Liberal and secular satirical news outlets such as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver, The Onion, and even Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment come cheaper by the dozen these days. But there’s only one Babylon Bee.
The conservative and Christian satire site fills an underserved market, as evidenced by the regular viral reach of its articles. One recent headline was shared more than 1 million times on social media and stirred up an unusual amount of hard feelings: “Democrats Call For Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast To Grieve Death Of Soleimani.” The Bee posted the article the same day a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose forces tormented Iraqi Christians and who was said to have been planning imminent attacks on U.S. embassies.
Writer and media analyst Cindy Otis expressed concern on Twitter that some Republicans on Facebook thought the article was real, raising an angry online mob. CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan chimed in to criticize the Bee, insinuating the site is “clickbait” and “misinformation” disguised as satire. Mainstream news outlets picked up the story. And the progressive religious magazine Relevant published a column by Jesse Carey calling the Soleimani article “problematic,” “misogynistic,” and “uniquely confusing.”
Babylon Bee editor Kyle Mann gave multiple interviews, including to WORLD Radio, defending the Bee’s brand of satire.
“The left is very supportive of comedy and very supportive of art and creativity until it targets them,” he said. “As long as there’s satire, there’s going to be people who misunderstand it. That’s just the nature of it.”
Among the barrage of criticism, some websites recirculated an August 2019 article from The Conversation with the headline “Study: Too many people think satirical news is real.” The report was based on a study that tested whether people could tell the difference between real and fake news. Researchers asked participants whether they believed the claims of 20 different news reports—10 real and 10 fake, including satire—every two weeks for six months. The study found that nine satirical articles from either The Babylon Bee or the Onion, a secular satire site, fooled at least 50 percent of respondents into thinking they were real.
The researchers dug deeper and discovered a link between political affiliation and the likelihood that a respondent would believe a claim. Republicans bought into Babylon Bee articles twice as often or more than Democrats did, while Democrats believed the Onion, a liberal-leaning site, more often than Republicans. In other words, the closer a satirical claim came to a person’s actual beliefs, the more likely they were to think it was real.
Psychologists have a name for the human tendency to believe facts that support their existing beliefs: confirmation bias. One groundbreaking study scanned the brains of devoted Republicans and Democrats during the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Researchers watched what participants’ brains did as they evaluated threatening information about the candidate they supported. When faced with claims that contradicted their beliefs, parts of the subjects’ brains that control emotions lit up with activity, while the part most associated with reasoning stayed static. Additionally, the subjects got a surge in the reward circuits of their brains. Not only were they wired to develop a strong emotional attachment to their beliefs, distinct from rational thought, but it felt good for them to deny the truth of facts that did not support their existing opinions.
Scientists have searched for ways to hack the brain’s confirmation bias circuits but haven’t found anything that works consistently. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense. Without a certain degree of confidence in our own perceptions, we might waver indefinitely in the face of threats to our lives and livelihoods. But confirmation bias often makes us poor judges of facts, especially when it comes to topics we feel passionate about.
Some have suggested that the Bee label its posts as satire in the headline to protect readers from their confirmation biases. The website identifies itself as satire on its “About” page and it periodically runs a prominent on-site ad for its newsletter with the tagline “Fake News You Can Trust.” Its Facebook and Twitter pages and the title tag for its website, which users see when they google “Babylon Bee,” all announce it as satire. Anything more, Mann contended, would make the jokes less funny and therefore less satirical.
“We’re not going to put in our headline, ‘Here comes a joke. This is a joke,’” he said. “That’s just basic principles of satire humor.”
If there was no Babylon Bee or Onion, people would still tend to latch onto the news reports—fake or real—that supported their opinions. So why not have a laugh along the way?