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A million Facebook users watched a video that blurs the line between bad satire and ‘fake news’

New York Congressional Candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Endorses NY Attorney General Canidate Zephyr Teachout Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A conservative news outlet spliced together a “satirical” interview with Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, published it on Facebook without noting it was satire, and racked up over a million views in less than 24 hours — many from people who appear convinced it’s real. The video is fake, and for the people who are taking it seriously, it’s news. But it’s not “fake news,” and it shows just how confounding talking about misinformation has gotten.

Yesterday, Conservative Review network CRTV posted a video that remixed out-of-context clips of a PBS Firing Line interview with Ocasio-Cortez, alternating them with staged questions from CRTV host Allie Stuckey. In the fake interview, Ocasio-Cortez sheepishly shakes her head when Stuckey asks if she understands anything about politics, and she appears to think Venezuela is in the Middle East. CRTV’s website describes the piece as a “satirical sit-down” with the candidate. But on Facebook, it just said that Stuckey had grilled Ocasio-Cortez about her “socialist agenda and knowledge of government... or lack thereof,” with a winking smile emoji at the end.

The result was a bunch of angry comments about Ocasio-Cortez’s alleged stupidity, calling her a “complete moron” or “dumb as a box of snakes.” Stuckey later added a postscript: “Yes, this is satire created from excerpts of the viral Firing Line interview with Ocasio-Cortez.” But Ocasio-Cortez criticized the video via Twitter after New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher pointed it out, saying that “Republicans are so scared of me that they’re faking videos and presenting them as real on Facebook.” (Stuckey fired back, saying that “girl — it was a clear joke, not a ‘fake’ video.”)

Some internet users will inevitably believe even the most obvious parody, especially when it plays to political sentiments. That’s how a Twitter jokester can accidentally convince high-profile Trump opponents that the president is obsessed with an imaginary “gorilla channel.” But the framing here is particularly clumsy, because Stuckey’s page (and CRTV in general) isn’t primarily satirical, though the channel has posted satirical videos before. A user who clicks through will see serious videos, including interviews, alongside the Ocasio-Cortez satire. And while the clips aren’t spliced all that realistically, it’s not clear that this is intentional. Without the disclaimer, it’s indistinguishable from an awkward attempt at smearing a political opponent.

That distinction matters to Facebook, which protects satire while demoting (but not deleting) “false news” in the News Feed. Facebook reiterated to The Verge that “we do offer satire on Facebook, as long as it’s not violating one of our community standards policies,” like hate speech. The call is left to Facebook’s fact-checkers, who can add written context or a “satire” label if a post is sufficiently confusing — one might have been added to CRTV’s post if they hadn’t added a disclaimer. (We don’t know whether CRTV was contacted by Facebook about the post, although we’ve reached out for clarification.)

But Facebook has acknowledged that “satire” can also be a bad-faith cover for serious misinformation attempts, and the distinction basically boils down to a poster’s intentions, which are irrelevant for people who are simply scrolling down the News Feed. Infowars founder Alex Jones has called himself a performance artist playing a character, and it’s not a leap to imagine Infowars or others making “satirical” conspiracy videos attacking school shooting survivors and claiming Facebook can’t censure them.

In a larger sense, though, it’s not clear how much these definitions even matter. As mentioned earlier, Facebook doesn’t generally remove misinformation, and interviews with CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggest it’s committed to that position. It’s more concerned about accounts that aren’t “authentic,” especially those created by foreign agents to sow political dissent. The entire system of feed-scrolling on social media encourages people to casually consume media without checking its original context. And no force on Earth, including Facebook, can save us from the clutches of bad comedy.