It’s a situation so funny that a growing number of ostracized comics forgot to laugh: Conservative-leaning material, they say, is increasingly subject to arbitrary online censorship by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media giants — treatment that appears to have no other explanation except the targets’ bucking of leftist orthodoxy.
Openly conservative stand-up Nick Di Paolo got suspended from YouTube for supposedly sharing false information, after ridiculing the left’s exaggerations of the virus in attacking President Trump. Comedian Chrissie Mayr’s video mocking China’s handling of COVID-19 — “Kung Flu Fighting” — was erased by Instagram, which deemed it “hate speech” despite featuring a diverse lineup of comics. The Babylon Bee, the right’s online answer to the satirical site The Onion, has been at war with Facebook for years. The social media giant intermittently threatens to de-platform the site for spoof articles that moderators apparently take seriously, such as its 2018 report that CNN had purchased industrial-sized washing machines to better “spin” the news.
Online censorship threats are a bread-and-butter concern for comedians because their economic dependence on social media has only increased as many stand-up clubs remain shuttered due to the pandemic and TV gigs remain a distant dream. For them, online business is the bottom line. Although most cancellations and de-platformings are temporary, and some might even convey a career-boosting notoriety, comics complain that their progressive colleagues are almost never policed, even for far more inflammatory content.
Sarah Silverman, for example, suffered no official blowback for this Feb. 11, 2019, tweet in response to one by President Trump:
“No point in explaining how mind blowingly stupid this tweet is so I’m just gonna go with F*** YOU, and also add that you are a smelly penis hole with balls that touch water. Eat s***, you greedy t***.”
Kathy Griffin lost her CNN New Year’s Eve gig after sharing an image of her holding a prop of President Trump’s decapitated head in 2017, but social media censors were far less severe. “Seinfeld” writer Larry Charles shared the grisly image two days after the 2020 election, praising Griffin’s courage for creating it. Griffin retweeted the message with a thank-you note.
Both tweets remain visible on the platform without any brushback from Twitter’s “community guidelines” team.
Comic actress and singer Bette Midler’s Twitter account routinely flirts with sexist, racist and xenophobic wisecracks without any punishment. She has even suggested political violence: “Where’s Rand Paul’s neighbor when you need him?” she tweeted in 2018, referring to the attacker whose suburban yard assault punctured the Kentucky senator’s lung and cracked six of his ribs.
Keri Smith, co-host of the “Unsafe Space” podcast, a booker for progressive comics before disavowing woke culture, says the only complaints about censorship she hears are from comics who don’t toe progressives’ social-justice line.
“I can’t think of any comics on the left who face something similar,” Smith says.
Contacted for this article, major social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, declined to comment.
YouTube said Di Paolo was suspended for denying the existence of COVID-19, but he said he had only questioned its severity and requirements to wear masks.
The restrictions are happening as Big Tech purges right-of-center voices across the digital landscape — Donald Trump’s and those of numerous others.
Most comics interviewed for this article acknowledged the need for platforms to have some rules regarding content. But all were frustrated about a lack of transparency and clarity in applying those rules.
A case in point is comedian Ryan Long. He has attracted more than 3.4 million views on YouTube for his skit jabbing at political correctness, “When Wokes and Racists Actually Agree on Everything,” in which two white, polar-opposite characters find common ground with: “Your racial identity is the most important thing” and “Minorities are a united group who think the same and act the same and vote the same.”
But that escaped sanction while TikTok and Instagram instead removed a different video of his, in which women respond in politically incorrect ways to various news headlines, including “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror.” Response: “The last time I checked, terrorists are Mus— white men,” the speaker says, catching herself before saying Muslims.
“I really don’t know how censorship on these platforms works,” a puzzled Long says. “They don’t tell you, so it’s hard to say what happened.”
Social media platforms typically rely on “community guidelines” (for example, here, here and here) to dictate what’s allowed on their sites. Instagram says its “global team” reviews posts reported for violations to see if the imagery or associated captions run afoul of the rules.
Comedian JP Sears, who routinely pokes fun at “cancel culture” and what he considers extreme coronavirus lockdown measures, joked in a faux apology to Facebook, “I now realize that speaking truth and empowering people is a direct violation of its community guidelines.”
Seth Dillon, CEO of the Babylon Bee, understands why Big Tech platforms try to “mitigate the spread of misinformation.” But he said his website is clearly not trying to fool people with stories such as:
“Satire doesn’t have the intent of misleading people. … It’s communicating truth through satire,” Dillon says.
Nevertheless, Facebook demonetized the Bee’s business page in October, leaving it unable to collect fees for subscriptions or virtual events, because of an article that riffed on a classic bit from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
“Senator Hirono Demands ACB Be Weighed Against A Duck To See If She Is A Witch,” the story’s headline read, using ACB to refer to Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Facebook claimed the article incited violence, and maintained that position after a moderator review. But it eventually reversed course, Dillon says, after the situation drew the media’s attention. The site capped the affair with this headline: “Finally: Facebook Will Now Require Its Content Moderators To Watch ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail’”
“They’re really stretching to make conservatives in violation of their community standards,” Dillon says.
Dillon said the Bee’s left-leaning precursor, The Onion, is treated differently. He said one reason is that left-leaning media outlets pressure Big Tech to clamp down on conservatives.
The Onion declined to comment.
Reporters like CNN’s Brian Stelter and Donie O’Sullivan, who has retweeted Onion stories, claim the Bee’s faux reportage is meant to trick readers, not just make them smile.
CNN declined to comment.
Snopes.com and USA Today have also fact-checked Bee stories, ramping up the pressure on platforms like Facebook to censor its content. USA Today, for example, found “no basis in fact” to a Bee report that the long-liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Dillon said the media and fact-checkers are “working in concert with each other to control the flow of information. It’s very obvious that’s what’s happening.”
Comedy isn’t meant to share hard truths that withstand rigorous fact checks. Satirists use creative license to exaggerate and otherwise blur the line between truth and fiction to make salient points.
Jon Stewart famously tussled with CNN’s “Crossfire” debate show in 2004, using his comedian status on “Comedy Central” to defend himself: “You’re on CNN. The show leading into me is puppets making crank phone calls. What is wrong with you?”
But the pronouncements of politicized liberal comics such as Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, and programs such as “Saturday Night Live,” are regularly treated as newsworthy on left-leaning news sites from the New York Times to the Daily Beast — even as many complain they have ceased to be funny. Commentator Joseph Epstein wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2018 that “to have taken what I think of as the Trumpian option in their comedy has rendered these comedians charmless while strikingly limiting their audiences to those who share their politics.”
Right-leaning comedian Tim Dillon told “The Megyn Kelly Show” podcast on Feb. 4 that he isn’t sure what might run afoul of so-called “community guidelines.”
“I don’t know what’s coming down the pike, and it is terrifying for anybody whose career primarily exists online,” says Dillon, who is less ideologically rigid than, say, Colbert. “I try to just be funny, but is that going to be a defense?”
Dillon, whose rise has been chiefly through his online presence, brought up the shifting rules regarding what’s currently acceptable in mainstream comedy.
“It terrifies me that a joke I make could be taken the wrong way and I could lose [my career],” he told Kelly.
Comic producer, writer and stand-up Michael Loftus, like many comedians, uses Facebook to share news of upcoming gigs and make followers laugh. The right-leaning Loftus says his Facebook Business page reached roughly 5 million people in August.
“Then I honestly don’t know what happened. They just dialed me down,” says Loftus, who adds he’s no longer able to advertise or boost a post on Facebook. “A post that used to reach literally millions of people was dialed down to the tens of thousands and thousands.”
He reached out to Facebook for answers but came away frustrated.
“It’s bureaucracy at its finest. You can’t get a hold of anyone at Facebook. They’ve made it nearly impossible,” he says. He sees similar problems plaguing his YouTube account.
Comedy norms undoubtedly evolve over time. Lenny Bruce saw the inside of more than a few jail cells while pushing the rules of what’s permissible to say on stage.
But even though today’s censored comics don’t face arrest, they carry Bruce’s subversive torch in a climate that makes it harder to share their full sense of humor, let alone score a seat on “The Late Show” couch.
Comic maestro Mel Brooks has admitted that he couldn’t make 1974′s “Blazing Saddles” today given its repeated use of the “n-word,” among other jokes, even though the film belittled racism.
Smith, the “Unsafe Space” co-host, says the restrictions on comedy are getting worse. “Since June of this past year it’s accelerated even further. It’s a microcosm of what’s we’re seeing in the culture at large.”
“It’s crazy to think it’s happening to comedians,” she adds. “They’re supposed to push the envelope, poke fun at things that are off limits and sacred. It reveals truth through humor.”
Particularly alarming to her is the Justice Department’s case against meme artist Douglass Mackey, known online as “Ricky Vaughn.”
In January, Mackey was arrested in Florida and faces up to 10 years in jail on federal charges that in 2016 he used “various social media platforms to disseminate misinformation designed to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.”
“It’s not hyperbole to say they’re trying to convict him of memeing,” Smith says of his farcical posts.
Mackey posted memes asking people to vote via text message for Hillary Clinton. Smith says one of her former clients, “social justice” comic Kristina Wong, tweeted very similar advice during the 2016 election.
“It’s an obvious joke, just like with Ricky Vaughn, but you don’t see federal charges against her,” she says.
Nick Di Paolo’s manager, Tommy Nicchi, says the comedian’s YouTube channel has periodically run afoul of the platform’s censors, but the two sides had an amicable working relationship until recently, with appeals routinely resolved within a few days.
The current ban means Di Paolo’s podcast episodes haven’t appeared on YouTube for months, cratering his channel’s revenue. Nicchi says the channel’s January earnings sank 88% compared with September’s, though he declined to describe the drop in dollar terms.
Di Paolo’s manager says his client isn’t changing his approach or content, but he is sharing it on different platforms like Gab, Bitchute and Rumble, a new YouTube alternative, and Di Paolo’s and other comics’ own platform, TheComicsGym.com.
“Nick Di Paolo is not inciting a riot at the Capitol. He’s not hate speech. He’s a stand-up comedian,” he says.
Tim Dillon pointed out a possible alternative, one built by people who don’t agree with the need to censor select thoughts.
“There is a group of people that do not want this in [Big Tech],” Dillon told Kelly. “They understand freedom, know that people need freedom of expression. … I’m hoping there is some type of pushback against this. I just don’t how successful it will be.”