“Is it okay to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater if afterwords you whisper ‘just kidding’?”
It’s that line from a Full Frontal With Samantha Bee segment that best sums up the harm associated with the plethora of fake news floating around the internet. Fake news used to be limited to supermarket tabloids with stories about bigfoot, aliens, love triangles and other stories so laughable they were obviously fiction. But that was the good ol’ times, and today’s fake news has way more important repercussions. It can also equal big bucks, as it is the case for Jestin Coler.
Putting a face behind fake news isn’t exactly as easy as scrolling through Linkedin accounts (though Coler does have one). But NPR set out to get to the root of one of the most prominent fake news stories of the this year: ”FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” With the help of John Jansen, an engineer at Master-McNeil Inc. (a tech company in Berkeley, California), an email address belonging to Coler was eventually uncovered. Coler lists himself as the founder and CEO of a company called Disinfomedia, and is the captain of a fleet of fake news websites and their writers.
The so-called godfather of fake news.
Coler said he’s not exactly sure which of his writers penned the fake news story about the FBI agent suicide, but in just 10 days, it attracted 1.6 million sets of eyeballs. Coler doesn’t see the spread of false information as a wrongdoing, but simply as a way to give far-right Trump supporters the headlines they want to hear – whether they’re accurate or not isn’t important.
“The people wanted to hear this,” he says. “So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then… our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire.”
Making up 21st century tall tales is a nice paycheck for Coler (who oddly enough says his personal views lean to the left) and though he won’t say exactly how much, admits that he rakes in between $10,000 and $30,000 a month through online ads.
The harm of fake news has recently been widely reported, with everyone from major mainstream news outlets weighing in to the White House acknowledging its danger.
Rather than take any journalistic responsibility for making up phony stories, Coler deflects any responsibility to the readers themselves. “Some of this has to fall on the readers themselves,” Coler said. “The consumers of content have to be better at identifying this stuff. We have a whole nation of media-illiterate people.”
Coler isn’t the only one feeding the fake news pipeline. Many of the stories about the U.S. political landscape are written by people who don’t even live in the United States. For 19-year-old student who goes by the pen name Goran and lives in Macedonia, getting those clicks and social media shares on his stories is all that matters – the truth be damned. “The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” he told BBC. “Who cares if they are true or false?”
Goran like a number of other young Macedonians are making bank by simply copying and pasting fake news stories from right-wing websites and reworking the headline to be all the more sensational. When pressed about the negative impact of the ridiculous news that he writes and sends out to various Facebook groups, his reaction couldn’t be more apathetic. “Teenagers in our city don’t care how Americans vote,” he said. “They are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks!”
The world’s most widely-used social media site, Facebook, has come under fire for being a channel spreading this kind of fake news stories. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said that the company previously relied on its users to flush out fake news stories, but that the company now plans to be more proactive on sifting out inaccurate information. For example, a new button has recently been created to report a fake story, warning Facebook of a potential hoaxter. Their page might then be deleted.
For men like Goran and Jestin Coler though, trading lies for a quick buck has so far been lucrative and it doesn’t appear they’re going to let a little thing like a moral conscience get in the way.