We talk to Jestin Coler, dubbed the (retired) “Fake News King” by NPR. He tells us how the fake news craze has changed media, and where we can go from here.
After the the 2016 fake news bubble burst, the world was shaken. Where did these fake articles come from? Who were the masterminds behind some of the arguably most damaging stories? What had motivated the creators?
As Macedonian powerhouses and other sources were revealed, we learned that some of these stories came right from the U.S.. Enter Jestin Coler, the creator behind the National Report and Denver Guardian. Both were the home of major hoaxes leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Jestin took us through his fake news journey, how hyper-partisan news is now the most damaging content out there, and what media, readers, and tech platforms alike can learn.
Life After Fake News
Q: What are you up to these days, since the initial fake news hysteria?
Jestin: Things have quieted significantly over the past month or so. I have “retired” from the fake news industry and have been traveling the country speaking at journalism events and with journalism students. I appeared on Dr. Oz, 60 Minutes, did a keynote at SxSW with the head of research for Google Jigsaw.
Currently I am working on a book, consulting with a couple tech companies on methods of identifying and slowing misinformation, and spending time with my family.
So are you advocating looking at the world in a new way, in the aftermath of fake news?
I’m not sure what they’re necessarily learning from my experience. I think I have a unique perspective and am able to put a face on the industry, making it less evil.
The stuff I was into, no one was doing this as propaganda. The motivation was financial. A lot of these people are screwing around online and seeing what goes viral and doesn’t. I never even thought about people using it to influence one way or another.
The Fake News Gold Rush
What made you start creating fake news then?
I’m most known for Denver Guardian but that was just one site I put together. I got my reputation from the National Report and sister sites built through my company, DisInfoMedia.
I had been a writer for quite a long time, I got a job in the software industry and I was looking for a way to keep writing. I started writing for a satire site, and when they closed up shop, I wanted to keep doing this.
I had become fascinated by this super partisan rightwing media. They were putting together things that were totally false. I wanted to see how it all works. What makes a viral story, and what makes people believe this kind of stuff?
I started the National Report in February 2013 with a buddy of mine; we started messing around online and writing hoaxes. I always considered the site to be entertainment; we wrote straight-up hoaxes, “fake news” and satire.
That was 2013; I didn’t think that we could be profitable. By the end of the year, advertisers started coming to us, and in 2014 we just exploded.
In 2013, I think we had one story that hit 30,000 page views. In 2014, there were several that hit over 6 million views.
What were some of those successes?
We did a hoax that Banksy had been arrested. We did a series of stories about an Ebola outbreak in Texas that scared the pants off everybody. It was our modern day version of the “War of the Worlds” — we said that we were the only outlet that was allowed to get in before the media gag order.
In January 2015, Facebook announced changes to algorithms to choke out sites like mine. Our traffic took a huge hit. I had a friendship with the guys I was writing with, and I enjoyed their creativity, so I made the decision to switch to more traditional satire…not trying to be deceitful, just entertaining.
Once I made the editorial change, several of our contributors left to go do their own sites, because they wanted to keep doing the fake news stuff, and they were putting out several stories that went viral.
I guess my ego kind of got the best of me when I saw that. I did my best to build a site that would get around traditional debunking techniques, so I put together the Denver Guardian. That’s where my infamy came from.
Audience Building and Emotion Stirring
How did you build your audience initially?
A lot of the things that contributed to our success wouldn’t translate that well to a reputable publication. We did more guerrilla techniques, building Facebook users that were fake, infiltrating groups that were susceptible to the content we were going to spread around.
I never put a large focus on building a social following. I did right out of the gate, but it doesn’t really help unless you’re paying Facebook.
So we did a more grassroots approach, standard media manipulation techniques. A lot of people get into bot discussion these days, but we didn’t do that. I wish I had known about that, to tell you now.
We’d work on getting emotional responses from readers so they would share stories. You want to hit some buttons – whether they laugh or make them angry – that gets them to share it to hundreds of their friends. Then it might get picked up by other news outlets as being possibly true.
Most people are not trying to stir emotions when reporting a story. Were there particular emotions you’d be aiming for? What content is suited for this?
The confirmation bias is what you’re going for. You don’t need a story that’s over the top or clickbait. As long as your site looks legitimate and you have these fictional stories that people want to be true, they’ll spread it all around. You’re just fitting into the mentality that a lot of people already have.
You don’t have to get super emotional, but confirming biases works well when you’re trying to build audiences. All newsrooms have their own biases, right? Everybody does it. It’s just like entertainment, you turn on the news and people are talking about the stories you want to hear about.
As long as you really study your audience, you can get traffic.
Today we have more and more data that can help us figure out how to push people’s buttons. Where do we go from here?
That’s a good question.
If Hillary had won, it’s likely there wouldn’t have been this renaissance of journalism. They would have just gone about their day. Now there are studies on journalism itself, like “X% of journalists live in counties that supported Clinton”.
It’s not just about the news right now. Facebook doesn’t help by building these bubbles, they make you get deeper.
I had separate Facebook profiles just for this reason, one for the left, and one for the right. And there was just stuff on both that would anger anybody.
There are a lot of discussions taking place on who is responsible. I don’t think journalism has failed so much, but there are definitely ways to get better. It’s just bad practice — I see journalists falling into the same trap of pushing away opportunities to bridge the gap, in favor of clicks and such.
We’re not as divided as our politics suggest. To that point, the rightwing has really mastered this stuff. If you call this an info war, then they are just destroying the liberals. They’ve entrenched themselves in the idea that media is fake.
Liberals are prime targets for fake news right now. They want to believe anything that’s fake about Trump, about Russia. I don’t know that fighting fire with fire is the right way. These folks are likely making a lot of money and just loving it.
Hyper-partisan stuff is really popular right now. It doesn’t get the same negative feedback as “fake news”, which to me is surprising, because it’s just as damaging.
Why is fake news worse in the U.S. vs other places?
It’s been growing so long here — the constant decay of media, from Trump himself, “fake news this, fake news that”, this was totally just trying to trash the free press.
Some voters are kind of anti-establishment anyway and buy into conspiracy more than other folks. It’s a unique blend.
In France, Facebook right away removed 30,000 fake accounts. Here, there was a lot of fake stuff going on about the French election, but none of them spoke French right? They were just coming from 4chan.
We talk a lot about anger and politics, are there other emotional trends that work?
The things that make people happy always safe bets. Videos of cute dogs, soldiers returning home—those feel-good type stories that no matter what party you’re from, you’ll enjoy. Humor and satire, in my experience, doesn’t sell nearly as well as stories that invoke anger or fear. The only thing that sells better than sex is fear.
Facebook seems to have received the most ire for fake news. Are there other places that have traction for misinformation?
I’m starting to see Facebook as just a spam machine. I haven’t really seen it on Twitter as much. I know in places like China and India are using chat platforms (like WhatsApp) to spread around disinformation.
I’ve tried to get things to pop on Reddit, but the community of users is a bit more skeptical and they hop on things that are fake pretty quickly.
Facebook was really the key to the whole thing. 90 percent of our traffic came directly from Facebook.
The audiences are just so different on Facebook and Twitter. Grandmas are on Facebook, there’s more of a family/community thing. One day Grandma joins a Trump group and now Grandma’s getting a constant stream of fringe sources. Before you know it, Grandma has been “red-pilled’ and is a full blown radical.
Where can Facebook and journalism institutes go from here?
The people on the right don’t at all trust the Poynter Institute to tell them what’s right or wrong. It just gets people more entrenched. They’ve even created their own fact-checking institution on the right, which is just awesome.
It’s a wild world, online.
Zuckerberg’s in a tough spot. I do not envy his position. I get angry because he took down my traffic, but then I think he should’ve done it sooner. This should’ve been a focus of the media years ago. I’ve been talking about this to anyone would listen for years now, and no one did a thing.
Downranking those sites spreading fake news, educating public better, disincentivizing the fake news and hyper-partisan sites by having advertisers change where they spend… It’s going to be a multi-pronged deal. As soon as they do any kind of censoring, they’re going to p*ss someone off.
I don’t know what to tell Zuckerberg, he’s kind of let the genie out of the bottle and I don’t know how he or us as a society are going to get him back in.
Thanks for sharing with us, Jestin. We look forward to hearing more at WhipSmart. Register today for your chance to see Jestin Coler and other media professionals talk about the modern newsroom.
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