The Babylon Bee is a major internet satire website and, since its launch in 2016, it has only grown in scope and reputation. I sat down with the site’s EIC, Kyle Mann, to ask about the Bee, its battles with the fact-checking website Snopes and the role of comedy in society. Here’s what we discussed.
How did you get involved with the Bee?
I basically was just emailing in submissions, and I did that on the first day the Babylon Bee launched, which was four years ago this March. I was working in construction, and I started emailing in headline ideas. They were good, and I guess they liked them and they kept publishing them. And then eventually, I was brought on part-time as the head writer. Finally, about two years ago, I managed to quit my job and take over the site, and I run it full-time now.
Can you tell me about the transition from a Christian satire site to one now known primarily for politics?
It’s a little bit of everything. We always had done politics – of the first couple of articles we published, about half were political, so it was always an intention for us to do Christian satire and then take the Christian worldview and apply it to politics and current events. But, in the beginning, most of our audience was built up of that core Christian crowd, and so those articles simply did much better in terms of readership and shares on social media. When we started too attract a wider audience through the 2016 election and beyond, those articles started to do better on the current events side.
In addition, we publish a lot more content now. So we still throw up a couple of Christian articles a day at least, but the ones that get shared more are the political ones and the current event ones. When people think of the Babylon Bee, they may tend to think of the political stuff because that’s what you’re seeing on your social media feed more often. In the beginning, we published two or three articles a day, and they would mostly be Christian. Now we publish five or six a day, and maybe two will be a more niche Christian joke. It’s kind of a natural result of expansion – we’re still doing Christian jokes and we still love doing them.
“It was always an intention for us to do Christian satire and then take the Christian worldview and apply it to politics and current events”.
You’re simply adapting to a changing social media landscape, and putting out articles that get shares?
Yes. The current events stuff is really what drives a lot of traffic. It’s kind of unfortunate, really – when you write a piece, it’s not like the old day – well, ten years ago – where you could write a blog post, knowing your readers would just come and read it. Now, you really have to think about what Facebook algorithms or Twitter trends are going to drive. Social media does shape content in many ways.
“You really have to think about what Facebook algorithms or Twitter trends are going to drive”.
What’s the process of writing a Babylon Bee article?
It depends on the piece – there’s lots of different ways. Ideas come from trying to approach a topic and hammering out lots of different angles. We have a good set of writers who pitch ideas and will play off of each other and collaborate. We have a weekly writers’ call where we talk about the topics of the week, what needs to be addressed, and we’ll flesh out some ideas that way. When you write comedy, you write a lot of waste – we probably throw out 500 headlines a week, and we publish 30. There’s a lot of iteration, collaboration and refining ideas to get down to a published headline.
You satirise both the political Left and Right – was it a conscious choice not to be partisan?
Yes, but I’ll say two things. I don’t think the site is perfectly balanced, where we target the Left and Right completely evenly, and I don’t think it should be balanced like that. Comedy needs to target whoever it wants to. For us, we’ve found a space where there’s not many satire sites targeting the Left, at least in the up-to-the-minute way that we do and in the format we do, and so the Left has become really ripe for comedy. And the same time, it’s very important to be able to write satire about your own side – we developed that discipline quite well in the beginning when we were writing so much about the Church. Satire can be quite outward and powerful, but it can also be introspective and powerful, and I think both of those elements are okay. If you can’t write satire about yourself, you probably don’t have any business writing satire on the other side.
Yeah, we do try and balance it out (although I won’t say it’s an even 50-50 split), but it all depends on what’s going on. Right now, we’ve got the Democratic primaries, and you had 20-30 candidates to make fun of, and there wasn’t as much going on on the Right. It depends on what we feel needs to be addressed.
“Satire can be quite outward and powerful, but it can also be instrospective and powerful”.
Why is there a space for conservative comedy?
For us, it was just the right time, and people hadn’t done it yet, though I think they are now. I think people on the Right are trying. Any political movement that starts to take itself very seriously is ready to be made fun of, and that’s why the Right has been the target of jokes for so long, and I think the Left has now taken up that mantle of being very serious and very zealous. Once that shift happened, and we jumped on it, it was like catching lighting in a bottle in terms of the timing.
A number of famous comedians, including Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, have won acclaim recently for joking about the Left and its ideologies, and it has been framed as a significant cultural backlash. Do you see this continuing in the future?
Yeah, I think it’s happening more and more, where you see people who are not conservatives by any stretch of the imagination and are not necessarily religious, but they push back against the woke and the very far-Left side that cannot abide any humour. It’s a political correctness movement that’s being pushed back against. I definitely think those big names, and guys like Jerry Seinfeld who have mentioned that they’re unable to talk on college campuses any more because of wokeness – these guys are not conservatives and they’re pushing back. I think it’s definitely the start of a bigger movement, and that’s how it feels.
It’s an exciting time to be in satire.
Absolutely, and it’s interesting that we have become friends with people that we disagree strongly with on issues political and theological, but you have this resistance that’s popping up on both sides where people say ‘we are for free speech and we are for the spread of ideas and we are for humour’, no matter where it’s coming from or where it’s targeted.
“It’s interesting that we have become friends with people that we disagree strongly with on issues political and theological”.
Your site has been the target of a number of Snopes fact-checks [articles including Democrats asking Brett Kavanaugh to ‘submit to a DNA test to prove he’s not actually Hitler’ and the suggestion that CNN bought a washing machine to literally spin news]. CNN also objected to the ‘disinformation’ of an article headlined ‘Democrats call for flags to be flown at half-mast to grieve death of Soleimani’, suggesting many people were genuinely fooled. What’s your reaction to this, and to fact-checking in general?
At first, you have to back up and ask do we need fact-checkers and, if we do, who’s the one to do the fact-checking, and that’s the heart of the issue here. You have these people who have set themselves up as independent fact-checkers, which is a meaningless term – there’s no such thing as an independent fact-checker, and yet they’ve set themselves up as these unbiased arbiters of what’s true and what’s false on the Internet, and that’s concerning right from the outset. You have people not doing normal investigative journalism, but rather taking any statement or joke and slapping a ‘true’ or ‘false’ label on it. That’s frightening when you want to talk about information on the internet, and it’s dystopian in some ways. Right from the outset, I’m sceptical of an outlet like Snopes that claims to be unbiased fact-checking.
At the same time, I get why some of our articles get fact-checked by those people. Satire runs the gamut from dry commentary that’s very close to the truth and a very slight exaggeration, all the way to wild, crazy, over-the-top stuff that no-one could possibly mistake for reality – it always has, and it’s never been a problem. At least, people on the Left have never really complained about that when they were controlling all the comedy outlets and when conservatives were being duped, or if the lie made a conservative look bad. Now the Babylon Bee is there, making jokes the other way, now it’s suddenly this concern about disinformation.
Really, it’s a wider problem that people just read headlines and don’t click on articles. I don’t think there’s a solution to that problem, and I don’t think that problem’s exclusive to satire. People read news headlines and misinterpret it, either because the headline is worded deceitfully or just because they’re too lazy to read through the details. That’s far more problematic than someone mistaking a joke for reality. If Snopes throws up a piece because a lot of people are being tricked by a Babylon Bee article, I understand why they’d do that. The real problem is when they paint us as intentionally spreading disinformation or trying to deceive people, as they have done in the past.
What next for the Babylon Bee?
The 2020 presidential election is obviously ripe for comedy, and it’s been a lot of fun with all the candidates, so we’ll see where that conversation goes in the coming months. We’d love to switch to things like video formats, and we’ve been looking at that since the beginning. We recently launched a podcast, and we’re looking at doing more satirical content by way of podcasting and videos. It’s just growing so rapidly at this point that it’s fun to see what that will enable us to do in the future.