How did you get into news satire?
Well, a few years back, I was writing with a satire site that ended up shutting down, and I thought, I want to just keep going here. I’m going to start my own site … That was February of 2013. I’ve always been fascinated with propaganda and satire and media and virality. [My contributors and I] started off initially targeting the conservative groups, because they seemed to really spread around complete fictional things with ease. We were just screwing around, to be honest with you. See what would go viral, what people like to share. Kind of a case study to see what we could do, and to explore the confirmation-bias aspect of media. People don’t even read a lot of things that they share, ’cause they think it’s legit. Facebook really gave a platform for people like me, to just spread around some fake stuff.
What was the most ridiculous thing that ever took off?
One of the biggest stories we’ve had is President Obama funding a Muslim museum during the government shutdown a few years back. Boy, that one really went viral. Fox News picked it up and ran with it on air, Fox & Friends. Then they had to issue a retraction, and then a lot of the late-night television hosts picked up on it. So we got a lot of coverage. I personally wrote one that was about residents of Colorado using welfare, basically EBT cards, to buy marijuana. That one ended up resulting in actual legislation being introduced there to prevent that from happening. People really bite on this. It’s fiction — there’s hints of truth, of course, but you can make up anything you want, really. I get a lot of criticism — I don’t consider myself a journalist, so I don’t care about the ethics of proper journalism. It’s more of an entertainment thing. I don’t lose a lot of sleep about it. But I do go back and forth about, is this the right thing to do? When it comes down to it, there’s shades of truth in all the news, and we kind of initiate people into what it’s like to be completely duped. Where somebody’s going to share a story and then someone’s going to be like, “You dumb-ass, that was a fake news site.” That makes them — the next time they’re going to share something that either they didn’t fully understand or didn’t read — hopefully think twice and become a bit more critical about the content they’re consuming and what they’re sharing.
My dad constantly sends me stuff that’s not true. I keep sending him to Snopes.com.
The beauty about Snopes is a lot of the people on the far right will disregard anything that Snopes says, ’cause it’s “George Soros” – funded, an “Obama” mouthpiece. If you’re in Snopes, it’s almost a validation that it’s real. It’s backward. It’s nuts. I don’t understand it myself. I think we’re in a really strange place with regard to the media. If I weren’t out there exploiting it, I’m sure others would be.
It sounds like you’re not entirely sure what your motive is.
I go back and forth on it. With National Report, in particular, I’ve shied away from the hard-hitting fake news stuff for now. In January of last year, Facebook changed their algorithm to basically choke out my site from their news feed. So I saw a major drop in traffic. At that point, a lot of my contributors were getting paid on their performance — the more ridiculous stuff that they write, the more they might make on it. So some of my contributors dried up or moved elsewhere. I was like, “This isn’t what I want to do on this site anymore.” It was also getting harder and harder to fool people [with] National Report because maybe we’d reached a saturation point.
So then what?
We’ve changed our whole operation, we’ve moved the straight fake news to some other domains we’re working on. National Report people would consider more of a pissed-off Onion … slapstickish.
What are the key elements toward making a fake-news site successful?
One is just straight-up the domain name. I came up with the idea of the .com.co sites. I don’t know if you’ve seen the type around, but it’s got a domain name out of Colombia, so it has a .co at the end. I bought nytimes.com.co, washingtonpost.com.co, usatoday.com.co, all these different versions of very legitimate sites and would run stories on there, and man, they would do really well. Because people would see the “washingtonpost”—I didn’t even have to build the site to look like the site that I was running with. I did that with all those sites and got all those shut down, of course. I got cease-and-desist letters. I ran my huffingtonpost.com.co on the day of the New York primary, and I launched the site at about 11 o’clock, and by the next day at about three o’clock, I had already received notice from Huffington Post, from AOL, to shut it down. So I did by six o’clock the next day. I was up something like 30 hours and wound up getting 300,000 views. Obviously the headline needs to be a big hitter. Needs to really get to that confirmation bias. There’s no “This guy did this, and the energy companies are pissed.” I want the red meat right in the headline. Like the Muslim-Obama thing. I don’t want it to be like “You Won’t Believe What President Obama Did.”
That whole sort of teaser style.
Yeah. I don’t care for that. The headline needs to draw in the anger. The emotion. Really, it comes down to the first couple of paragraphs of the story, which need to sound fairly legit, like what you’d read in a standard news source. And after that, you can just get into crazy town. Nobody reads past that, seriously. The attention span of people — if you’re even at 500 words in a story, that’s probably a bit long, and they probably only read half of those before they decided that they were upset or happy or crying over whether they’re going to share it.
How do you monetize?
I work with several advertising groups, Google, of course, is one of them, several other ad servers. I don’t have a sales team.
So you’re a one-man band, and you’ve got how many page views?
Oh, man, total? Around 110 million since we started in 2013; 2014 was our biggest year by far, then Facebook started screwing with us.
Could you take your knowledge of virality and go legit?
This is my hobby. During the day, I consult with magazine publishers, I work for a publishing software company. Before that, I was an editor for a publishing group down in Miami. I’ve been around the industry for a while.
Can you say how much you’ve made?
A lot of people would be pissed. Mid-six figures.
Would that be because they think you’re this bad guy?
I think I have a really bad reputation. But I’m a really nice guy! People have bashed me. I’m used to all that. It’s not the most honorable thing to do, I understand that. But I think that there are legitimate businesses that are just banking on this exact idea. Glenn Beck is a perfect example. That guy has made tons of money. He’s a step away — if you look at these things on a spectrum, and National Report was on the bottom of the spectrum, he’s just a tick up. With my site, at least, we come clean, we have a disclaimer. If you’re not a complete dumb-ass, within a couple of minutes you’ll be like, “Oh, this is just one of those sites that pulls my chain all day long.” We did a story about Donald Trump hiring Ben Carson as his jive translator … I know, it’s racist as hell, and all that stuff. It’s clearly not true.
There’s this feeling almost like you’re on drugs, when you get these huge viral stories, it just gets you going. Then when it starts to come down, you can feel it wearing off.
You’re at this peak, you’re like, Oh, man, this is great, and you’re feeling great, then it starts to dip, and you’re like — seriously, I’ve gone a week of like feeling very depressed after I had a really good run going on. Man, I’ve got to get that back. I’ve never done heroin, for the record.