Social Networking

Facebook Adds Training Wheels for the Humor-Impaired

Facebook has begun labeling some of the satirical news articles that appear in users’ news feeds with a tag designed to prevent readers from mistaking the content for genuine news.

Originally discovered by Ars Technica, the social network’s “[Satire]” tag is apparently part of an experiment that’s been under way for a month or so.

“We are running a small test which shows the text ‘[Satire]’ in front of links to satirical articles in the related articles unit in News Feed,” Facebook said in a statement provided by company representative Eva Grzesik to TechNewsWorld. “This is because we received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units.”

The tag originally was observed in the “related articles” box associated with stories from the Onion, but the rules for its application don’t seem to be entirely clear. Original posts on friends’ feeds don’t appear to warrant the tag, nor do the Onion’s own official Facebook page or articles from Clickhole, the Onion’s new sibling site, Ars Technica reported.

Facebook declined to provide further details.

‘Like Moths to a Flame’

“Folks that mistakenly read and forward satire are embarrassed in front of their friends, and some of those embarrassed people have been folks in power that had no sense of humor,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.

“I expect one or two may have given Facebook a ‘fix it or else’ call, and this is in response to that,” he said.

A prime example is the Onion’s article purportedly declaring North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un the “sexiest man alive” for 2012, Enderle noted.

That “embarrassed so many in North Korea,” he said.

North Korea, in fact, “seems to attract these things like moths to a flame,” Enderle added, pointing to an example from earlier this year purporting that North Korea had landed the first man on the Sun.

“Facebook is recognizing that when it comes to retaliation, some of these guys can be a bit draconian,” he concluded. The company is “rightly concerned that if they embarrass the wrong person, the response could physically dangerous to Zuckerberg. They are moving, albeit poorly, to mitigate that risk.”

‘Complicit in Reporting Rumor’

The very idea that Facebook would do something like this is “almost something out of the Onion itself,” Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

It’s not uncommon for sites such as Literally Unbelievable to chronicle occasions on which Facebook users have taken Onion articles at face value, King pointed out.

At the same time, it’s been shown that a considerable number of younger consumers identify The Daily Show as a primary news source, he added.

“That’s clearly focused on satire and humor, though with a more realistic edge that what the Onion is doing,” he said.

Then, too, there’s the degree to which many mainstream news sources have become “complicit in reporting rumor as if it were fact,” King added.

‘The Equivalent of Training Wheels’

“It’s an interesting issue, because it brings up the question of how Facebook will control itself,” he explained. “If you’re going to label stories from the Onion as satire, why not take a closer look at Fox News or CNN or any other site?

“I swear, on a weekly basis I see pieces being reported as honest news-gathering that seem more like editorial opinion pieces to me,” he said.

In short, “maybe it’s what you’d call an interesting evolutionary step for life on the Internet,” King concluded — “that a side effect of having access to almost unlimited information is that people are needing the equivalent of training wheels in order to discern what is humor and what is not.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

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