The decade's most triggering comedy
Seth Dillon oversees one of the web’s funniest destinations, but there’s an edge to his voice that’s hardly comic. Dillon, the CEO of The Babylon Bee, is at war with social media. Again. It’s an odd place for a humor site to be, but it’s in sync with the current wave of Big Tech bullying.
Dillon says the trouble began two years ago when Facebook aligned with third-party fact checkers like Snopes to battle misinformation on the platform. That seemingly noble stance led to Snopes and, by extension, Facebook, labeling a satirical Bee article as “false.”
“Facebook treated us as purveyors of Fake News,” he says, tied to a farcical story about CNN buying industrial strength washing machines to better spin the news.
“Nobody believed the story was true,” Dillon says. Facebook disagreed, threatening the company’s social media monetization if the Bee kept producing fake news stories.
The Babylon Bee, a Christian humor site that politically leans to the Right, generates revenue from Facebook in several key ways. Facebook traffic comprises a large part of the Bee’s overall clicks.
Plus, publishers can utilize Facebook’s subscription tools to generate new customers or leverage its “instant articles” feature. The latter lets users click on a story and the article appears, but the process taps into Facebook’s ad network structure.
“When they demonetize you, they turn all of them off,” he explains.
Cooler cyber-heads prevailed, but recently Facebook once again threatened The Babylon Bee over its content.
The story in question poked fun at Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaiian Democrat, for grilling Judge Amy Coney Barrett about any sexual assaults she may have committed in the past.
The Bee piece’s headline, “Senator Hirono Demands ACB Be Weighed Against A Duck To See If She Is A Witch” referenced a classic Monty Python routine.
“Oh, she’s a witch alright, just look at her!” the Bee fictitiously quoted Hirono. “Just look at the way she’s dressed and how she’s so much prettier and smarter than us! She’s in league with Beelzebub himself, I just know it! We must burn her!”
The Bee satire triggered Facebook’s algorithms, a process that eventually gave way to a manual content review.
The story “incites violence,” and Facebook pulled the article from the Bee’s page on its own.
“We were told we would need to edit it or else we would remain in violation of their community standards,” Dillon says. “We appealed [the decision] and lost.”
So The Babylon Bee reached out to the media to amplify both the conflict and their side of the argument. Days later, Facebook changed its mind and apologized, noting the difference between satire and Fake News.
“It’s always a mistake,” Dillon says sarcastically. “They’re reaching, stretching to make us in violation of their community standards.”
Facebook’s cyber-bulling represents an existential threat to The Babylon Bee. A large portion of the site’s revenue comes from ads served on the main site. If Facebook were to prevent social media users from clicking on Bee stories shared on Facebook, it would be devastating.
“Fortunately, we’re not stupid. We’re not using all their monetization tools. It’s way too risky,” he says. “We’re doing all we can to generate revenue outside the Facebook ecosystem.”
Dillon is grateful to press outlets for amplifying their concerns about Facebook, but not every reporter is eager to do so. It’s typically right-of-center outlets like National Review and Fox News sharing their plight.
The mainstream media, in sharp contrast, ignores their struggles.
Reporters did rush to cover the Bee recently, but only after President Donald Trump shared a Bee satire, presumably thinking it was a true news item. That got the attention of sites like MSNBC, Vox, and others, Dillon says.
USA Today recently addressed the site’s mission in an “explainer” style story, but it noted the publication mocked Black Lives Matter as if that group should be untouchable to satirists.
The paper even activated its own fact-checkers after the Bee published this story: “Ninth Circuit Court Overturns Death Of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Otherwise, mainstream reporters look away from the Bee when social media slams the brakes on its satire.
The Babylon Bee is hardly the first website to poke fun at the news. The Onion’s satirical work dates back to 1988. That site routinely shreds the latest headlines, too, although from an increasingly left-of-center perspective.
Dillon has been researching his competitor to see if it ever runs afoul of social media giants. So far, he’s seen nothing remotely similar to his own site’s woes.
“Even world leaders get duped by Onion stories,” he notes, but reporters react with glee when it happens.
Not so with the Bee.
“You get these New York Times hit pieces [that say] we are capitalizing on confusion,” he says. “They put our motives in question. ‘Are they spreading disinformation on purpose?’”
Dillon says his company draws support from the creative community, albeit in modest ways. Think private messages from fellow artists offering moral support and law firms eager to have their legalistic back.
Prominent players like “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams and political gadfly Michael Malice also speak out on the Bee’s behalf, along with “disaffected liberals” like Dave Rubin.
It isn’t only Facebook that threatens the Bee’s ascent. Google previously flagged select Bee stories for violating its terms against hate speech, putting “strikes on our account,” he says. “That can put you in jeopardy of losing Google ads.”
Plus, Twitter suspended The Babylon Bee’s account in August “out of nowhere,” he says, claiming the company violated Twitter’s “spam and platform manipulation” policies.
“They said it was a mistake,” he says, noting the social media giant eventually restored the account.
“We did hear there were other conservative sites caught up in that spam filter. What kind of spam filter was that? What really happened?” he asks. “It’s one more mistake that affected us and not The Onion.”
For now, getting media coverage from conservative outlets is enough to prevent Facebook from censoring its content completely. That’s not possible for everyday Americans who lack the Bee’s clout.
The site has nearly 758,000 Twitter followers, half a million on Instagram, and more than 800,000 “likes” on Facebook.
“We’re just blessed to be in that position … so many people are just out of luck,” he says of social media suspensions. “I get people all the time messaging me. They’ve been suspended and put in Twitter jail. It’s over for them. How many people has this happened to?”
The situation puts a fresh light on next month’s presidential election.
Dillon says the Trump administration cares “very much about free speech and for conservatives to have a voice in the public discourse.”
“The Left tends to stamp out disagreement,” he adds, worrying the matter could get worse under a Biden administration.
“The progressive Left assuming more power is a serious threat to conservatives and free speech,” he says. “Look at that’s happening to the New York Post.”
The Manhattan tabloid remains blocked on Twitter for investigating Hunter Biden’s mysterious business ties, a story that has yet to be debunked in any fashion.
“The Right is much more willing to tolerate opposing opinions,” he says.
For now, The Babylon Bee will keep offering a counterpoint to modern comedy sans apology.
“We fill the void,” he says. “It’s kind of cool to be the one outlier. It’s healthy for society to have multiple outlets to give a different perspective. We need more of that.”