In the last six months, the term “fake news” has become a staple of any political discussion, but fake news or hoax news has been happening for a few years. Its effect has been quite large. Countries across the globe point to Russia as a source of fake news and propaganda aimed at undermining democracy and democratic values, but it comes from other sources, many of them in the United States, as well. National Public Radio (NPR) did some investigation and located a fake news creator in California willing to have a conversation about his work and his intent.
So-called fake news has become so prevalent and people have proved so lacking in critical thinking skills that web giants Google and Facebook have made efforts to alert the public to questionable reporting. Both companies have excluded fake sites from using online advertising. Facebook joined with several fact-checking websites in a partnership designed to flag hoaxes and sham news. Google also joined with a trusted partner, Snopes.com, to provide context and origin for questionable pieces of reporting.
Reporters at NPR began their search with a single article: “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” Though the article was patently untrue and verifiably fabricated, Facebook users shared it more than half a million times. The story appeared o a website called the Denverguardian.com, but it was the only news story on the site.
A professional was brought in to help track down the owner of the site. John Jansen the head of engineering at Master-McNeil Inc., a tech company located in Berkeley, Calif, dug through the site and tracked the handle used by the author of the fake news story to a number of other websites. Eventually, he found an email and linked an address to the name of the user: Jestin Coler.
A reporter and a producer from NPR headed out to Coler’s home to find out about the fake news he was creating. When they initially approached the house, Coler sent them away, denying any part in the story and the website. But, later he changed his mind and set-up an interview time.
Unlike the theorized Russian hackers who were using fake news to destabilize Democrats during the election process, Coler began creating “fake news around 2013 to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right.” He tried to build sites that would be pulled into alt-right discussions and disseminated. Then, those stories could be publicly denounced as fiction.
He was surprised at the speed with which the news spread. As an example, Coler mentioned a story he wrote about customers in Colorado marijuana shops paying with food stamps. it became such a widespread narrative that a state representative in Colorado proposed literal legislation to prevent people from buying marijuana with food stamps.
The election caused a boom in fake news accounts. During this time, Coler and his writers tried to write fake news for liberals, but they never took the bait.
Yes, Coler has writers. He employs between 20 and 25 people to create fake news. One of them wrote the Denver Guardian story and the site received 1.6 million hits in ten days. More visits equal more money for Coler, who makes between $10,000 and $30,000 a month on advertising revenue.
But, Coler says he isn’t in it for the profit. He wants to demonstrate how quickly and how far fake news stories extended. Despite the crackdowns from Facebook and Google, he says there are hundreds of ad networks that are clamoring to buy time on his sites. He believes fake news will continue to grow because people are now aware of how profitable it can be.
Bio: Lynn Travers is a journalist and political science instructor. Her work has appeared in academic journals, weekly magazines, and political websites. She teaches her students how to spot fake news. She’s also advertising free rehab centers to homeless drug addicts to help them with their recovery.