How a preacher’s son made The Babylon Bee sting

The satirical website has become a force in conservative culture under the leadership of Seth Dillon

ORLANDO, Fla. — Taking the stage for a panel where he and other speakers were introduced as “intellectual giants,” Seth Dillon waited for the applause to die down before offering a self-deprecating rebuttal.  

“I do jokes on the internet,” he said.

That’s technically true. But, since taking control of The Babylon Bee three years ago, Dillon has magnified the reach of the satirical website begun by Adam Ford in 2016, moving beyond joke-telling to becoming a serious force in conservative politics and culture. The website gets about 20 million page views each month, up from around 3 million when Dillon took over. And as Fox News personality Tucker Carlson recently said when Dillon appeared on his show, “Probably most of our viewers get Babylon Bee headlines texted to them each day.”

Seth Dillon, right, CEO of The Babylon Bee, appears on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Oct. 21 to discuss controversial comedy. | Fox News

Along the way, Dillon, 38, has seen his own profile rise as he has stepped up to challenge what he considers censorship of conservatives by social-media titans. His emerging celebrity was evident at this month’s National Conservatism Convention, where a long line of young people waited to shake his hand, and also on Instagram, where Dillon, posting as @beechief, is pictured with people that include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and actor Chris Pratt. 

A father of two who lives in Florida, Dillon is part of a team that includes his younger brother, Dan, the company’s chief technology officer, and editor-in-chief Kyle Mann.

Ford, The Babylon Bee’s founder, still owns a share of the company, as do Dan Dillon and Mann. But it’s Seth Dillon who is the majority owner — not the Russians, as one critic has jokingly suggested.

Russia, of course, is said to be behind a relentless tide of disinformation that floods the internet on topics ranging from the 2020 election to COVID-19 vaccines. The Babylon Bee, too, has been accused of using its platform for nefarious goals such as propagating hate speech disguised as humor or malevolently spreading “fake news.”

To Dillon, these accusations are just punchlines in waiting. He can get a crowd to laugh simply by ticking off the times that The Babylon Bee has been “fact-checked” as if it were the nation’s newspaper of record.

Take, for example, USA Today’s fact-checking of The Babylon Bee’s article that said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death. “We rate this claim satire, based on our research,” the USA Today article concluded. And The New York Times printed a correction in June after publishing an article that said the Bee “trafficked in misinformation.”

The more critics rail about The Babylon Bee, the larger its audience gets. “It’s the Streisand effect,” Dillon says. “When you try to suppress something you draw more attention to it.”

Even a few of the website’s critics concede that the content often makes them laugh. “Some of their stuff is funny as hell,” said Sophia McClennen, a Penn State University professor who has sparred with Dillon on Twitter.

So, what’s behind The Babylon Bee’s success? It’s possible that the website has benefited from the increasing polarization in America, with Republicans and Democrats clustering in information silos that reflect and affirm their beliefs.

But it’s equally likely that no matter their political persuasion, people just enjoy a good joke, and that Dillon, who got his start selling phone cases and water bottles on the internet, was perfectly positioned to market the Bee.

When I spoke with Dillon, a curious mix of personalities emerged — the doting dad who likes to post photos of his sons, the shrewd businessman with an eye for making money, and the budding comedian who’s just a joke away from an FCC complaint. Dillon doesn’t divulge too much about his personal life, and he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. But when I asked about his back story, one thing was clear: It starts at church.

Is Facebook censoring the Babylon Bee, or does Mark Zuckerberg just not get the jokes?

‘The coolest thing ever’

Often called a conservative version of The Onion, The Babylon Bee began with a 2016 post that described the site as “your source for Christian news satire.” When Dillon came across the website, he found it appealing because he was a preacher’s kid and the Bee poked fun at the culture in which he was raised.

He was born in Washington D.C., the middle child of three in a family that moved around because his father was an evangelical pastor of nondenominational Bible churches.

“I had a lot of insight into how churches are run and what kinds of issues come up in the church. I know the youth group life,” Dillon said in an interview. 

After high school, Dillon enrolled at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a private Christian school, to study business management. “The intention was to have a lot of options available to me,” he said of his decision to study business.

At the time, he was unsure about what he planned to do for a career, but he was interested in writing and satire and wrote for the school’s newspaper, pushing boundaries even then. “I got a little warning,” he said. But not seeing a way to support a family as a comedic writer, Dillon turned to e-commerce after he graduated in 2004.

He became an expert in what’s known as search engine optimization in order to make money online: “how to drive traffic, how to monetize traffic, how to generate leads, how to generate sales.”  He soon found success in e-commerce, selling niche products like phone cases, iPhone bumpers, microfiber towels and insulated water bottles over the internet, and starting a self-help legal filing service that competed with Legal Zoom.

“We had a bunch of different things that we played with, and some of them were profitable. And we were able to build up a portfolio of apps and businesses that we either owned a piece of, or started ourselves, or sold.”  Then Dillon learned the owner of The Babylon Bee was ready to do something else, at a time when he was, too.

“I was looking to diversify, and I was also looking to do something that was a little bit more fun, that wasn’t just driving traffic to a website or selling a product and housing inventory and selling it for a profit. 

“That kind of stuff, while it makes money, is also very boring and not very intellectually satisfying and doesn’t have a lot of impact. So The Babylon Bee was an exciting opportunity to do something different and more impactful and fun, and would bring me full circle to that whole satire and writing thing I wanted to do. When I was able to work out a deal to take it over in 2018, it was the coolest thing ever. I haven’t looked back,” he said.

A website for ‘Kingdom purposes’

When Ford sold the business, he wrote that “Seth, the new owner, is a successful businessman who uses his resources for Kingdom purposes.”

True to its roots, the website continued to make jokes about churches and churchgoers, with headlines like “Parents Fulfill Duty to Bring Kids up in the Lord by Dropping Them Off at Youth Group for an Hour Every Week” and “8 Ways to Bring Your Bored Congregants Back to Church.”

But its content is also heavily political. The company’s new book, “The Babylon Bee Guide to Wokeness,” written by Mann and Joel Berry, promises to teach readers “how to take your wokeness to the next level by canceling friends, breaking windows and burning it all to the ground.”

McClennen, professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State University whose most recent book is “Pranksters vs. Autocrats,” says she finds much of The Babylon Bee funny, “but some of it is basically hate speech with a wink, wink.”

After writing an article critical of Dillon’s complaints about censorship for Salon, she engaged with him briefly on Twitter, but says she gave up when she tried to have a conversation that devolved into vulgarities in the comments. McClennen says that Dillon and others at the Bee say they engage in satire, when, according to her, they’re actually doing something more corrosive.

“There’s plenty of good quality stuff on The Babylon Bee. The issue is that a lot of it isn’t. A lot of it is mocking. Mocking is not satire,” she said.

The Bee has won over conservatives and people of faith alike, but it still has a knack for making some readers uncomfortable, like when it poked fun at George Soros in a way that some said was anti-Semitic or when it has taken aim at specific denominations. An occasional joke about Latter-day Saints, for example, has generated complaints, but Dillon told me, “You’ve never seen more polite hate mail in your life. It’s really something.”

Of course, what constitutes good humor varies from person to person, which makes holding satirists accountable a slippery endeavor. In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer Emma Green repeatedly asked Mann, the Bee’s editor-in-chief, why he found a certain joke funny. He finally said, “If you don’t know why that’s funny, then you’re not the audience for the joke.”

Dillon later said of people who don’t like the Bee’s humor, “What a humorless scold you come off as when you try to demand that a comedian explain why his jokes are funny. We have a massive, massive audience that laughs endlessly at our humor; to demand that we have to justify our jokes, beyond the following that we have that thinks we are great, is just absurd. ...

“We’re really dealing with a problem of where they see black, we see white; where we see black, they see white.”

‘What would be funny? What would be true?’

James Caron, a retired professor and editor of the journal Studies in American Humor, says that he views satire as a “comic supplement to public-sphere conversations.”

Satire bites hard, but to Caron, its goal should be to advance an issue, and he’s not sure that’s always happening on The Babylon Bee website. “It doesn’t look like they’re ready to complete a conversation, or push it forward, but to stop a conversation — to say ‘you guys on the other side are idiots.’” This happens a lot with comedy on both the left and the right, Caron said. 

Caron is looking at the Bee from an academic’s perch, while Dillon is about the comedy. He says it should be clear to anyone who consumes The Babylon Bee’s content regularly that “we are not publishing anything from a place of hatred or malice.”

“We literally wake up every day and think to ourselves, ‘What would be a funny take on what’s happening in the news today? What would be a fun take on this? What would be funny? What would be true? How do we speak the truth in a culture that’s so often attracted to subjectivism? How do we community objective truth in a subjective world?’

“These are the kinds of things we’re asking ourselves, not, ‘Oh, how can we rip on this certain race or this certain gender today.’”

Speaking to conservatives in Orlando, Dillon offered one of his favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes: “The world has become too absurd to be satirized.” For evidence, he pointed to what he calls The Babylon Bee’s “prophecies” — stories that started as jokes, but then actually came true — for example, Donald Trump suggesting that he had done more for Christianity than Jesus. The Bee wrote this as a joke in 2019, but Trump later actually said he had done more for Christianity “and religion itself” than anyone else.

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As for Babylon Bee articles that are misconstrued or believed to be true when they aren’t, McClennen, at Penn State, said that this largely happens in the context of social-media sharing, such as when people see a Bee headline on a Facebook feed and aren’t familiar with the site.

But Dillon observes that this, too, makes a point, and as such, the article is doing its job.

“When one of our jokes is believable, and you think that it’s possible that CNN might praise the Taliban for wearing masks, who’s that an indictment of — the satirist or CNN?” he said at the panel in Orlando.

“The problem isn’t that satire is too close to reality. The problem is that reality has become satirical.”

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