I’ve Been Making Viral Fake News for the Last Six Months. It’s Way Too Easy to Dupe the Right on the Internet.
At first, I created fake news stories stories that were meant to be head-turning: Hillary sold passport-making machines directly to ISIS. Obama won’t say the words “Radical Islam” because it would break an Islamic Spell he thinks he is protected by. I did an exposé on the reason the Clintons were immune to prosecution. It was, I wrote on my website RealTrueNews.org, because they were sovereign citizens and therefore immune to the justice system.
It was silly and no one paid much attention to it.
At least that’s what I thought.
I didn’t know about Before It’s News or the ecosystem of YouTube conspiracy theorists when I wrote an “anonymous interview” with someone “inside” 538’s headquarters. This interview had a source saying what “everyone knew”—that people paid for polls as a psychological tool and that Nate Silver was in trouble because the “real polls” showed Trump winning in a landslide. This was on Aug. 2 and, at the time, Trump was tanking in the polls prior to the conventions.
By that time I had a stats program up showing my traffic and I saw a huge spike—where was it coming from? Two YouTube videos, watched hundreds of thousands of times. And a vast number of conspiracy sites that copied the various explanations, all of which linked back to my page. Seeing my dialogue and screenshots come out of the mouths of people solemnly reading them was a thrill—but it was also scary.
These people believe this.
And then: Of course they believe it—they’ve been told to believe it. Why wouldn’t they? Smart, reasonable people got caught up in poll-unskewing in 2012. The mix of political desperation and absolute faith in a liberal media conspiracy was a toxic cocktail that meant anything could be a lie—especially if it was good news for liberals.
Never mind the humorous beats, like Nate Silver, frustrated with Trump’s dominance was going to throw himself out a window—literally. Never mind that this conversation was absolutely unsourced, that RealTrueNews was run by a guy calling himself, literally, “Max Insider.”
Never mind any of that. Here was proof the polls were faked.
At that point I started creating other characters. I created #NeverEVERHillary, a 20-something young woman who wanted Bernie Sanders to give her a $100,000-per-year job blogging about the revolution and was certain she deserved it. She mocked ridiculous Huffington Post Sanders booster H.A. Goodman, writing that she believed him entirely and made a fool of herself. I created Projekt Pyramid, a totally mysterious entity that exposed the catastrophic secrets of the DEEP STATE.
During this phase I took a few requests. A friend sent me a meme asking why Obama didn’t light the White House blue after the police killings, but did light it in rainbow colors for gay marriage. I did a story saying the White House was lit in blue to celebrate police killings and conservatives were outraged. My friend loved it, but didn’t have the guts to post it to Facebook.
RealTrueNews’ second brush with fame came a week later with a story entitled “Clinton Collapse: Insiders Say May Drop ‘Soon.’” This story featured a DNC technological “war room” where the Clinton forces were in chaos because her support was collapsing. This was when guys like conservative talk show host Bill Mitchell—who did, in fact, write in to RealTrueNews at one point to discuss a mention of his name—was saying that Hillary’s lack of support on Twitter meant she was losing.
The story had the all-purpose anonymous insider saying that attacks calling Trump “racist” had failed. That Hillary was buying followers—but all of Trump’s were legit. (Studies show this is not true. A lot of Trump’s supporters are bots.) It also touched on concerns about her health and hypothesized that, unable to participate in a debate, they would stage a Black Lives Matter "riot" or maybe a terrorist attack to stop them from happening.
This was breathlessly repeated all over the place and then Hillary did collapse. From pneumonia and dehydration, she appeared to pass out while getting into a van. Suddenly, the Clinton Collapse terminology, some fortuitous alliteration, went nuclear.
The hits lit up. I was partially aghast, but also partially gratified. It was bullshit, but it was consumed as absolute truth.
The fact-check section was popular for search engines, so I did one asking if Trump was a “Russian Stooge.” (False, it declared, of course.) I was gratified when, in the article, I gave him a code-name claiming it meant Golden Lion in Russian. I used Google Translate to translate “Ugly Hair,” and a Russian Trump supporter wrote in to correct me.
I wrote one of the two articles I’ve redacted around then too. When the right was agonizing over Evan McMullin throwing his hat in the ring, I wrote up a story Photoshopping a Clinton Foundation document to make it look like he received money as part of the White Horse Initiative—a mythical Clinton Foundation program using actual Mormon prophecy about saving the United States. Later, when a bunch of hits started coming in, I put a retraction at the top and blamed Jill Stein for the misinformation.
Following the Wisconsin primary, I had a story out that morning suggesting Paul Ryan’s opponent Paul Nehlen had actually won the vote—but had it stolen from him by Democrats wanting to test their election stealing software, called “DemVotesMatter,” against a Trump-like opponent.
This was picked up the next morning when one of the guys behind the (excellent) Decision Desk team asked if anyone had a “the election was stolen” take from last night and Andrew Stiles of NewsCorp-owned Heat Street told him, on Twitter, RealTrueNews is On It.
It took everything I had not to come clean right then—but I was thrilled. It got even better when Wonkette wrote a story making fun of RealTrueNews, the idiots who believed the election was stolen. Not realizing it was satire would become a theme. They also said in the article they’d probably never write about RealTrueNews again. That turned out to be false, although they didn’t attribute the follow up to RTN.
But the huge breakthrough came with the Public Policy Polling memo. When PPP released a poll showing a major Clinton lead in Florida, I downloaded their PDF, turned it into a Word document and edited it. Heavily.
All the polling mythology went into it. Trump was up by huge numbers. The more corrupt Hillary was, the more Democrats loved her, and so on. It was absurd. The spelling was iffy—I save time by not editing anything—but it had a section in it where the author, at wit’s end, complains about college pollsters, like Quinnipiac’s co-eds and Monmouth’s “Bernie-Grade Weed.”
It went super-viral. One of the most accidentally brilliant things I did was set up a Scribd document-sharing account. I had seen legal docs and such posted there so that was what I did. I could have hosted it natively—but it seemed more “authentic” to put it on the site and post a link.
What I didn’t realize was that people could and did find the Scribd document without going to RealTrueNews first—or, often, at all. This accidentally enhanced its credibility because it didn’t come from a clearly bogus website.
For their part, PPP took it fantastically well, mocking people with their signature Twitter-wit and steadfastly refusing to disavow the obviously faked document to the anger of conservative detractors. When polling director Tom Jensen mentioned the memo in a podcast, I almost jumped out of my seat.
To be clear: They were amazingly good sports about this, even if I made their days a lot harder and brought even more internet wrath down on them than normal. When I did the same thing later with Monmouth it was, unfortunately, completely different.
One of my proudest moments with the memo was a Daily Kos article written by the site’s founder Markos Moulitsas himself, asking whether the faked memo was a pathetic right-wing attempt at propaganda or a brilliant left-wing forgery. I couldn’t break character to tell him it was the latter—but I was proud to see the online poll asking that question was close to 50-50.
As I understand it, a lot of people took Jonathan Swift seriously too.
The faked Monmouth poll actually upset them. I got a complaint to the website and was asked to remove their name from the page. I did, but the document was already out in the wild, as were ubiquitous screen caps of the front page.
I owe those guys a box of chocolates or something. I wouldn’t do it again. On the plus side, though, it got RTN written up by David Weigel of The Washington Post.
In the article he writes that: “The ‘memo’ itself is nearly a parody of conspiracy theorizing about what goes on in the media and elite institutions.”
Despite a WaPo story pinned to the top of Monmouth’s page, people still believe it to this day.
There was more. The biggest breakout I had came when a Vice reporter, Michael Tracey, was holding forth on Twitter in the wake of the Podesta Email leaks. He was speaking about the Goldman Sachs transcripts—and I had one.
I had written up a fake Goldman Sachs transcript days before, wherein Hillary Clinton is preparing a run for president and is speaking to the board of directors in 2014 about the coming threat to Wall Street and Washington power. That threat? Bronies, adult male fans of the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. She has to explain this “Bronie Threat” to them and, in the process, describes a group of internet denizens she calls a “bucket of losers.”
When I tweeted the link and an image of some of the text at Tracey, I did it because I find him to be something of a self-important git and wanted to poke fun at him. I didn’t know at the time that there were Goldman Sachs transcript fragments in the WikiLeaks release.
The tweet went super-viral. It started an almost trending—but still going today—hashtag #bucketoflosers. A tweet declaring it a bad forgery was picked up by Malcolm Nance, an intelligence analyst for MSNBC among others, who tweeted to be wary of the WikiLeaks release.
Tracey, appalled by what he saw as casting doubt on the noble truth of WikiLeaks, declared me a possibly paid propagandist in Hillary’s employ. The two-minute Internet Hate was turned on me.
Now, I wasn’t recognized as the creator of the document, and I had never said it was from WikiLeaks, nor did the RTN article mention WikiLeaks. But by the end of that night, I saw a note that Megyn Kelly had just apologized for reading it on the air.
My blood froze. That was not a good feeling. I went desperately looking for a video and I found one. She was talking to 4 people about the leaks and, while 90 percent of her discussion was on the actual WikiLeaks, she at one point awkwardly stated that it appeared Hillary had referred to Sanders supporters as a “Bucket of Losers.”
I was stunned. I found a clip of her retraction later saying that was false—but not divorcing the statement from WikiLeaks. Howard Kurtz apparently also read the “bucket of losers” tag on the air and didn’t retract.
That, plus the Nance tweet, had some impact on the WikiLeaks reception. This was entirely unintentional, but Russia’s state-sponsored news agency Sputnik, of course, saw a conspiracy. A hilarious conspiracy:
That did not stop Nance, who with a firm intelligence background should have been able to easily spot the fake with “(chaos)” actually written in the side bar and “((makes air quotes))” written before the “bucket of losers” piece in the completely comical so-called transcript, from referencing the document and saying: “Official Warning: #PodestaEmails are already proving to be riddled with obvious forgeries & #blackpropaganda not even professionally done.”
After Megyn Kelly pushed the false narrative and then apologized on air, another more establishment FoxNews personality Howard Kurtz also referenced the “bucket of losers” statement from the grotesquely comical fake transcript that has nothing to do with WikiLeaks whatsoever and claimed it was from the WikiLeaks document release which, again, a five second typing in the whistleblower’s search box would tell you immediately otherwise in what no doubt tees up Clinton to claim it’s all a fraud at the debate.
Grotesquely comical? I guess I’ll take that coming from Russia.
Some of the stories took a whole lot of effort for very little immediate payoff.
For one, I found out that Correct The Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC that intends to “correct the record on Hillary” on Reddit and Twitter had a Slack chatroom—but it was CorrectRecord. CorrectTheRecord wasn’t taken.
So I took it. I signed up a bunch of users, created 4 personalities, and had a chat about hunting and (maybe) killing meme thought-leaders on 4chan and Reddit. I had been looking in the public financials for a pay-out to something that looked shady and I didn’t find anything—but I wound up using first-initial/last names of real people who were paid by Correct The Record and people were able to figure it out.
I also had the analysts arguing about not wanting more lunch from We The Pizza, a real pizza place from which Correct The Record had frequently ordered. When internet sleuths googled We The Pizza, they were stunned to discover it was a real place in the middle of Washington, D.C.—just down the street from CTR’s offices!
To 4chan, this was all the proof some users needed.
Another CTR “document” went super viral when I created a how-to-troll memo that had specific insults to be hurled at Trump supporters. This included “poll flogging”—which I thought was a clearly obvious euphemism—but I didn’t see anyone call it out—wherein CTR paid trolls would “fling” polls at Trumpsters showing him losing in order to demoralize them.
This caught fire and people felt that “HEY! That happened to ME! It must be paid trolling.”
It’s not paid trolling. It’s just people who disagree with you on the internet.
At the end of the day, did this change anything? I don’t know. I think I inadvertently hurt WikiLeaks, which I’m not proud of—but I’m not too sorry about either. I suspect that some people came to realize that they were believing in fake things.
For people who are desperate, however, believing in grand master plans to bring them down—no matter how obviously fake they immediately appear to be—is almost a necessity.
For moderates, I think it’s a bit easier to avoid pitfalls: The mainstream news may not always be accurate on everything but there is a lot of it and they get the main points right. For conservatives there is no trusted media. There are only trusted positions.
Breitbart, World Net Daily, even InfoWars now count as on-my-side places where they believe the real truth lies. When the only news you are willing to believe is partisan news, you are susceptible to stories written “in your language” that are complete, obvious, utter fabrications.
RealTrueNews has Trump signifiers all over it. The language use is from right-wing blogs. Several of the articles are written with overt sexism or implicit racism that comes from the alt-right. This is like the protein shell of a virus that allows it to penetrate a cell. The “DNA” payload—the story itself—is then injected straight into the brain, bypassing critical thought.
This is a problem on the very far left as well: The doctrine that Bernie had his nomination forcibly stolen or that the Democrats are colluding warmongers seeking literal thermonuclear destruction is deep and entrenched. The difference is that on the left, it is not nearly as monetized.
The main voices are far more mainstream, like Rachel Maddow and Stephen Colbert. The Rush Limbaughs of the left either do not properly exist or reach far, far fewer people. There are fake stories, but the media machine to promote them and sell advertising with them is not yet mature.
What ads do you sell on a Clinton Stole The Primary website? Plagiarized college papers?
Still, I would like to think, perhaps in the margins, that RealTrueNews either made people’s lives a little more exciting—in a generally good way—or, perhaps, gave them pause about believing everything they read.