Fake news makers — a look at their early work
It has been amazing in the wash-up of Donald Trump’s election win to witness the small but historic roles played by some of the key protagonists in our book, ‘All Your Friends Like This — How Social Networks Took Over News’.
In the following excerpt, we go back to 2014 to meet a mysterious publisher of fake news who calls himself Allen Montgomery. One of my favourite headlines from that era was published on Montgomery’s National Report: ‘Joseph Kony Gunned Down by Seal Team 6, Obama Takes Credit’. It looks quaint in comparison with some of the stuff that circulated this year. While I was writing the chapter, I interviewed the fake news mogul and became the first and only person to see Allen Montgomery’s face.
Montgomery would go on to score a massive viral hit during Trump’s successful run for the White House. This time the publication was called the Denver Guardian and the story was shocking: ‘FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide’. It scored 567,000 Facebook engagements, making it the fifth-most shared fake news article of the US presidential campaign.
Back when I spoke to him, Montgomery had a nemesis in Craig Silverman, the operator of a fake-news debunking site called Emergent. Silverman hated Montgomery’s work and was desperate to expose his true identity. Montgomery had once approached Silverman with an offer to collaborate but the feeling was not mutual. “I see no reason why he should keep his real name out of it,” Silverman told me at the time. (Montgomery later made a similar approach to my co-authors and I — the Share Wars team — but nothing eventuated.)
Anyway, Silverman wanted to know if I had taken a screengrab of Montgomery’s face during my Skype conversation with him. I had not. Silverman then sent me an image of a dark-haired, tired-looking guy in his 30s wearing a tux with his arm around a woman at what looked like the end of a long night. The picture might have been from a wedding. There was no name or other information with the photograph. Was this Allen Montgomery, asked the hoax-slayer? It was alright. But I could not confirm the villain’s identity at the time because I had promised him anonymity.
Silverman went on to become Buzzfeed Canada’s editor-in-chief, a role in which he authored a widely referenced article on fake news during the US election. His piece showed that the top fake news stories had higher Facebook engagement than the top real news stories. Strangely, much of the sharing fodder he identified was produced in the Macedonian city of Veles. The Macedonians had copied the National Report’s template: create plausible but outlandish fake right-wing stories and let the kerosene of confirmation bias and Facebook’s almost frictionless distribution do the rest. Then scoop up the ad revenue from Google and Facebook, which goes much further in Veles than it does in San Francisco.
Coming in at fifth on Silverman’s list of top fake stories was the Denver Guardian story. It wasn’t until I opened an email the other day from my co-author Hal Crawford that I read the NPR article proving this viral monster was the progeny of none other than Allen Montgomery. What’s more, NPR had found out Montgomery’s real name was Jestin Coler.
Straightaway I typed ‘Jestin Coler’ into LinkedIn. Gazing back at me was the guy in the tux with tired eyes. Allen Montgomery had been outed at last.
-Andrew Hunter, November 2016
From All Your Friends Like This — How Social Networks Took Over News
(Order your copy of the book here)
Fake news holds little appeal for journalist Erin Tennant, a truth seeker and a truth-teller. Mid-thirties, athletic and earnest, Tennant makes an even-tempered and determined reporter. He would have been a great detective. Expert at using Freedom of Information requests, Tennant is happy to play a long game if there is a story in it. He outwaits spin doctors and mandarins, studiously complying with demands for clarifying questions and then resubmitting information requests until he gets what he is looking for. As a journalist at ninemsn he always delivered an original story even if it does not always find an enthusiastic audience. Deterministic and irony-free, he was nicknamed the ‘T-Bot’, as in Tennant Robot. On 3 May 2012, the T-Bot turned his curiosity to a story that seemed a little off-colour. It was a Daily Mail rewrite about a dentist removing all her ex-boyfriend’s teeth in a fit of rage. It tweaked T-Bot’s antennae. As he recounts, there was something weird about the quotes. They came off as frivolous given the horror of the act. ‘The victim said, “Oh, yeah, when I got home I looked in the mirror, and I couldn’t fucking believe it. The bitch had emptied my mouth.” I thought that sounded like someone who is kind of annoyed about falling victim to a silly prank … he doesn’t really comprehend what a grim situation he’s in,’ Tennant says. The self-incrimination in the quotes by the dentist also struck Tennant as strange. ‘She said, “I try to be professional and detach myself from my emotions, but when I saw him lying there, I just thought, what a bastard.” ‘You could only say those things if you had absolutely no regard for your professional reputation, let alone the risk of going to jail,’ Tennant says. That there were no photos accompanying the article and scant detail about any investigation of the incident also raised red flags. And once his suspicions were aroused, T-Bot swung into action. His first call was to the Daily Mail journalist who had rewritten the story from the obscure Austrian Times via the mysterious Central European News Agency. Tennant asked the Mail for contact details for the sources or the Polish dental association. None were forthcoming. Next Tennant used a Polish translator to compose an email to local police, who had no record of the incident. He then wrote to the Polish Chamber of Physicians and Dentists, which came back to him ‘confirming it was bullshit’.
These were early days in the hoax news game, so Tennant’s debunking story received worldwide coverage. Craig Silverman, resident hoax-slayer for journalism think-tank the Poynter Institute, wrote about Tennant’s piece. Eventually most news sites removed their rewrites. But by then they had the page views in the bag. The damage was done. The Daily Mail journalist responsible had to take his medicine in the form of a visit to the Mail’s ferocious editor-in-chief, Martin Clarke. But it was not the usual Clarke shellacking, according to a former colleague:
‘Getting called into [Clarke’s] office would give you shivers
and trembles. But on this occasion, Martin apparently was
calm, did not bollock the reporter, and just advised him
softly not to share details outside the organisation. At
times, such as this one, he could show his more human soft
side, which does exist, despite reports to the contrary.
And to be honest, not much wrong was done. The report
came from a news agency, who you have to be able to trust.
If they mess up too many times, then you learn not to trust
It is tempting for digital editors to look the other way — or not dig too deep — when this sort of material presents itself. Better to put it out there, harvest the page views and quietly remove the story afterwards if it turns out to be rubbish. Not a great way to treat your readers, but the data shows mass audiences do not care about hoaxes enough to shun an offending site. There appears to be no real penalty for publishing bullshit. Indeed, it is tempting to classify this as victimless crime. Tennant does not think so. He spoke to the American Dental Association, which was concerned the story would deter people already scared of the dentist’s drill from getting their teeth checked. Just as the foundation of medical care is to ‘do no harm’, the primary role of journalists is to tell the truth. This includes doing the groundwork to separate fact from fiction, and not taking source material at face value. The first point of the Australian Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes this explicit:
1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy,
fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.
Laziness, a lack of time and a desire to increase page views are no excuses. ‘Thou shall not lie’ is an article of journalistic faith. To disregard it is to enter the realm of Hollywood, which plays by an entirely different set of rules. But there is no reward for checking a great story that happens to be bullshit.
Fake it up 2014
At the start of the Share Wars project in 2011, we predicted that the sharing of news through social media would change the industry for better. Our theory went that people would share valuable material because they wanted to present a better side of themselves on Facebook and Twitter. In simple terms, the audience is happy to click on the Kim Kardashian story but will not take the extra step of sharing.
We are far more likely to share a story that has novelty, emotion or utility. As sharing drove an ever greater slice of audience, news organisations would divert resources away from Kim Kardashian to more important — more shareable — subjects. That was our simple and optimistic belief. Something happened in 2014 to dent this optimism. An onslaught of fake news hit the internet, propagated through social media. In fact a whole industry had grown up around the creation of fake articles designed specifically to be shared on Facebook. Many of the offending mastheads are named to impart authority: National Report, Civic Tribune and World News Daily Report. Most have a professional look and feel. National Report’s article page resembles the Huffington Post. Its tagline ‘America’s №1 Independent News Source’ is flanked by headshots of Republicans Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin. There are no obvious disclaimers. The headlines are believable and play to the biases of certain readerships. This sample from a single day in January 2015 is typical: ‘Kids who know Santa is fake have higher IQs — study’; ‘Obamacare pays for Octomom’s new fertility treatments’; ‘Joseph Kony gunned down by Seal Team 6, Obama takes credit’. Somehow plausible, often amusing and always false, each headline comes with a targeted audience segment primed to approve — or disapprove — and share. Who among parents of Santa sceptics would not feel proud after reading the first headline? That pang is the instant of bias confirmation, the point at which scepticism dissipates. Clicking the Like button is a natural, almost frictionless, next step.
Once viral, these stories are commented on and shared mostly by people not in on the joke. National Report’s Kony story attracted 30,000-plus Facebook shares, which is more than most front-page stories from The New York Times. The monster sharers from National Report are in the millions. In late 2014, the site published a story about the Texas town of Purdon being quarantined after an Ebola outbreak. It was shared more than 1.5 million times, presumably by many people in a state of panic. This was sharing on a rare scale and Facebook was the accelerant. Bad news for our theory and no cause for optimism.
Breaking news versus faking news
While 2014 saw a tsunami of fake news engulf our Facebook news feeds, there were some in the media trying to plug their fingers and toes in the dyke. Various websites have been debunking rumours and urban myths since well before this phenomenon first emerged in a noticeable way in 2013. Snopes has been doing it since 1995. Reddit is another place where you can identify fake stories early in their life cycle. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey has written that she spent 2014 debunking National Report’s fakes with ‘exhausting frequency’. VICE News and The Verge has also published articles investigating the proliferation of fake news. Sometimes National Report is portrayed as a fun-loving crew of japesters aiming barbs at Tea Party types, bigots and idiots. VICE has called it ‘a darker, angrier version of The Onion’: ‘National Report skewers mass media coverage of trending stories by dreaming up patently ridiculous news and passing it off as real. It pisses people off.’
One of the pissed off is Craig Silverman, the guy from the Poynter Institute who followed up Tennant’s dentist story. ‘There’s absolutely no argument I can imagine that would suggest that there’s some kind of social value in playing on people’s fears and panic,’ Silverman says. ‘To take it to a level that … becomes almost a public safety menace.’ The big question I had, as I started investigating the fake news phenomenon, was why. There is no obvious signpost to satire on National Report. It looks and quacks like a right-wing blog. So why was National Report churning out these widely shared fake articles but obscuring their satirical intent? I could understand trolls launching the occasional hoax but this was more systematic. Who was National Report sending up apart from the gullible? I was struggling to see a motivation behind this other than sport. To answer why, I thought I needed to know who. Deciphering this was not straightforward. National Report’s bio page is littered with fake information. The Ebola story writer, Jane M. Agni, is also the author of a book titled The States of Shame: Living as a Liberated Womyn in America. The book does not exist. Agni’s Facebook page is phantom. She writes for another spoof site called Modern Woman Digest, whose staff page also contains a list of obviously fake writers. Other National Report staffers include Barbara Bagwell, who won an award for ‘Lady Journalism’, and Cassidy Pen, a US Nicaragua veteran who documents ‘the decay of Christian morals in his beloved America while sadly witnessing the rise of Satan’s influence’. This would appear to be nonsense.
National Report’s publisher is a digital cutout named Allen Montgomery, a man with no LinkedIn profile and a Facebook page that was started in January 2013. Only two images exist of Montgomery, a smug Ivy League type superimposed on different backgrounds — one a library and the other a glass-curtained, mid-rise building with an NR logo, presumably the National Report headquarters.
An interesting but disturbing theory began to emerge from the confusion I felt as I trawled the web for proof of the identity of these news hoaxers. If these fake stories — published by National Report and propagated on Facebook — were such enormous sharers, and the audience shares stories it values, did it follow that fake news was more valuable to this audience than real news? What if these stories did a better job in some ways than those from The New York Times? If quality is defined as ‘fitness for purpose’, were these stories of higher quality than those appearing in The Guardian and The Washington Post? What if the ‘facts’ part of news was actually far less important to readers than we in the media had always thought? Scary stuff indeed. I was reminded of the time my co-author Hal Crawford and I were working on redesigning the Nine News website. We used elements of the Blue Ocean Strategy as a framework for our thinking. The Blue Ocean Strategy says businesses can create products that find entirely new markets by viewing their product feature set and the markets they are aimed at in radically different ways. By eliminating or reducing some features and improving or adding others, businesses can access a ‘blue ocean’ of opportunity, as opposed to the prevailing ‘red ocean’ full of incumbent ‘sharks’ thrashing over existing customers. Cirque du Soleil is a classic example. It eliminated animals and star performers from the traditional circus experience but added artistic music and dance presented within a unique circus-tent-like venue. For the first time, business people could take corporate clients to the circus. The Quebec-based troupe reinvented the circus in such a radical way that it could charge substantially more than other circuses.
Another case is the Australian brand Yellow Tail wines, which uncovered a latent market of US wine drinkers previously intimidated by features the wine industry had assumed were essential. Yellow Tail eliminated all the wine terminology around age, variety and provenance that other producers pasted on their labels as proof of quality. They offered sweeter, less complex wines in a bottle with a bright yellow kangaroo label. Suddenly American beer and spirits drinkers saw they had an alternative and Yellow Tail went on to become the highest-selling wine in the US. When Hal and I sat down to reconsider the Nine News site, we assessed it against a number of features, including brand heritage, video storytelling and speed to publication. Not for a second did we consider ‘truth’ as a feature of news that could be improved on, reduced or eliminated. If news was defined as ‘new information or a report about something that has happened recently’ then truth was implicit. Others might look at that definition and decide it is not. There is also a pervasive belief that there is no such thing as truth, only different perspectives. But for now let us define truth as ‘not bullshit’. The overwhelming success of National Report and others suggests truth is not mandatory. Made-up news stories serve as a news analogue for part of the Facebook audience. People sharing fake stories are mostly Teaming and sometimes Newsbreaking, as was the case with the Ebola story. Because fake stories often have preposterous details buried in the final paragraphs, it is obvious many readers do not make it to the bottom before commenting and Liking. The purveyors of this content will tell you most people do not even read past the headline before sharing. They’re merely reacting to the idea of the content because it pushes their buttons. Untrue news gives them an outlet. It is false but useful — unless of course your network is wise to the ruse, and then suddenly sharing it is a source of shame.
Meet a fake-maker
The man who calls himself Allen Montgomery says National Report is part of the solution. He sees himself in a public health role, inoculating users against future gullibility when they are called out by their networks for distributing fake news. The logic goes that a small dose of humiliation will create a better news consumer. I wanted to test this reasoning, and was intrigued by the digital cipher himself. To understand the fake news phenomenon I needed to talk directly to its master. I call Montgomery just after Christmas 2014. We have agreed to a voice-only Skype call because he wants to maintain anonymity. I wait as the Skype avatar pulsates in the middle of the screen. Unexpectedly someone materialises on screen. He has short, dark hair and wears a powder-blue polo shirt. He sits in a lounge room which I later find out is somewhere in southern California. A photograph of a sunrise is mounted on the wall behind him. This is Allen Montgomery.
‘You are literally the first person that has seen my face as Allen Montgomery,’ he says. ‘I do my best to be very anonymous.’ Montgomery has reason to be cautious. He says he has received hundreds of death threats and that ‘people try to find’ him. Not long ago, someone did find him and published a picture of his house on Twitter. He was concerned for the safety of his wife and daughters. Even the affable Canadian Silverman calls the National Report ‘scumbags’. Passions run higher south of the border, particularly when you target those on the poles of heated issues. Fringe-dwellers are more likely to have guns. (I later mention my sighting of the scumbag-in-chief to Silverman. He immediately asks if I took a screen grab. I did not. ‘He told me that we know someone in common,’ says Silverman, who had spoken to Montgomery months earlier. ‘I don’t think there is any reason why he should be able to keep his real name out of it.’) I am interviewing Montgomery in the days following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Charlie Hebdo and National Report do quite different things. One is a famous old leftwing satirical news magazine, the other is a hoax news site no one had heard of two years ago. However, it is a sobering time for anyone inflaming extremists through storytelling. Montgomery is most concerned about ‘Joe Schmo militant guys’, right-wing Timothy McVeigh types, not Islamic extremists. ‘Once you get to the fringe, their beliefs are what they are. And if you insult them, it’s cause for pain,’ Montgomery says.
‘I certainly would hate for something like that to happen over just screwing around online.’ But Montgomery is not just screwing around. Even though he still has a day job as a customer relationship management consultant to a magazine publisher, National Report is his passion after hours. It has grown into a substantial operation. His loose band of writers are comedians and satirists — not journalists — who pitch ideas and hone stories through group-sharing software. There are no editorial conference calls. The whole thing is done online so anonymity is protected. As Montgomery speaks about the site and its people, he sounds like any other digital media boss facing the usual personnel and product issues. Much of his time is spent recruiting: ‘We’re trying to increase the quality of our writing. We’re not just trying to let anybody in that thinks they can tell a joke.’ New recruits cut their teeth at Montgomery’s WIT (Wyoming Institute of Technology) site — a fake science– technology blog — before graduating to the big leagues of National Report. I am surprised to hear Montgomery has just dealt with the departure of his superstar writer Paul Horner, whom he describes as ‘your standard Hunter S. Thompson creative type … hard to figure out’. ‘We had to let him go. He and I just had disagreements about some legal issues. There were plenty of other things that led up to it,’ Montgomery says. Horner has set up a new site called newsexaminer.net that mixes fake news with real news, a strategy Montgomery has been considering since it was suggested by his team. The idea is that the line between legitimate and phoney content is further blurred in the mind of the consumer. This move, however, would run counter to the concept of fake news as a public service, which Montgomery assures everyone is the key purpose of National Report. ‘My site is a primer. We give you that first little taste of “Wow, I was just fooled by something that looked very legitimate. Maybe next time I should pay more attention to what I’m sharing and what I’m saying and what I’m believing”,’ Montgomery says. Regardless of Montgomery’s motives, his experience during the past two years has taught him much about virality. Even though he does not play by the most important rules of journalism, he has learned a lot of lessons in sharing. The first point he makes when I ask him for his secret sauce is that he and his colleagues have not ‘worked out the formula’ for sharing yet.
ALLEN MONTGOMERY’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR MAKING A FAKE
- Get the headline right
Montgomery says nailing the headline ‘gets you most of the
way there … It has to grab your attention, obviously.’
2. Play to confirmation bias
National Report is expert in dishing out storylines people
are keen to read because they are primed to believe them.
Confirmation bias dictates that people favour information that reaffirms their beliefs. Montgomery describes the method as: ‘We’re going to tell you something we knew you wanted to hear already. Whether that comes from a place of your political ideology or your religious ideology or the kind
of show you like to watch … we want to confirm what you
already had in mind.’
3. Business up front, party in the back
Following the playbook of The Onion — perhaps the most
famous ongoing English-language satirical publication —
Montgomery advises hoaxers to keep the first couple of
paragraphs as plausible as possible. ‘People generally quit
reading at that point,’ he says.
4. Target cult audiences
Look for pre-primed audiences aggregating around ideas
they are passionate about. On a niche scale, National
Report seems to dedicate disproportionate attention to
Juggalos, the obsessive fans of the Insane Clown Posse
hip-hop group, who only number in the ‘tens of thousands’
according to Wikipedia. At the other end of the scale, the
site regularly ‘gets the right wing all fired up’ with anti
National Report publishes ‘tons of things that don’t go
anywhere’, Montgomery says. ‘It’s discouraging. You’ll
spend a lot of time on something that you think is just
going to knock the socks off, and it falls on its face.’
Montgomery says you have to dust yourself off and try
I ask Montgomery why. Why does he work all day in a traditional media business as whoever he is and then suit up as Allen Montgomery at night? He says he’s in it for his team, who are ‘like a family’. ‘The business model that I’ve created allows them to be extremely successful. Most people that are writers and creative types don’t normally make a lot of money,’ he says. The business model is a straightforward advertising share: Montgomery keeps the revenue from the ads around the shell of the website and the writers collect revenue from the ads inside their article pages. At the height of the Banksy hoax, Horner claimed he was making $10,000 per day. At the average rate of $1 CPM (cost per 1000 ad impressions), and assuming there are four ads per article, he would have needed to attract 2.5 million page views per day. Montgomery confirms his writers can earn in this ballpark. He says that if they deliver five heavy hitters in a month they could bank up to $25,000. And the Banksy hoax was the heaviest of hitters. As for the boss, he pays himself a salary after deducting hosting, legal and image-rights fees. ‘It’s doing really well … beyond my expectations,’ he says. ‘I’m certainly not rich. I live in southern California, so everything here is expensive.’
And in the other corner …
Silverman lives at the opposite end of North America but, like Montgomery, has a job you could do from anywhere in the world. Journalist, author and entrepreneur, Silverman is a media man for the modern age, with clients in the US and Europe, and an audience across the globe. He chooses to live in Montreal. (‘I came here for journalism school and have been happy and lucky to stay.’) Silverman’s house is a 10-minute walk from the warehouse office space he shares with designers, artists, editors and entrepreneurs in the Plateau district. There’s a great soup and sandwich place, small design firms and a handful of start-ups. Google Street View shows a proliferation of bicycles, coffee bars and converted brick warehouses basking in the northern summer sun. But the real-time ambience as I speak to Silverman just two days into 2015 is decidedly grimmer. It is dangerously cold: minus 31°C with wind chill. There are no bicycles in the streets. People are ice-skating to their offices. Sometimes it gets so cold, Silverman says, your eyelashes freeze your eyes closed as you’re walking to work. Silverman has an eye for a good story — and a bad one, as it turns out. A decade ago, he started a blog called Regret the Error, which called out and corrected mistakes in journalism and was later acquired by the Poynter Institute. Since then, he has become an expert in journalism training and standards, working as a visiting professor at journalism schools across the US and Europe, writing a book also called Regret the Error, and producing policy and training modules for media organisations such as Al Jazeera. He has multiple income streams from his varied assignments but the major project is Emergent.com, his website that runs a constant tab on hoax stories and other contentious content published on the web and distributed mostly on Facebook.
The year 2015 is a growth year for fake news, and Emergent’s stocks are rising with the tide. When a candidate story emerges above the noise of social media at the 10,000-share mark, Silverman lists it on Emergent with one of three tags: True, False or Unverified, along with a short description of the article’s origin. Emergent is a close-to-real-time tool that alerts its readers early in the story cycle, sounding the alarm, Silverman says, ‘when it’s in that grey area … not just when you know it’s not true’. There is value in this for journalists and media organisations, and Silverman is building a business around it. As a result, part of his time is spent sourcing seed funding to go along with the money he himself has invested. Much of his time is spent at the coal face debunking hoax news. Every day Silverman makes his way up to the fourth floor, removes his cold-weather gear, sits at his desk overlooking another warehouse next door and starts wading into what he terms ‘the mass of bullshit on the internet’. Silverman sifts this river of media sewage using a variety of feeds and dashboards, and posts anything suspicious that is gaining traction to Emergent.info. He then sets about verifying or debunking the report in what has become a never-ending game of digital whack-a-mole. The mole Silverman has been whacking as much as any other is National Report. Montgomery, for his part, is a fan of Silverman’s work but says he is fighting the wrong war. ‘He can spend the rest of his life trying to shut down fake news sites, and they will just keep popping up,’ Montgomery says. I tell Silverman his nemesis sees them as working on the same problem — educating readers and journalists to be more discerning consumers of journalism — from different ends. It’s an idea he rejects whole-heartedly. ‘I actually think that he’s probably smart in every area of his life except what he’s doing here, where he’s somehow convinced himself that this is okay,’ Silverman says. ‘I almost expected him to say … that in order for me to exist, he has to exist.’ Like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, I suggest. ‘Yeah, it’s like, “Oh, my God … Craig. I am your father.” But honestly, I didn’t know about this guy and his website six months ago.’ An interesting dynamic exists between these two hardworking young fathers living at opposite ends of North America. Neither operates as a traditional newsroom journalist but each is earning a living in the field of journalism — or in the case of Montgomery, a facsimile of journalism. Both are expert in virality and sharing. As with many media operations these days, their businesses rely on social media. Montgomery’s primary audience is on Facebook and Silverman’s is the media-savvy Twittersphere. (It’s mainly hate mail on Twitter for Montgomery: ‘Hey @TNROnline go fuck yourselves and your shitty unfunny website. You’re literally damaging the country,’ one critic tweeted.) Silverman says he wants Facebook to turn off the traffic ‘spigot’ to National Report. This relatively simple move could kill off National Report and its ilk overnight. But that might not be the best thing for Emergent. Opposing Montgomery and his fake journalism has gained Silverman recent column inches in The Verge, VICE News and The Atlantic. National Report provides much grist to the Emergent mill, and in nominating an enemy such as Montgomery, Silverman has found a demon to slay. He is not mincing words, either. If The Onion is at the righteous end of the satire–hoax continuum, Silverman says National Report is at the scumbag end, playing to base cultural and racial stereotypes and fears. Silverman’s stance against Montgomery and crew came about when American fear of Ebola was peaking and National Report ran the now infamous story of the quarantining of the town Purdon. Montgomery says the coverage, which included fake live updates and tweets from Purdon, was National Report’s ‘War of the Worlds’ moment. Silverman says this was the point at which National Report stepped over the line and used its expertise in virality to create a public menace. ‘They weren’t commenting on the fact that the fear around Ebola was far greater than arguably it should be. What they were actually doing was stoking that fear. They knew by doing that, people would share these stories,’ Silverman says. ‘Because the human reaction — when there’s uncertainty or a threatening situation — is to try to keep each other informed. When somebody who is already nervous about Ebola sees a story about a Texas town being quarantined, their first reaction is to get that out so other people understand this threat.’ Silverman has no time for Montgomery’s argument that his site is, as Montgomery puts it, a ‘vaccine against disinformation’.
‘He tries to say that he’s exposing some of the right-wing biases … out there, but he’s not exposing anything because he doesn’t admit what he’s doing,’ Silverman says. ‘When people go to National Report, they think they’re reading something real. There is absolutely nothing on the site to tell you that it’s not real, so there’s no point being made other than how much money he can make.’
CRAIG SILVERMAN’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR SPOTTING A FAKE
- Check the source
Follow the story to its point of origin. The source that
is cited in the last article or tweet could be 10 degrees
removed from the original. It usually only takes about five
minutes of following links back to that point of origin. Once
you’re there, you can judge the quality of the actual source.
2. Look for exotic sources/language issues
Often when stories jump large geographic and language
barriers, fake elements are inserted or misunderstandings
3. Is it too good to be true?
If a narrative is too clean and smooth, there’s a good chance
reality has been warped.
4. Context can cause mistakes
True information can become false when it loses its correct
context. A common example is mix-ups over war footage —
when old footage is passed off as current or the wrong war
zone is identified. ‘When there was the conflict in Gaza last
year, there were plenty of videos and photos from Lebanon,
from Syria, from Iraq, that people said were from the Gaza
conflict,’ Silverman says.
5. Do due diligence on websites
Start with the URL — is it a legitimate website? If the site is
unfamiliar, read the About page. ‘National Report’s About
page isn’t too helpful. They disguise it pretty well. There are
other sites of its ilk that will actually tell you that everything
on the site is satire and it’s not meant to be taken as real,
so reading the About page on an unfamiliar source is
important,’ Silverman says.
These are the simple rules Silverman is teaching in newsrooms and classrooms across the US and Europe. Educating journalists in the identification of fake news is Silverman’s main mission. After working with the Poynter Institute, his new sponsor is the Tow Center of Digital Journalism at Columbia University, which commissioned a paper from him that was published in February 2015 called ‘Lies, damn lies and viral content — how news websites spread (and debunk) online rumours, unverified claims, and misinformation’. Silverman used his payment for the paper to fund the development of the software driving Emergent. It’s a new twist on data journalism in which the journalist has access to their own unique data set. ‘Data journalism, for a long time, has been about Access to Information requests, or it’s been about getting governments and cities to put out open data,’ Silverman says. ‘We should also be building our own ways of gathering data that is proprietary and gives us insight that other people don’t have. That’s what I feel like Emergent has been doing for me. I see stuff other people don’t. And you guys probably feel the same way.’
Just before Christmas 2014, two friends who do not know each other both told me about a fantastic stunt that took the craft beer industry down a peg or two. The brewers of Australia’s most popular beer, Victoria Bitter, entered it into a craft beer competition re-badged as ‘Vaucluse Bitter’, and said it was created by two brothers from Byron Bay in subtropical northern New South Wales. Inexplicably, it won. The mainstream megabrewer had yanked the beards of the batch-beer posers. I think my two friends liked the fact the young inner-city trendies had been shown up as phoney. Neither really drinks craft beer but I cannot get enough of the stuff. It has been an education for me. Before craft beer, I did not understand how beer was made. I did not know what hops smelled like. These were dark times — the Dark Ages, except they knew all about hops in the Dark Ages. As much as my friends wanted the story to be true, I was dismayed by it. Then something funny happened. My dismay pushed me to investigate the story. As I started my web search for Vaucluse Bitter, I somehow hoped to prove the story was fake: confirmation bias at work. The first result was from the Betoota Advocate — a bloggy news site — headlined ‘VB goes undercover to win Surry Hills craft beer festival’. I started reading.
‘Carlton & United Breweries, a subsidiary of Foster’s Group
in Melbourne, have today confirmed that the winner of
last month’s Sydney Craft Beer Festival was in fact one of
Australia’s oldest and highest-selling beers — Victoria Bitter.
The undercover infiltration of the October 24th festival
took out number one place by an undeniable margin, which
in turn embarrassed the entire craft beer community of
I thought it read more like a press release than a conventional news story. It needed a punchier opening. I kept reading until I hit the quotes from one of the craft beer judges, Banjo Clementé. The name seemed too hip to be true. ‘It is just so typical of these big corporations. They couldn’t cop the idea that our microbreweries might begin to compete with them,’ Clementé said. ‘They even grew their beards out, they looked the part. It’s disgusting to see the lengths these corporate pigs go to to keep us down.’ Strong words from the sulking and embarrassed judge. The quotes from VB proprietor SABMiller’s spokesman were even better: ‘It just goes to show how much of a joke this microbrewery “culture” is … We won this round, and we will win again. This craft beer bullshit is just a phase.’ As the T-bot observed, one key to unlocking a fake story is the quotes. While you could imagine an apparent media novice such as Clementé shooting his mouth off, a big-liquor PR person was unlikely to be so injudicious. In reality, the spokesman’s tone would have been far more conciliatory.
Why stick the boot in when the hipsters had already done it themselves? Unlike Montgomery’s gang of ‘media misfits’, the two men behind the Betoota Advocate, which is named after a western Queensland ghost town, are journalists. Or ex-journalists, as they believe. Until now they have stayed behind their pen names, Clancy Overell and Errol Parker. But the Betoota Advocate is taking off and it looks like there’s a future in it. Overell and Parker reveal themselves as Archie Hamilton and Charlie Single, two graduates of my alma mater, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, New South Wales. We meet in a pub in Alexandria in Sydney’s inner south, just the type of place that would have served Vaucluse Bitter. Hamilton is a big fellow with a big beard, 1940s-style short back-and-sides and a booming FM radio news voice. Single is slighter, more quietly spoken, with long blond hair and an acerbic edge. Both have emerged disillusioned from their first stints in journalism. Hamilton grew tired of the FM radio news production line. Single lost his job at the The Canberra Times in a wave of redundancies and it hit him quite hard. In something of a surprise, they have suddenly found themselves making a decent living by writing fake news. Facebook is driving most of the audience but 15 to 20 per cent of people are coming directly to their home page: a statistic that has Hamilton and Single scratching their heads. ‘I don’t know why, but people in my folks’ generation will log on to news services each morning,’ Hamilton says.
‘If they want to know what’s happening in the news, they’ll go in via the tablet or the computer and look it up. There’s no need for Facebook.’ They are seriously perplexed. Perhaps they need to hire an ethnographer to follow baby boomers as they make their digital way through their days. On Silverman’s satire-to-fake-news continuum, the Betoota Advocate is in The Onion’s territory. Unlike Montgomery, they are not concealing their identities for safety reasons but because they think they might hurt their chances in conventional journalism in the future. The closest thing to hate mail they receive, Hamilton says, is the odd ‘sternly worded email’. ‘It’s Australia,’ says Single. ‘We’re not going to be dragged out of our office and murdered in the street.’ Team Betoota has already enjoyed major success. In addition to the Vaucluse Bitter hoax, their biggest hitters have been an article about US playboy Dan Bilzerian being denied an Australian visa, a story about the TV brothers Karl and Peter Stefanovic drinking too much at their family Christmas get-together, and an item about a parking cop that earned them a spot on ABC TV’s Media Watch after Channel Nine followed it up. They already have a good track record in creating shareable content and a few theories about what makes a story share. Just as National Report and BuzzFeed have figured out, they say the most important component is the headline. Sounding just like an old-school subeditor, Single says you need to convey the essence of the story in seven to nine words.
One of their most shared stories exceeded that word count but worked just the same: ‘A mature-aged student has gone an entire lecture without asking a question.’ Anyone who has been to university knows what that means. No need to read further. While that headline is obviously satirical, Hamilton says the best have an air of plausibility. The drunk Stefanovics story was assembled around pictures from the brothers’ Instagram channels. Karl Stefanovic comes across as a party guy, so a story about his riotous drinking games at Christmas was not much of a stretch. Single and Hamilton also use confirmation bias in their satire. Single calls it ‘a gift to the state of mind’ of the audience, an offering many find difficult to refuse. The story about Dan Bilzerian is a case in point. Bilzerian is a very rich ex-navy, trust-funded playboy known as the ‘King of Instagram’ for publishing pictures showcasing his outrageous lifestyle in the Hollywood Hills. A quick scan of his account reveals countless images of women in lingerie, some holding guns and others with messages such as ‘Property of DB’ written across their backsides. Bilzerian is a ‘hot button’ who fires people up, says Hamilton. Loved by some, hated by many and leaving few indifferent, Bilzerian is perfect sharing fodder. Most who commented on Hamilton’s article were not in on the joke, despite obviously made-up quotes from Bilzerian such as: ‘I don’t give a fuck — Australia looks like shit anyway. I’d prefer to stay at home with my cat and sleep with women that I hate.’ The first comment on the article is typical: ‘No loss … this man is a pig.’
Hamilton and Single know they need to keep on their toes. Today’s hot button is tomorrow’s cold drink of water. They are constantly scanning the major news sites for trending subjects and celebrities. They know that the editors of these websites are themselves using telemetry to gauge audience interest in real time. Then they put their spin on the topic of the moment and send it out to Facebook, by far their biggest distribution channel. As I speak to Single and Hamilton, the Betoota Advocate is already supporting them financially after only 100 days in existence. They joke they’ll move into hospitality or construction if Facebook turns off the tap. To that extent, they find themselves in the same predicament as National Report. As we wind up our conversation I ask Single about the mission of the Betoota Advocate. He says something that could have come from the mouth of Montgomery. ‘The purpose is to pretty much make the line between what’s real and what’s not even blurrier,’ Single says. ‘It’s almost, in a way, trying to make sure all the bigger [media] players in the world … constantly ask themselves are they heading down our path?’ It is an absurdist’s explanation for his reason for being. I think the lesson for mainstream media — and marketers — is different. What we observe in the Betoota Advocate is two young journalists entirely dedicated to creating shareable content and experimenting every day with stories that must flourish in the Facebook news feed if they are to pay their way. It has forced Single and Hamilton to focus sharply on the topics that matter to people.
Occasionally they do not realise their own strength. In late December 2014, the Betoota Advocate apologised for a story about how animal welfare group the RSPCA had sanctioned dog fights in Queensland. ‘We were making a comment about how Queensland is still the cowboy state and how there were still dogfights in Queensland, which there are,’ says Hamilton, a Queenslander. ‘And we wrote a story about how the RSPCA was … going down a new path by providing vets at dog fights to minimise risk. ‘They were upset with us, understandably. We didn’t realise that a story that far-fetched would be believed.’ Single says a Queensland politician described them as old burnt-out journalists. ‘And we thought, “Yep, we’re burnt-out journalists at 24.”’ They later changed the story to say that the vets were part of a government scheme and issued an apology with a link to the RSPCA’s fundraising site. Of course, they can ignore many of the other conventions of journalism, but Single and Hamilton do not see themselves as journalists any more. By revealing their identities, they reckon they have burned their boats. I’m not so sure. I think both could return to mainstream journalism with valuable insights from the Facebook frontier. It is not that long since Single arrived at his desk at The Canberra Times to find an orange envelope containing the details of his redundancy. Now he is a half-owner and editor of a publishing business that has about twice the reach of the capital’s newspaper.
‘There are millions of people every week who are reading our stories,’ says Single, sounding as if he scarcely believes it himself. And that’s the power of the Facebook news feed for those who understand the drivers of stories that flourish there. It is not as easy to do this with real content, and the conventions — in particular, headline styles — are constantly evolving. The moral of this story is not that journalists or marketers should make stuff up. But in being aware of hot topics, in understanding how the audience is primed, in mining knowledge gaps and stitching them into pithy headlines, and in identifying and emphasising the narrative elements that drive Newsbreaking, Inspiring and Teaming, journalists can boost their chances of reaching those millions. These are the lessons people like Montgomery, Silverman, Single and Hamilton bring back from the sharing frontier.