August 19, 2014
Will Facebook Save Us From Satire?
Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Everyone gets caught out at some time, be it an April Fool’s Day jest or a TV spoof. Most people are smart enough to spot a send-up or a bit of satire eventually but might just get fooled at first until the penny drops. It happens to the best.
In one now infamous case, as Politico reported last year, the Washington Post picked up on a satirical piece on the Daily Currant website and reported that Sarah Palin was joining the Al Jazeera news network as host. A hastily posted retraction didn’t help much.
Satire at its best blurs the distinction between the comic and the real in a very subtle way and can therefore be hard to pick up on when done properly. But do we need to be protected from the chance of being duped, and do we need the likes of Facebook and other social media sites to be our satire police?
The question arose last week when Sam Machkovech at ArsTechnica spotted “Satire” autotags appearing on certain Facebook links. The tags were not applied to main articles but to links in “related-articles” boxes. The example that Machkovech uses in his piece relates to the satirical website The Onion. In Machkovech’s post he describes how it works. A Facebook user picks up a post from a friend which contains a link to The Onion, or similar site, and clicks on the link to view the page. When the user has finished at The Onion and returns to Facebook, three related-article links will appear in a box directly below the original link.
Machkovech tried this and found that, after following a link to The Onion then returning to Facebook, the box “will contain at least one article from the same site, only that article’s headline will begin with the word 'satire' in brackets.” Machkovech was then able to repeat the results using “three different computers from different accounts” and illustrates this with a screengrab from one of the attempts.
As yet this does not appear to be an attempt by Facebook to apply a broad brush editorial control. The process seems selective and unpredictable to say the least, and there is some confusion as to how it actually works.
Machkovech discovered that The Onion’s own Facebook page has no “Satire” tag and neither do “original posts on friends’ feeds.” They also found that the tag will mysteriously vanish if the tagged articles are saved into a read later list. Other satirical sites similar to The Onion appear to have escaped the Facebook satire warnings, at least for now.
Machkovech contacted Facebook to find out what was going on and the site confirmed it was running a “small test” which has been in place for over a month. This, said Facebook, was because they had “received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units.”
If Facebook decides to expand the tagging it may succeed in preventing a few red faces, but the rest of us will lose some of the fun of being caught out and the even greater joy of watching others in the media squirm their way out of the occasional satirical sucker-punch.
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