Is Facebook censoring the Babylon Bee, or does Mark Zuckerberg just not get the jokes?
The CEO of the satirical website says engagement on the site has declined even though the number of followers has increased
The Babylon Bee, a satirical website with more than 3 million followers on social media, has suggested that Chick-fil-A would do a great job of getting Americans out of Afghanistan and reported that a frustrated Joe Biden has hung a “Trump Won” sign on the side of the White House.
These were jokes, of course. But the CEO of The Babylon Bee finds nothing amusing in what he says is ongoing censorship of the company’s Facebook page.
In an email sent to newsletter subscribers last week, Seth Dillon said that Facebook is suppressing The Babylon Bee’s content and that the company has seen a “drastic, steady decline in reach and engagement” in the past year, despite an increase in the number of followers.
“It used to be that 80% of our site’s traffic came from Facebook. Now, it’s down to just 30%. Babylon Bee articles posted to Facebook used to go viral, generating hundreds of thousands of shares. But that just doesn’t happen anymore. Facebook doesn’t allow it,” Dillon wrote.
As evidence, Dillon shared a screenshot of what he said was a recent Facebook post, titled “Least masculine society in human history decides masculinity is a growing threat.” The screenshot showed that the post had reached 11 people and had one “like,” although the page has more than 1 million followers.
“We’d have reached more people if we had printed the article and posted it on a single telephone poll in a small town,” Dillon wrote.
He followed up, however, with a request for paid subscriptions, leaving the company open to accusations that it is using purported censorship as a means to raise money, as has been said of former President Donald Trump and other political leaders who say social media companies unfairly target conservatives.
But Dillon said in an interview that said such appeals are necessary and important. “We need to be financially independent from Big Tech,” he said “We’re not drumming up false concern so we can raise money. We view these companies as serious threats to the business, so we make honest appeals to our readers to support us.”
He also said that The Babylon Bee deserves a place on the social media platforms that have been called the modern public square.
A Facebook spokeswoman said there are currently no restrictions on The Babylon Bee’s page, but Facebook’s independent Oversight Board said earlier this year that the company needs a better way of dealing with satire. Here’s why.
‘Fake news you can trust’
On Twitter and Facebook, The Babylon Bee says it offers “fake news you can trust” and the website is often described as a center-right, Christian version of another satirical media company, The Onion.
Both companies traffic in comedy, producing satirical takes on the news of the day. Recent headlines from The Onion include “Disappointed Taliban realize taking over Afghanistan more fun than running it” and “Biden responds to aid request by deporting Haitian doctor.”
The Babylon Bee, however, was founded by Christian humorist Adam Ford, who once told Christianity Today that the church needs laughter. A writer for The Washington Post described the website as The Onion for the godly. But two years after starting The Babylon Bee, Ford sold the site to Dillon, in part because of what Ford called “the large-scale ills of Facebook and Google.” Ford said using Facebook was like getting a business loan from a mafia loan shark, saying that some people have to alter or hide their world views to remain on the platform.
“I have come to a place where I no longer feel morally OK being a part of the Facebook and Google machine, and because of their surveillance-capitalism business models, just existing on their platforms makes me a paying customer,” Ford wrote in 2018.
In his letter to newsletter subscribers last week, Dillon similarly expressed frustration with what he called “politically motivated viewpoint discrimination” that he believes is affecting The Babylon Bee’s Facebook reach.
The post he cited made fun of attacks on masculinity, saying that masculinity was the cause of “violence, war, bullying, defeating the Nazis, carving society out of untamed wilderness, and landing men on the moon.” The article had originally been published in 2019 and was then shared more than 355,000 times on Facebook. But when the company republished it last week, it was only visible to administrators and not to the public, Dillon told the Deseret News. He said this is the latest event in a perplexing pattern that has seen The Babylon Bee’s user engagement on Facebook fall from nearly 10 million each month to 1 million, despite the audience being larger.
There was a substantial drop around the election when Facebook reportedly made changes to elevate the visibility of legacy new organizations. “Our concern is, we’re not news, so are they in fact applying a low-quality score to us? That wouldn’t seem fair, as we’re not actually a news source,” Dillon said. But, he added, “We’re just left at our best guess as to what’s happening, because they won’t tell us.”
He says The Babylon Bee is “unapologetically” asking readers to pay for subscriptions so that the company, which is based in Jupiter, Florida, and employs about two dozen people across the U.S., is not wholly dependent on social media platforms known collectively as Big Tech.
The CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter have testified before Congress as part of an antitrust investigation and their companies are under fire from conservative lawmakers, including Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, who say that they deliberately suppress conservative views.
The tech companies deny censorship, saying that posts are taken down or restricted because they contain false information. But satirical posts should be held to a different standard, according to Facebook’s Oversight Board, an independent governing body that the company formed and gave power to resolve disputes.
A satire exemption?
Earlier this year, the Oversight Board overturned Facebook’s decision to remove a meme it said violated the company’s community standards. “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook, even in the context of satire, because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases, may promote real-world violence,” Facebook said at the time.
After review, the board ordered that the post be restored and recommended that the company adopt procedures “to properly moderate satirical content while taking into account relevant context.” The board said there should be a “satire exemption” in its community standards.
That ruling came out in May; the next month, Facebook announced it would not automatically flag satire as misinformation.
For now, the company seems to be watching The Babylon Bee’s posts related to COVID-19. Under articles about the pandemic and vaccinations, Facebook routinely inserts a note referring readers to its COVID-19 information page.
A Facebook representative said there are no restrictions on The Babylon Bee page, although she said that one of the Babylon Bee’s administrators has been asked to provide verification of identity. If it is found that the operators of the page are misrepresenting themselves, the page would be removed, the spokesperson said, pointing out the company’s policies on account integrity and authentic identity.
Facebook also addresses “false news” in its community standards, saying there is “a fine line between false news and satire or opinion.”
“For these reasons, we do not remove false news from Facebook but we significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in News Feed,” the policy rationale says. The company also says it is working to combat the spread of false news by “disrupting economic incentives for people, Pages and domains that propagate misinformation.”
As for Ford, the creator of The Babylon Bee who still has a financial stake in the company, he now runs a website called Notthebee.com which, despite his previous denunciations of Facebook and Google, has a Facebook page.
And Dillon says he wants to remain on the platform, as well as Twitter and Instagram.
“I’m asked all the time why we stay on these platforms. And the reason is, even the Supreme Court has acknowledged recently that these platforms are the modern public square. It’s where the majority of discourse happens in the modern world,” he said. “We are going to continue to fight to stay on these platforms, because we think we have the right to be there.”