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For Political Cartoonists, the Irony Was That Facebook Didn’t Recognize Irony

SAN FRANCISCO — Since 2013, Matt Bors has made a living as a left-leaning cartoonist on the internet. His site, The Nib, runs cartoons from him and other contributors that regularly skewer right-wing movements and conservatives with political commentary steeped in irony.

One cartoon in December took aim at the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Mr. Bors titled it “Boys Will Be Boys” and depicted a recruitment where new Proud Boys were trained to be “stabby guys” and to “yell slurs at teenagers” while playing video games.

Days later, Facebook sent Mr. Bors a message saying that it had removed “Boys Will Be Boys” from his Facebook page for “advocating violence” and that he was on probation for violating its content policies.

It wasn’t the first time that Facebook had dinged him. Last year, the company briefly took down another Nib cartoon — an ironic critique of former President Donald J. Trump’s pandemic response, the substance of which supported wearing masks in public — for “spreading misinformation” about the coronavirus. Instagram, which Facebook owns, removed one of his sardonic antiviolence cartoons in 2019 because, the photo-sharing app said, it promoted violence.

Facebook barred Mr. Trump from posting on its site altogether after he incited a crowd that stormed the U.S. Capitol.

At the same time, misinformation researchers said, Facebook has had trouble identifying the slipperiest and subtlest of political content: satire. While satire and irony are common in everyday speech, the company’s artificial intelligence systems — and even its human moderators — can have difficulty distinguishing them. That’s because such discourse relies on nuance, implication, exaggeration and parody to make a point.

That means Facebook has sometimes misunderstood the intent of political cartoons, leading to takedowns. The company has acknowledged that some of the cartoons it expunged — including those from Mr. Bors — were removed by mistake and later reinstated them.

“If social media companies are going to take on the responsibility of finally regulating incitement, conspiracies and hate speech, then they are going to have to develop some literacy around satire,” Mr. Bors, 37, said in an interview.

accused Facebook and other internet platforms of suppressing only right-wing views.

In a statement, Facebook did not address whether it has trouble spotting satire. Instead, the company said it made room for satirical content — but only up to a point. Posts about hate groups and extremist content, it said, are allowed only if the posts clearly condemn or neutrally discuss them, because the risk for real-world harm is otherwise too great.

Facebook’s struggles to moderate content across its core social network, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp have been well documented. After Russians manipulated the platform before the 2016 presidential election by spreading inflammatory posts, the company recruited thousands of third-party moderators to prevent a recurrence. It also developed sophisticated algorithms to sift through content.

Facebook also created a process so that only verified buyers could purchase political ads, and instituted policies against hate speech to limit posts that contained anti-Semitic or white supremacist content.

Last year, Facebook said it had stopped more than 2.2 million political ad submissions that had not yet been verified and that targeted U.S. users. It also cracked down on the conspiracy group QAnon and the Proud Boys, removed vaccine misinformation, and displayed warnings on more than 150 million pieces of content viewed in the United States that third-party fact checkers debunked.

But satire kept popping up as a blind spot. In 2019 and 2020, Facebook often dealt with far-right misinformation sites that used “satire” claims to protect their presence on the platform, Mr. Brooking said. For example, The Babylon Bee, a right-leaning site, frequently trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.

whose independent work regularly appears in North American and European newspapers.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2019 that he would bar two congresswomen — critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — from visiting the country, Mr. Hall drew a cartoon showing a sign affixed to barbed wire that read, in German, “Jews are not welcome here.” He added a line of text addressing Mr. Netanyahu: “Hey Bibi, did you forget something?”

Mr. Hall said his intent was to draw an analogy between how Mr. Netanyahu was treating the U.S. representatives and Nazi Germany. Facebook took the cartoon down shortly after it was posted, saying it violated its standards on hate speech.

“If algorithms are making these decisions based solely upon words that pop up on a feed, then that is not a catalyst for fair or measured decisions when it comes to free speech,” Mr. Hall said.

Adam Zyglis, a nationally syndicated political cartoonist for The Buffalo News, was also caught in Facebook’s cross hairs.

paid memberships to The Nib and book sales on his personal site, he gets most of his traffic and new readership through Facebook and Instagram.

The takedowns, which have resulted in “strikes” against his Facebook page, could upend that. If he accumulates more strikes, his page could be erased, something that Mr. Bors said would cut 60 percent of his readership.

“Removing someone from social media can end their career these days, so you need a process that distinguishes incitement of violence from a satire of these very groups doing the incitement,” he said.

Mr. Bors said he had also heard from the Proud Boys. A group of them recently organized on the messaging chat app Telegram to mass-report his critical cartoons to Facebook for violating the site’s community standards, he said.

“You just wake up and find you’re in danger of being shut down because white nationalists were triggered by your comic,” he said

Facebook has sometimes recognized its errors and corrected them after he has made appeals, Mr. Bors said. But the back-and-forth and the potential for expulsion from the site have been frustrating and made him question his work, he said.

“Sometimes I do think about if a joke is worth it, or if it’s going to get us banned,” he said. “The problem with that is, where is the line on that kind of thinking? How will it affect my work in the long run?”

Cade Metz contributed reporting.

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The Night New York’s Theaters, Museums and Concert Halls Shut Down

March began with an ominous drumbeat. A packed cruise ship with a coronavirus outbreak was left floating for days off the coast of California. South by Southwest was canceled. The N.B.A. suspended its season. And then, on March 12, Broadway shut down, and with it every large gathering in New York City.

By the time the grates came down, it was not much of a surprise. The city that never sleeps was grinding to a halt.

But it was impossible to imagine what was to come. The staggering death toll. The vast job losses. The isolation. The endlessness.

That evening, a group of Broadway bigwigs — theater owners and producers, mostly — gathered to drown their sorrows at Sardi’s, the industry hangout famous for its celebrity caricatures. They noshed, they drank, they commiserated, and they hugged. Several of them wound up infected with the virus, although there were so many meetings, and so few masks at that point, who knows how they got it.

Six,” an eagerly anticipated new musical about the wives of King Henry VIII, Broadway shut down.

Harlem Public, near her apartment. Meanwhile, the show’s producer, Kevin McCollum, fresh off canceling an 800-person opening night party at Tao Downtown, hosted about 100 members of the show’s inner circle at the Glass House Tavern, a few doors down from the theater.

“Looking back, it was ridiculous that we did that, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we had a buffet of crudités, and a host of droplets, I’m sure,” he said. “We were in shock. There were people crying. We were giving it our best stiff upper lip, for the British, but we were emotionally devastated.”

Marseille. What was on the menu? “The sheer awfulness of being this close to a wonderful Broadway run.” Stiles has since put his “suitably regal” gold and black Dolce & Gabbana outfit “into very careful mothballs,” anticipating that there will yet be an opening night to celebrate. “We are very gung-ho,” he said, “and hopeful, fingers crossed, that it wont be too many months away.” MICHAEL PAULSON

Only about half of the people who bought tickets to the March 12 show at Mercury Lounge had turned up, but there were still throngs of people drinking, talking and grooving to the band. Debbie Harry of the band Blondie was there, and so was the music producer Hal Willner. He would die less than a month later from Covid-19.

Onstage, Michael C. Hall, the star of “Dexter” and lead singer of the glam rock band Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, belted and wailed into the microphone.

The staff members at Mercury Lounge knew they were watching their last live concert for a while; what “a while” meant, they had no idea. Bands had been canceling their appearances at an increasing rate, and on a call earlier that day, the owners had asked the staff members if they were still comfortable working, said Maggie Wrigley, a club manager. The line was silent for a moment, before one employee spoke up to say that no, it was no longer comfortable.

Gerhard Richter: Painting After All,” a survey of the stern and skeptical German artist, filling two floors of the landmark building and including loans from 30 different collections.

The exhibition, intended by the now 89-year-old artist to be his last major show, opened March 4. It had the makings of a blockbuster, and it ought to have introduced New York to four paintings called “Birkenau” (2014): streaked, abraded abstractions that obscure imagery of the titular death camp. On March 12, the show’s ninth day, Wagstaff realized it had to close.

At first the gravity of the crisis wasn’t fully clear. “I had every anticipation that it was going to reopen in May at the very latest,” Wagstaff said recently. But soon she realized that “Birkenau” — a culmination of Richter’s 60-year engagement with German history and the ethics of representation — would not find an audience. “Beyond a kind of personal huge disappointment, it was that the artist, so aware of his own mortality, was denied the possibility of actually making a mini-manifesto to the world. Alongside that was the curtailment of the Breuer. What we ended up with was this implosion.”

Richter never saw the show. A few days before it came down, Wagstaff stood alone with “Birkenau”: paintings about the possibility of perceiving history that, now, no one could perceive at all. “It was a kind of haunting experience,” she said. “They became almost anthropomorphic. They’re sitting there on the walls, and there’s nothing, there’s no one to witness them. The paintings are witnessing something, and that witnessing cannot be conveyed any further.”

By autumn, the Met had ceded occupancy of the Breuer to the Frick Collection. Most of Richter’s paintings had been crated up and shipped back to their lenders. Yet “Birkenau,” which belongs to the artist, stayed in New York. Wagstaff brought these most challenging works into the Met’s main building, introducing into the lavish Lehman Collection these four speechless acts of remembrance and horror. “It was a trace of the show. The viewing conditions weren’t perfect,” Wagstaff conceded. “We had really limited attendance; we still do. But people stayed in that room for a really long time. For those who came to see it, it was a revelation.” JASON FARAGO

By March 15, Broadway theaters and concert halls were empty, but in the dim light of the Comedy Cellar, audience members sat shoulder to shoulder sipping drinks and watching stand-up comedy. Masks were not required.

The comedian Carmen Lynch was hesitant about showing up that night: Her boyfriend was heading out of the city to stay with his family in Connecticut, and she planned to join him — it seemed like it was time to hunker down. But, Lynch said, she knew that the days of doing multiple shows in a single night were ending, and she wanted to make as much money as possible before the inevitable shutdown. She exchanged texts with fellow comedians to feel out who was still performing.

“I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything illegal. I’ll just do this one show and then leave,’” Lynch recalled.

So her boyfriend took her suitcase to Connecticut while she stayed to perform — one set at 7:45 p.m. another at 8:30. Before each comedian would walk onstage to tell jokes in front of the club’s famous exposed brick wall and stained glass, they would reach into a bucket to take a microphone that had been recently cleaned.

Just before Lynch went on, the comedian Lynne Koplitz took the stage, removed the sanitized microphone from the stand and theatrically wiped it down with a white cloth another time, saying, “I’ve wanted to do this for years!”

When Lynch finished her second set, she didn’t linger. She called an Uber and felt relieved when the driver accepted her request for an hour-and-a-half drive to Connecticut, not knowing how long she’d be gone (until summer) or what the city would be like when she returned (eerily empty, store windows boarded up).

She drove away, and in retrospect, she remembers it like a scene in a disaster movie. “It’s like you’re in the car,” she said, “and you turn around and there’s an explosion behind you.” JACOBS

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