Marco Chacon had only spent about $20 on his conservative news website, RealTrueNews, when he heard his words in prime time on Fox News’ The Kelly File.
“Yeah,” Chacon said. “That was an accident.”
Just as he’d done for the last few months, Chacon had read the latest explosive conservative news—this time it was Hillary Clinton’s leaked speeches to Wall Street banks—and typed up an imagined transcript of his own.
“So in the transcript, she’s explaining Bronies to the Goldman Sachs board of directors,” said Chacon. “Do you know what Bronies are?”
“In this one, [Bronies] are part of a threat of subalterns who are going to take over the election. And people believe all this,” he said. “And I’m just… I’m telling people, ‘How can you believe this!?’”
Somewhere in the middle of that block of text about My Little Pony, Chacon’s transcript contained the phrase “bucket of losers,” attributed, falsely of course, to Clinton, which legitimate conservative news websites picked up as real.
Sure enough, by 9 p.m. that day, Trace Gallagher was on Fox News telling viewers that Clinton had “apparently called Bernie Sanders supporters a ‘bucket of losers.’” (Megyn Kelly later apologized after the Clinton campaign vehemently denied Clinton said it.)
Taking official-looking documents at face value isn’t just burgeoning among alt-right media. It’s a tactic now endorsed by the Republican candidate for president.
Two weeks ago, GOP nominee Donald Trump implored supporters in a speech in Colorado Springs to “forget the press. Read the internet.”
The internet is filled with verifiable information from journalists at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post, who face real consequences if a story turns out wrong. But, especially this election cycle, the web is equally saturated with factually inaccurate disinformation, verified by no one, turning up on Facebook and Twitter feeds across all demographics and party lines with no way to stop it.
An analysis conducted by BuzzFeed last week found that Facebook posts from 38 percent of right-wing and 20 percent of left-wing news sites “published false or misleading information.”
Chacon, a 47-year-old veteran infantryman, father, bank executive, and moderate Republican, saw it all over his Facebook feed, and he was sick of it.
“I saw something posted sincerely with a headline like, ‘Obama Issues Executive Order to Take Over U.S.,’” he said. “How do you counter that? You can try to debunk it, but nobody cares about that. They just say it’s liberal media bias.”
So, three months ago, after a conversation with a childhood friend, he bought a domain name, RealTrueNews.org. He was going to come up with the most ludicrous right-wing conspiracy theories he could think of, give them a narrative and timeline, and put them into quasi-official looking documents.
Then he and that childhood friend, Mike, would post the website on his alt-right friends’ Facebook walls to prove how ridiculous they looked.
That was it. That was the whole plan.
It’s two weeks before the election now and those documents have accrued millions of views across his website, the document drop site Scribd, and various social media accounts. They’ve appeared on cable news. They’ve trended on Facebook and Twitter. Two polling companies, barraged with hatemail from Trump supporters about “leaked” memos created for RealTrueNews articles, have had to put out official statements denying the existence of such memos. Chacon’s stories are regularly accepted as fact in the pro-Trump message board canon. YouTube videos with tens of thousands of views exist solely to reinforce sentences and ideas Chacon dreamed up on his laptop in the middle of the night.
How did this happen?
“I don’t know. I’m stunned,” said Chacon. “If you can, maybe call Monmouth (University polling) and see if they’d accept an apology.”
Mike Klasfeld has known Marco Chacon for 30-plus years. They went to middle school together and never really lost touch, especially on Facebook, where they have a “couple of mutual friends who are very right-wing.”
“Every time I opened up my Facebook page there would be 20 new, complete bullshit right-wing articles,” said Klasfeld. “Either the title would be an outright lie, or the article would have nothing do with the title.”
Most of them, Klasfeld said, came from a website called TruthFeed. “Nothing in TruthFeed had any truth in it,” he said. So he thought it’d be funny if he and Chacon had a right-wing blog of their own, called “Truthinessfeed,” like the Stephen Colbert-coined term about how feelings are the new facts. Klasfeld even bought the domain name.
But by the next day, Chacon had already cooked something up. “What do you think of this?” he asked. It was a fake right-wing news article, replete with forged documents to back it up.
“I said, ‘Holy shit, this is good!’” Klasfeld said.
RealTrueNews was born. And right away, the stories were obviously too good to be true.
“I am absolutely not trying to fool people the way some of these conservative sites are. Everything on there is satirical. It’s all funny,” said Chacon. “Well, it’s supposed to be.”
Chacon is right: Most of it is a pretty obvious gag, filled with traditional, bang-you-over-the-head obvious references to the occult. One of his documents is filled out on Illuminati letterhead.
“I know conspiracy stuff cold. But this is all 30 years of Dungeons & Dragons,” he said. “There’s stuff in there that’s just obviously fiction. I don’t mean absurd potential news. I mean, there’s no shred of believability. One of the nations that’s ‘paying for Hillary’s hitmen’ is the one Doctor Doom runs.”
But here’s where it gets messy. After years in IT and white collar jobs, it turns out Chacon is very, very good at the Microsoft Office Suite. Nothing fancy—PowerPoint, Excel, that kind of thing. But when he would upload those documents to RealTrueNews’ Scribd page—a sort of document-dumping cloud service that makes PDFs and PowerPoint presentations visible in your browser—that’s where those good-looking documents lost all satirical context.
From RealTrueNews’ Scribd page, anybody can screenshot a somewhat believable portion of the document and post it on Twitter, then link to the full document, which nobody takes the time to read.
Then all hell breaks loose.
The first time it happened was in August, when Chacon created a fake Public Policy Polling “internal memo” that talks about “purchasing Republican Disapproval from policymakers” and shows that Donald Trump has a secret 74 percent lead in Florida.
Notably missing from these screenshots? The conclusion section, which includes these sentences.
“The question is going to be how far we can maintain this charade. It might be time to find other jobs. I bet those fuckers at Monmouth are living it up with their interns,” it reads. “I also have some contacts at Quinnipiac. I hear they’re all smoking up Bernie-grade weed. Fucking College polls.”
Still, many Trump-backed message boards and Twitter supporters believed the “memo,” and began bombarding PPP’s Twitter account, demanding answers.
“Hey @ppppolls saw a post that had this on Scribd…any comment?” wrote one user.
“Yes,” PPP’s Twitter account replied. “It’s really a commentary on the credulity of Trump supporters that so many think this memo could be real.”
Monmouth Polling, when faced with a RealTrueNews “leak” of its own, took it a lot more seriously. Chacon’s fake Monmouth memo had Hillary Clinton losing in the polls to “a potato.”
One alumnus, an assistant campaign manager for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, demanded answers from the university for a memo it didn’t create.
“If it’s true then it’s a disgrace and there needs to be action,” said Tyler Vandegrift. “He is potentially sacrificing the academic reputation of my Alma Mater in favor of partisan politics. People need to have faith in polls.”
“For the record, the purported Monmouth University poll memo being circulated is a photoshopped fake—and not a very good one at that,” the Monmouth poll’s Twitter account wrote. The Washington Post even wrote the whole thing up, calling RealTrueNews a pro-Trump site. Scribd forced Chacon to pull the memo down.
He felt bad about that one. And the Megyn Kelly story, which happened a month later.
After all, Chacon is a guy with young kids writing truly ludicrous fanfiction on the internet. It’s only being construed as fact by people who really, desperately want to believe the world is run by a shady, nefarious cabal.
There’s no better proof than the source material for one of his latest “leaks,” focused on a failed “coup” attempt by Mike Pence and Paul Ryan to take over the Republican ticket. One pro-Trump message board posted about 100 messages about the “leak” until an anonymous user noticed something fishy.
“He signed one email ‘-Chase, No Job Is To [sic] Big,’” wrote the user. “Chase is a character from a popular kids show called Paw Patrol, their motto is ‘no job’s too big, no pup’s too small.’”
Chacon’s kids watch Paw Patrol, which is on Nickelodeon.
The countless pages of commenters agonizing over his leaks on websites like 4chan and Reddit have started to make more sense to Chacon over the course of the last few weeks.
“I’m sympathetic. I have family that are Trump supporters. This makes people’s lives more exciting. From reading these posts, it seems like people get energized and kind of excited,” said Chacon, who said he was a lifelong Republican until the party “lost him at [Sarah] Palin.”
“They’re researching them all as sort of an augmented reality game, and the goal is to catch the bad guys. Like Hillary Clinton and the Illuminati.”
But Chacon’s goal isn’t just to get the people who fall for it on Facebook to be discerning, although he admits that would be nice. He’s trying to catch websites who play to their userbases’ wildest fears on Facebook and Twitter—and do it for profit.
Chacon has only twice ever seeded his documents to websites like 4chan, an anonymous white supremacist message board where Trump is referred to as “God Emperor.” But screenshots of his documents frequently wind up there and on Reddit’s /r/The_Donald anyway, where they’re met with reverence and not much skepticism.
A screenshot of Chacon’s latest “leak” appeared on those sites before landing on conservative news sites and prominent alt-right Twitter feeds earlier this week. The document appears to show a “confidential memo” from pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record imploring staff to flood Reddit and Twitter with “high-frequency recent polls.”
In the memo, he calls the practice “poll-flogging.”
“I thought ‘poll-flogging’ would be a pretty obvious joke, but I guess it wasn’t,” said Chacon.
Duped by this, again, was Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at the alt-right conspiracy website Infowars. His tweet of the screenshot received thousands of retweets and, hours later, that same screenshot appeared on conservative blogs like YoungConservatives and Gateway Pundit, who later corrected their stories. Watson pulled the tweet about a day later.
Eleven months ago, Trump himself appeared on Infowars’ daily online video show to give the website a half-hour interview and sing its praises.
“I just wanted to finish by saying that your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” said Trump. “You’ll be very, very impressed, I hope, and I think we’ll be speaking a lot.”
But this wasn’t the first time Infowars fell for Chacon’s intentionally fake news. The website also fell for “Bucket of Losers” before wiping the story off its website without a correction. (The story still appears on Watson’s Infowars sister site, PrisonPlanet.)
The Daily Beast repeatedly asked Watson if he had time to be interviewed on the phone.
“No, I don’t. I’d rather boil my own nuts in a pan of steaming hot water,” Watson responded via email. “If you’d have been honest in the first email and admitted it was a hit piece, I would have done it. This is why no one trusts the media. You suck, you lie and you mislead people. You’re dishonest, smarmy and two faced.”
The Daily Beast then asked if he didn’t “want [his] readers to know information that you can prove was incorrect.”
“I’ll correct it when your publication corrects itself and admits that Clinton is a warmongering, continent destroying, ISIS-arming, migrant crisis starting, Saudi Arabia money taking, fake feminist, child molester defending, corrupt as fuck, Wall Street owned, career politician cunt,” said Watson.
“Compared to that, a mistaken tweet about a hoax story pales.”
He then screenshotted the exchange, and posted it on his Twitter account.
Chacon had always been into elaborate pranks, Klasfeld remembers. When Chacon and his identical twin brother, Eric, used to work at the same white-collar job in their 20s, Klasfeld said, there was one guy who acted like he was better than the place and didn’t much like either of them.
So they decided to drive him insane.
Chacon confirmed this account. “He was a slightly arrogant guy who went to MIT,” he said. “We made it look like there was some mysterious force sending messages from inside the network directly to him.”
“It kept escalating and escalating, but this guy didn’t have a clue,” said Klasfeld. “At one point in time, he actually thought it was them, but he said something like, ‘This is beyond your abilities.’ And that just coaxed them into making it all the worse.”
That’s basically how it went, Chacon remembers.
“He did say, ‘I suspect you guys are doing this, but you’re not smart enough,’” he said. “When it was all over, he was kind of pissed for a couple of days. Then he was like, ‘Damn, that was kind of cool.’”
And RealTrueNews, Chacon said, isn’t much different from that prank. It was a gag with a mission of dragging people away from their own extreme self-importance by deploying brilliant stupidity. Chacon called it art.
The website, Chacon said, will end after the election, but he has one more big story in him. If Clinton wins, he says, this will be the headline:
On Wednesday, 13 days before the election, Infowars already beat him to it.
Its headline? “DONALD TRUMP HAS WON THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.”