With fake news a hot topic following the election, The New Yorker has taken steps to make sure people aren’t fooled by The Borowitz Report it runs on its web site.
Last week, the magazine changed the tagline of Andy Borowitz’s popular online satirical humor column, which consistently tops The New Yorker’s trending chart, from “the news, reshuffled” to the more blunt “not the news” and added a banner to prominently display the new tagline when the posts get shared on social media.
The fake news problem, which may well have impacted the U.S. presidential election, has come under increased scrutiny as deliberately false stories masquerading as news are spread on Facebook. Considering this is an era when a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor gains actual traction through social media and resulted in a man driving six hours to rescue the children with an AR-15, it’s no wonder that people who see a post from The New Yorker with the headline “Trump Picks El Chapo to Run D.E.A.,” may believe it.
“Obviously Andy’s stories are not real. We always want to make it clear that it’s satire. We never want readers to think that they are the real news,” NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson explained. “The reasons why we made the adjustment are both public concern, and then also, there’s a proliferation of stuff that is not real. So it might be harder to distinguish a Borowitz Report post on Facebook now than it was a year ago.”
While The Borowitz Report has always been identified as satire in the past, the labeling was less conspicuous. After a tweak to Google News a few years ago, The New Yorker began adding the word “satire” to the metadata of Borowitz’s posts to satisfy the Google algorithm. Despite recent calls on Facebook to fix the way fake news is able to spread on its platform, the social network has yet to unveil any changes.
Occasionally, according to Thompson, a story would start to be shared as actual news and they would put extra flags on it for clarification. But after the election, he said, “We felt like, with all the fake news circulating, with all the conversation about this, let’s be even more clear.”
The trick, Thompson said, was figuring out the right balance between making it clear that The Borowitz Report is not true, and not spoiling the joke. After all, Borowitz’s thing is kind of writing jokes that are a twist on the real news they closely resemble.
“You don’t want to have to have a headline that says: ‘This is a Joke, Trump to Split Time Between Trump Tower and the Kremlin,’” said Thompson. “You want somebody to look at that and then realize it’s a joke.”
In the continuing conversation about fake news, there is a debate about what that term even means. In a quest to define it, Slate just unveiled a Chrome extension called “This is Fake,” which aims to stop the spread of fake news on Facebook. The tool is able to distinguish between a false individual story and an entire website that spreads misinformation.
The question about what constitutes satire is also especially pertinent right now. A fake news writer named Paul Horner, in an interview on CNN earlier this week, claimed that while his headline and first paragraph “may be fake,” the rest is “political satire.” Anderson Cooper protested, explaining that satire identifies itself as such. Cooper cited The Onion as an example, but the same could be said of The Borowitz Report.
“The larger questions about what is fake news and what is not fake news, those are questions for the top executives at Facebook,” Thompson said. “The question of how we tag Andy Borowitz posts is what we can deal with.”