Robert thought hard about the exact number of Syrian refugees he wanted to place in Native American reservations.
He originally had decided on 50,000 but thought that sounded too believable. It needed to be more ridiculous. So he wrote his headline:
US to House 250,000 Syrian Refugees at Navajo, Standing Rock Indian Reservations
Of course, that isn’t true in the slightest. But on Facebook, a lie can go around the world before the truth has even been posted.
Robert – who asked that his last name not be used – considers himself a satirist. A glance through his site, Real News Right Now, indeed shows a light, if perhaps too subtle, touch of humor.
Of course, that means not everyone got the joke. Fox News’s Sean Hannity was soon parroting the 250,000 refugees claim. Soon, so was Donald Trump.
Robert was shocked. “That was very unsettling,” he said. “I was, like, this is incredible.”
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Robert is 34 and works in hospitality in Washington. “I make a little bit of money each month through ad revenue, but it all goes toward the site’s upkeep and promoting my articles through various social media platforms,” he said. “This is more of a labor of love for me than a profitable enterprise.”
He said he counts his site as satire, like the better-known the Onion.
But the boundary between satire and real news is a vast grey area. Distributed – largely on Facebook – alongside deliberately false stories and partisan coverage, whether pumped out to suck up advertising revenue or for ideological reasons, it might not be immediately obvious to some that Real News Right Now is satire.
The signs are subtle: the fictional journalist behind the site, R Hobbus, is listed as having won the 2011 Stephen Glass Distinction in Journalistic Integrity award – mocking a journalist who was revealed to have falsified sources and information for stories – for one thing. But there is no full disclaimer.
Nor would it necessarily stop people taking his stories seriously if there was; even a site as well-known as the Onion is often mistaken for real news.
Facebook has a serious fake news problem, a major contributor to what has been called the “post-truth” era.
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There is no satirical value, for example, in the story “Taylor Swift SHOCKS Music Industry: ‘I voted for Trump’”.
But the fact that it was a complete fabrication didn’t stop the story, which was posted on Sunday on a fake news site called LifeEventWeb, from being widely shared across Facebook and accruing more than quarter of a million views in three days.
Another widely shared pre-election story by the Denver Guardian claimed, falsely, that an FBI agent investigating Clinton had been killed in a house fire in Colorado. The Denver Post – Denver’s actual major newspaper – had to write an article to clarify that there is no such thing as the Denver Guardian, pointing out that the story was fake and the site’s supposed Denver address actually led to a tree in a Denver carpark.
In a way, the problem is not a new one. Publications such as the National Enquirer in the US have long bent the truth, often shamelessly. But now, a fake story can much more easily masquerade as real because in Facebook’s walled garden all the posts look largely the same.
Even the most savvy news consumers can be tricked this way. Who can expect everyone to know there isn’t really a Denver Guardian – or that Real News Right Now is satire – when it pops up in your feed?
The ease of deception has given birth to a new cottage industry of lies. In November, BuzzFeed discovered that many of the pro-Trump fake news sites – more than 100 of them – were being operated as for-profit click farms by Macedonian teenagers.
Many such sites have their registration protected by a system called WhoIsGuard, which protects the owner of the website from having their details looked up on the WhoIs database of internet domains and their owners. LifeEventWeb, the site that posted the fake Swift story, is one of those.
Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said that she was concerned about some of the sources her students were using, so she started listing a number of sites. The guide has since gone viral.
Not all of them are fake – many are satirical sites such as the Onion, the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report or Real News Right Now, while others are news organizations whose stories are often slanted, including Breitbart on the right or Occupy Democrats on the left.
“One thing readers can do is to read what they’re sharing, and after that if you read something and have a strong reaction to it, read more about it,” Zimdars said, “rather than just accept what you originally read as complete information.”
For his part, Robert said that it was “worrisome” to him when people take the satire written on Real News Right Now as fact. “I don’t take any joy out of that. I wish people would factcheck me.” He said that he tries to embed links into his stories to take people to true information about the stories he is satirizing.
“The ones that seem to take off, that people seem to believe,” he said, “are the ones I find most unbelievable.”
He said that there isn’t any topic he would avoid. “If something is an important news story that affects the world, or social issues, I’m going to address it.”
That extends even to fake news. On Thursday, Real News Right Now posted a new story: “Twelve in Custody After FBI Takes Down ‘Major’ Counterfeit News Operation in NYC.”