Buzzfeed Accuses Babylon Bee of 'Pushing Conspiracy Theory,' Forgets to Provide Actual Evidence

Journalists have to show our work, not just ask our readers to take our word for it

Buzzfeed / Facebook
Buzzfeed / Facebook
August 1, 2019

I would've been around eleven or twelve the time I had a piece of math homework passed back to me and was stunned to discovered that I only got half credit. The answers were all right, but as the teacher patiently explained to me after class, I didn't show my work. That didn't make a lot of sense to me; if I was getting the answers right just doing the calculations in my head, did I really need to write them all out? But of course, as she explained, she couldn't see inside my head. For all she knew, I was just using the answers in the back of the textbook.

Friends, that was a truly life-changing moment. That was the day a teacher accidentally told me the answer to every homework question she was going to assign for the next year was in the back of the textbook. What a sucker. But yeah, I also learned a life lesson about showing your work or something.

Journalists also have to show our work. If you can provide evidence that something happened, you do. As for editors, if a reporter makes a claim, it is his job to make sure he shows his work. "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" is the old creed. Reagan put the same notion even simpler: trust, but verify.

Evidently there's a lot of trust in the Buzzfeed editors's office, but not a lot of verifying. "A Christian Satire Site Says That Fact-Checkers Are Helping Facebook Deplatform Conservatives," reads the headline to a Wednesday piece. The original headline was even more provocative, with "Pushing a Conspiracy Theory" rather than "Says." That accusation, Buzzfeed reports in the lede, "has jump-started a conspiracy theory that fact-checking websites are targeting conservative humor in an effort to de-platform right-wing publishers." As evidence for both propositions, Buzfeed cites... nothing.

Here are the agreed upon facts: Georgia state representative Erica Thomas prompted a media circus by claiming that a man in a Publix told her to "go back to where you came from," apparently an echo of the attack Donald Trump leveled at four minority congresswomen. After the media had elevated the local dust-up to a national story, Thomas quietly walked back her story, saying that she couldn't remember exactly what the man had said. Then the man came forward, revealed that he was a Cuban Democrat, and denied making the remark. Then the police report was released and revealed that according to a witness, not only had Thomas lied about what the man had said, she was the one who told him to "go back to where you came from."

That prompted Christian satire website Babylon Bee to post a piece headlined "Georgia Lawmaker Claims Chick-Fil-A Employee Told Her To Go Back To Her Country, Later Clarifies He Actually Said 'My Pleasure.'" It's a pretty good joke, taking Thomas' duplicity and sudden backtracking to a comical extreme and adding the gag that Chick-Fil-A employees tend to be oppressively polite. It's also quite obviously a joke.

Urban legend website Snopes fact-checked the satire piece, and ruled it false. That in itself was not surprising; people fall for satire all the time, and Snopes fact-checks website like The Onion as well. But unlike with The Onion, Snopes rather openly impugned the motives of the Bee and all but suggested they intended to mislead rather than amuse. "We're not sure if fanning the flames of controversy and muddying the details of a news story classify an article as 'satire,'" huffed Snopes. It called the piece "an apparent attempt to maximize the online indignation," called it "a ruse," and complained that the Bee "has managed to fool readers before," suggesting an attempt to fool readers.

The Bee cried foul, retained an attorney, and wrote in a statement that "by lumping us in with fake news and questioning whether we really qualify as satire, Snopes appears to be actively engaged in an effort to discredit and deplatform us." They note that this is no small thing for them; Snopes opinions are highly regarded by journalists and tech companies, and the Bee previously risked losing its Facebook monetization after a satirical story was ruled "False" (Facebook reversed the decision and apologized). Snopes for its part eventually removed the offending material from its fact-check and apologized.

It is undeniable that Babylon Bee leaders accused Snopes of attempting to discredit and deplatform them, and reasonable people can differ on whether that was a fair accusation (I'm team Bee). But there's nothing in the statement or the Bee's founder tweet thread quoted by Buzzfeed that claims that "Fact-checkers," plural, are attempting to trying to "Deplatform Conservatives," plural (the Bee didn't even say it was targeted for being conservative) or that they were "Helping Facebook" do so, a phrase that suggested Facebook was in on it. The Bee complained that it was being mistreated by one site. Buzzfeed frames that as making an allegation of a massive conspiracy, and then provides no evidence to back up the claim.

But what about the other people who are spreading "a conspiracy theory that fact-checking websites are targeting conservative humor in an effort to de-platform right-wing publishers"? Buzzfeed doesn't cite any. They do say that "trolls" spread the lesser "conspiracy theory" that Snopes was trying to deplatform the Babylon Bee from Facebook, but then fails to cite those trolls. We're evidently just supposed to take the reporter's word for it that they exist. Show your work!

I have zero doubt that there actually are trolls on Twitter spreading conspiracy theories about Snopes. But I suspect what's going on is that actually citing them would result in something akin to the Black Ariel situation, where multiple outlets (including Buzzfeed) reported on the "backlash" to Disney casting a black woman as The Little Mermaid. Then you click on that Buzzfeed piece, read the tweets, and realize they were citing people with 39, 29, 10, and 199 Twitter followers respectively. By not showing your work, you can avoid signaling to your readers (and editors) that maybe this entire story is a complete non-troversy.

Buzzfeed does cite its work later when making a separate claim that "far-right internet personalities like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and Ben Shapiro have been using the controversy to paint Snopes as a left-leaning partisan website intent on de-platforming conservative voices." Right off the bat, it's pretty questionable to describe Shapiro as "far-right" and group him in with Infowars. But now that they've shown their work, let's see where those hyperlinks go to.

Am I crazy, or do none of these tweets actually claim "Snopes is a left-leaning partisan website intent on de-platforming conservative voices"? I mean, they just don't. Two of them don't even mention politics. That Shapiro tweet is literally just a harmless joke. You can make the case that there's a subtext to these tweets, but Buzfeed accused them of making it text. Then link to the text!

When complaining about the piece on Twitter, Buzzfeed editor John Paczkowski offered this response:

I genuinely suspect there's some miscommunication here, because a quote about Babylon Bee retaining an attorney has no relevance at all to Buzzfeed's claim that people are pushing "a conspiracy theory that fact-checking sites are targeting conservative humor to de-platform right-wing publishers." I responded back asking for clarification, but haven't gotten it yet.

There's a genuinely interesting story here, the one I relayed when explaining why Buzzfeed got it so wrong. You can do a piece on the fight between the Bee and Snopes. If you wanted to dig even deeper, you could do a piece on how it exposed longstanding conservative frustration with Snopes and accusations of bias. But Buzzfeed wanted to report on conservatives pushing "a conspiracy theory," so they a) falsely assigned that motive to a publication making a more measured complaint and b) failed to cite the actual cranks. Buzzfeed needs to show its work, for the same reason I had to show my work: because otherwise, it starts to look like you're cheating.