claims that would have seemed bogus a decade ago are becoming more common.”
Facebook announced in April that it would use Satire Day on some pages and posts to avoid “confusion”.
Similar cases around the world illustrate the problems associated with satire going viral and falsely turned into alleged facts.
A claim that French President Emmanuel Macron felt “dirty” after shaking hands with poor people during the 2017 election came from the satirical website Le Gorafi.
Ihlaya News, a South African parody website, was the source of several viral stories checked by AFP, including one that said a student hacked her university to change her grades.
– ‘Politically charged’ –
Popular websites like The Onion in the United States and The Beaverton in Canada have long been known for satire and parody.
But the conservative-friendly satire site Babylon Bee has tangled with fact-checkers over its articles, including the Pope’s alleged vaccination claim and another that the Islamic State jihadist group laid down their guns in response to a request from singer Katy Perry.
Up to 28 percent of Republicans and 14 percent of Democrats believed the admittedly fake stories in the Babylon Bee, Ohio State, researchers found in 2019. Then-President Donald Trump tweeted one of her stories in 2020.
Belief in The Onion was slightly lower, and the Democrats were more likely to accept these false stories as facts.
However, Garrett, who led the research, said fact-checking satire may not be an effective way to contain the spread of misinformation.
“If you tell people that the facts have been verified, it is politically charged,” he said. “People think fact checkers have a political agenda. If you tell people it was a joke, that’s more convincing. “