You can't manufacture virality. But once you recognize it, it's easy to siphon off a piece of the action, if you act fast. This is what's happening with Pokemon Go. It has gotten extraordinarily popular extraordinarily quickly: about 7.5 million people in the United States have downloaded the game in less than a week. When I walked out of VICE's Brooklyn office, I nearly ran into a married couple from Tampa staring at their phones, trying to catch a Doduo. I caught one too.
There is money to be made off the frenzy. On Saturday, YouTuber PewDiePie posted a video titled "POKEMON GO | GOING TOO FAR?" The video is mostly PewDiePie grunting in a city park as he "hunts" Pokemon with a toy crossbow. In two days, the video got 6.3 million views. At news websites, every possible take has been written, including more than one discussing Pokemon Go in the context of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
But the website that appears to be the most mercenary in capturing Pokemon Go-related interest is CartelPress.com. As GQ points out, Cartel Press is the source of most of the scariest Pokemon Go stories, including, "Pokemon GO: Teen Kills Younger Brother Because He Thought He Deleted His Pokemon"; "Pokemon Go: Major Highway Accident After Man Stops In Middle Of Highway To Catch Pikachu!"; "ISIS Is Taking Responsibility For "Pokemon Go'S Login Problems; Server Issues."
These stories are hoaxes.
The owner of Cartel Press is Pablo Reyes, a 26-year-old from Dallas. When I asked where he lived, he told me he'd moved to Bel-Air, because, "I lived in Dallas, and I used to play basketball with a bunch of my friends. One time I was at basketball court, and I got into a fight, and my mom got scared…" He delivered the lyrics to the theme song of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in a perfect deadpan. Then Reyes said he'd tell me the real story as long as I printed that Fresh Prince part.
So, reader beware: We are talking to someone who claims to be a proud hoaxer.
Reyes said he still lives in Dallas, and that he started a "fauxtire" site — which he pronounced fox-tire), called Huzlers.com, with his friend David Martinez in 2013 after watching a documentary on prankster Alan Abel. (Abel ran a fake anti-breastfeeding group that protested the 2000 Republican National Convention, claiming it was incestuous.)
Huzlers was intended to be a site where anyone could write fake news about their friends.
The idea was that the funniest stories would get the most clicks, and get pulled onto the homepage. But it failed, because of human vanity.
"It didn't really work out," Reyes says, because the articles would automatically show up on the front page, "and it was mostly people promoting their music or promoting themselves. It wasn't really funny. It wasn't really interesting." It'd be some guy talking about his mixtape.
Cartel Press is supposed to be a return to Reyes's original vision: "to let people write bullshit news because news most of the time already is bullshit." Reyes pointed to the Edgar Allen Poe quote, "Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see." (This maxim is usually misquoted and often attributed to Ben Franklin.)
"I'm a person that believes news lies a lot," Reyes said. He's had several big successes, like editing a 2015 Facebook post to make it look like he predicted the deaths of Prince and Muhammad Ali (and Donald Trump). Facebook users shared it 213,000 times.
'People always expect something anyways so if you write about it beforehand it's like you predicted it.'
The Cartel Press site isn't finished yet. Reyes wrote the Pokemon Go articles to test the algorithm that would push the most popular articles to the homepage. It worked better than expected. "I knew that it would probably blow up because people were talking about it, but I didn't write it with the intention that it would blow up like it did. … I didn't expect people to take it seriously. I was just testing the method."
When I spoke to Reyes, six of the seven articles featured at the top of the site's homepage were about Pokemon Go. (The seventh was headlined, "1 Year-Old Baby Survives 2 Weeks Eating Roaches After Mom Dies In Shower.") During this wave of fake Pokemon stories, the site got a lot of traffic, but they weren't his most successful troll ever: "Valentines Day Tragedy: Teen Masturbated 56 Times Straight Before Dying Of Heart Attack" was more widely shared. Huzlers and Cartel Press get around 5 million unique visitors a month, and they make money from Google AdSense, though Reyes didn't want to say how much "for security reasons, for a lot of reasons."
The hoax stories generally seem to satirize the fear-mongering tone of TV news and tabloids. "Teen Playing 'Pokemon Go' Stabbed And Mugged For His IPhone; In Bad Neighborhood" seems particularly Drudge Report-worthy. Reyes says he likes to satirize people's worst suspicions about humanity. "People are gonna google this shit. People are gonna think that this shit is gonna happen eventually," he said. "People always expect something anyways so if you write about it beforehand it's like you predicted it."
Reyes said that over the the years, he's gotten a lot of interview requests from journalists when his pranks reached a critical mass of social media dupes. He usually ignored them, except giving BuzzFeed a short interview at a bar last month.
But, Reyes said, "I can't stay in the shadows forever." While we were on the phone, the Washington Post tried to call him, Reyes said. He would call them back. Not that he would read them. "Cartel Press gives people the opportunity to write their own bullshit, instead of going to CNN or Fox and reading their bullshit."
Follow Elle Reeve on Twitter: @elspethreeve