Why satire must stay on social media

Posted on February 19, 2016

 

Even the occasional user of Facebook will know that it’s difficult to be fond of everything you see on there, and the social media site often seems to have a warped idea of what is and isn’t acceptable. Earlier this week though, it briefly managed to reach hitherto unknown levels of randomness when it took down a comedy page with nearly half a million ‘likes’, run by a 37-year-old publication.

Viz
Photo credit: socialbarrel.com

On Tuesday, Facebook accused Viz Comic of failing to “follow the Facebook Terms and Community Standards” and therefore suspended the page, or “unpublished” it, to use Facebook’s preferred and rather frighteningly Orwellian terminology.

Helpfully, Facebook advised Viz to remove any violating content that was on the page before appealing, although it refused to tell Viz what the offending content was in the first place. This left Viz with the poser of guessing what exactly had upset Facebook, aware that getting this wrong could result in permanent deletion – a scenario that could only be given more gravity if narrated by Chris Tarrant with the ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ music playing in the background.

Not exactly ones to grovel apologetically, Viz headed over to Twitter and did what it does best – made fun of Facebook.

For those not familiar with Viz, it’s an adult comic that was established in 1979. In format it’s similar to kids’ favourites of the time like The Beano and The Dandy, but in content it’s not very child-friendly at all, tackling themes like sexism, racism, violence and anything else that falls into the bracket of ‘political incorrectness’.

The aggressive humour might not be to everybody’s taste, but Viz is undisputedly an example of a longstanding publication that’s made a tidy transition onto the internet and social media. In particular, the magazine’s ‘Top Tips’, in which wisecracks and deliberately dimwitted suggestions are shared in a parody of the genuine advice columns you see in some magazines, have proved to be particularly sharable, with many of them even fitting into Twitter’s 140-character tweet limit.

Just 24 hours after Viz’s Facebook page was “unpublished”, Facebook reinstated the page and apologised, admitting that it had been “removed in error”, but what’s causing Facebook to be so trigger-happy in its suspensions only to then perform these U-turns?

The crux of context

Where Facebook appears to be missing the beat is that it’s adopting a robotic approach to deciding what is and isn’t acceptable content, focusing entirely on words and not at all on context. It seems to have a Mary Whitehouse-style aversion to ‘naughty words’, yet doesn’t seem interested in how they’re being said or who they are aimed at. Once a degree of human thought is put into it, Facebook seems to realise it got it wrong and has wasted its own time, as well as everybody else’s.

Viz is clearly a satirical site with an intended readership, and isn’t trying to trick anyone. Contrast this with the page of Britain First, a minor far-right political party that boasts far more Facebook followers than any other UK political party, which regularly projects its extreme views on unsuspecting Facebook users.

Crucially, Britain First avoids swearing (as far as I know, I’m not wading through months of the party’s Facebook drivel to find out) and that seems to be all Facebook is interested in. It doesn’t seem concerned that the page uses images of murdered soldier Lee Rigby to support its inflammatory bile even though his family has asked it not to, nor that it hoodwinks people into sharing memes about supporting the army and respecting Remembrance Day, not realising that they’re promoting a party known to antagonise Muslims by tipping beer outside mosques and distributing Bibles within them, and that this week had its leader and deputy leader arrested.

Savour satire

As we’ve discussed before, it’s quite alright to set up a parody site of a business or organisation, provided you make it clear that what you’re doing is a parody (Britain First actually has one, and it’s much more worth following than the real one!). At Engage Web, we believe satire to be very important, and a very valid form of criticism that no business or organisation should ignore. With the word ‘satire’ being of Latin origin, it was used by both the Romans and Greeks and remains as valuable today as it was then – when Greek satirist Aristophanes fought censorship from the political leader Cleon. It should be cherished, and only those who are dishonest in what they are projecting should be censored.

I don’t actually think the Britain First Facebook Page should be banned – the party would only play the martyr by whining about ‘discrimination’ and suchlike, and I prefer to take the Louis Theroux approach of letting fools talk themselves into a corner – but I think they should have to make it more obvious who they are and what they’re doing, because people are falling for it. Call me naïve, but I have enough faith in humanity to doubt that 1,297,837 people actually ‘like’ Britain First and I hope that many of them have, instead, been duped into liking it based on the misleading content it has shared.

So, here’s a challenge to Facebook – sort out the real bad eggs! Whether it’s Britain First or hoax pages masquerading as the likes of Thomson Holidays, you’re not doing enough to stop the people using your site to mislead unsuspecting people for their own ends. As far as satire goes, you don’t seem to get it, so leave it to the grown-ups, eh?

John Murray

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