They are the reason you might have thought Islamic State fighters infected with Ebola were crossing the US border. (They weren't.) Or that Facebook is going to start charging users a $2.99 monthly fee. (It isn't.) Or that Banksy was arrested. (He wasn't). Or that Obama is going to auction off all the marijuana seized by police since he took office. (We wish.)
Those are just a few of the recent stories by Allen Montgomery and Paul Horner, publisher and prankster-in-chief, respectively, of the fake news website National Report. They have carved out a niche for themselves with a form of satire that borders on disinformation. Like 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.
"We've been getting bunches and bunches of hate mail on the fear-bola," Montgomery told VICE News from his office in California, using a word he coined for coverage of the Ebola outbreak. "Some of these stories on Ebola we kind of bait the crazies out. You write something that will get a response from racists or bigots, these guys that are fearing everything — you write something to pull 'em out of the woodwork and sometimes they come running."
The site works because the headlines and first few paragraphs seem somewhat legitimate and plausible. The stories, however, are packed with absurdities. One of the recurring characters created by Horner is "Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin," a mascot that tours the country on a Monsanto-sponsored campaign against self-stimulation.
In the Banksy arrest hoax written by Horner, the street artist was supposedly busted for making a stencil of Fappy on a wall in London. Silly as it was, the rumor soon spread like wildfire — Montgomery says it got about 10 million page views in the first 24 hours. Many people fell for the ruse, and major news outlets scrambled to debunk the obviously fake story.
The hoaxes more frequently target the right wing territory dominated by Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. The site's design — lifted from the Huffington Post — is clean and professional, with a masthead flanked by pictures of Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin that frame the slogan "America's #1 Independent News Source."
A recent article on Obama's plan to declare November "National Muslim Appreciation Month" reads like a regular news story up until the very end, when readers are urged to direct questions and comments to "the 24-hour National Muslim Appreciation Hotline." In reality, the phone number is that of the Westboro Baptist Church. Listing the church's number in stories is another regular feature of Horner's work.
"I'll try calling it after a story comes out, and it's just busy," Horner told VICE News in an interview from his Phoenix home. "It makes me so happy to tie up their phone lines."
Montgomery started the site in February 2013 for fun and profit, but it evolved into what he describes as a sort of anti-propaganda effort against conservative rumormongering, particularly on Facebook. National Report's stories rely on both naivety and inattentiveness on the part of readers, banking on the fact that people will often read only the headline and skim the first few paragraphs of a story — if that — before sharing.
'You write something that will get a response from racists or bigots, these guys that are fearing everything — you write something to pull 'em out of the woodwork and sometimes they come running.'
"There's a lot to be learned on Facebook by these kinds of things," Montgomery said. "It's something that gets out of hand. Facebook is a great place for friendships and being social, but when it comes down to it, a news source it is not."
And yet roughly 30 percent of US adults now get their news on Facebook, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. A recent New York Times article suggested the growing influence of Facebook "raises questions about the ability of computers to curate news." The paper quoted a Facebook engineer as saying the site generally tries to let consumers decide for themselves what to read, avoiding "editorial judgment over the content that's in your feed."
In August, Facebook briefly experimented with a "satire" tag that appeared in the site's related links box — only visible after sharing, leaving the site, and then coming back to Facebook. The National Report received the tag, as did the Onion and a handful of other sites. Facebook spokesman Jesse Baker responded to a VICE News interview request about the company's efforts identify fake news with a brief statement about the satire tag.
"We show the text '[Satire]' in front of links to satirical articles in the related articles unit in News Feed," Baker said. "This is because we received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units."
A National Report video report about the site's Banksy arrest hoax.
The World Economic Forum said in a 2013 report that "massive digital misinformation" is one of the main risks for modern society — it can influence war, climate change, and voting. In March, the MIT Technology Review discussed the phenomenon of news hoaxes that "jump the credulity barrier," and emphasized the need to "improve the flow and labeling of information."
The MIT review highlighted a paper by Northeastern University researchers that analyzed the activity of 2.3 million Facebook users during the 2013 Italian election. The researchers, led by Walter Quattrociocchi, found that "feeding the trolls" sparks heated political debates, which make exchanges more visible on Facebook, which creates more virality. It turned out that the people most concerned about being misled were the ones most frequently getting burned by fake news.
"Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media 'mass-manipulation,' are the most responsive to the injection of false claims," Quattrociocchi wrote.
Horner says all it takes is a semi-plausible headline and two quick paragraphs to provoke outrage. His story about Obama paying to keep a Muslim museum open during the government shutdown last year fooled Fox News, and when he wrote that "Argon Elementary School" in San Francisco was suspending a fourth-grader for saying "Merry Christmas," the real-life Argonne Elementary in the Bay Area received a barrage of email tirades, angry phone calls, and "veiled threats of violence."
Footage of FOX News anchors falling for a National Report hoax.
"The people in this echo chamber of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, they're morons," Horner said. "They think the most insane things about Obama, just backward thinking when they should be concerned about real stuff, like Edward Snowden and the NSA. Some of them are, but their priorities are out whack."
The 35-year-old Horner may have another reason to take pleasure trolling extreme conservatives. His father is Steve Horner, an anti-feminist right-wing author who has written a book titled "C.U.N.T. (Can't Understand Normal Thinking)." He has also campaigned against ladies' night promotions in Las Vegas, arguing that they promote gender bias and violate his civil rights.
Steve Horner responded to a VICE News email asking about Paul and National Report by suggesting that "both you and Paul invest $5.95 for my latest book 'C.U.N.T.', which is quite contrary to Paul's blatant bullshit; it tells the truth about everything from A-Z (abortion to Zionism)."
"He is that person," Paul Horner tells us. "He's the Fox News caricature. He's definitely been an inspiration. I love sending him my stuff. We don't really get along, he just says it's not funny and it's lies."
In a way, Horner has likewise made himself into a caricature by using his own name in many of his fake news stories. The popular Banksy story said the artist's real name is Paul Horner. In his story about the Facebook monthly fee, he was the company spokesman. He also wrote an article declaring himself the winner of the "World's Biggest Penis" award, which now appears in many Google search results for his name.
"He's been the most evil person, the best person," Horner said of the many internet legends he has created for himself. "He's every character you can think of."
Horner went to art school to study graphic design but ended up working a "serious job" at a mortgage company. In his spare time, he started aggregating viral web content — "like Tosh.0 stuff" — and self-publishing satire. His first hit was a story that proclaimed himself the winner of a multi-million dollar Maryland lottery jackpot. He cracks up repeatedly telling the story.
"I wrote myself in as the winner as the biggest asshole the world," Horner recalled. "I was already the richest guy in Maryland. I said I'd use the money to fix up my G5 and the rest to donate the to the Rick Santorum presidential campaign — just everything I could think to piss off the internet."
'I'd like to think that if you're posting things enough times that people know aren't real, that you personally begin to lose credibility.'
Horner joined National Report as a contributor about a year ago, and says he first experimented with more straightforward mockery in the style of The Daily Show and the Onion, but that he failed to attract many readers, which is how he gets paid. After the site switched to conservative trolling, Horner said, the page views soared. In a Reddit AMA in October, Horner boasted of earning $30,000 in ad revenue from Google over the past three months.
"We found that by placing Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin at the top of the site and just really trying to do this Fox News-type website on steroids, that's when things really exploded," he told VICE News.
Montgomery says the site doesn't necessarily skew one way or the other politically, and defends himself against one common criticism: that National Report is perpetuating rumor-mongering, thereby making extreme conservatives more entrenched in their beliefs. The publisher said his intention is to get people called out on Facebook for sharing fake news, which might make them less likely to blindly share in the future.
"I'd like to think that if you're posting things enough times that people know aren't real, that you personally begin to lose credibility," Montgomery said. "I'd like to round the edge off on the fringe on the right for those things. We don't have a political agenda or motivation, we like to think of everybody as a target, but at this point it's kind of an information war going on and they [conservatives] seem to be winning fairly hardcore on Facebook."
According to Sean Munson, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the diversity of political information people read online and how it affects their behavior, there's no clear evidence that the right wing holds any special sway over Facebook or other forms of social media. But an "echo chamber" phenomenon can occur if readers are isolated in their own online social circles.
Munson told VICE News that the Facebook "echo chamber" is partly influenced by the fact that people tend to have friends who agree with them, and that Facebook algorithms tend to feed you content they think you want to see. But he also said there's still no research that proves one ideology is more pervasive than others.
Tweets from the National Report about Facebook.
"I haven't seen anything that really convinces me liberals or conservatives are more effective at spreading their message," Munson said. "It's organic. It's individual choices about what to post."
Munson said his research suggests that ideological sequestration isn't any worse online than it is in other media. Even though nearly every media outlet in the world is now at our fingertips, most people stick with a few sites they like or trust.
"When you look at what people read, studies I've done and others have done, it turns out they do use the internet to access ideologically agreeable news," Munson said. "But they do the same thing with TV and print media. It's only a little bit worse. It's not as bad as people predicted."
But Facebook still holds at least the opportunity for exposure to different political points of view. According to a joint 2013 study by researchers at Georgia Tech and the University of Minnesota, 40 percent of the US adult population reports that their friends post political content on social network sites, and 15 percent of content that users share on Facebook is political.
A National Report hoax about a plan by President Obama to auction off marijuana seized by law enforcement.
Researchers Catherine Grevet and Eric Gilbert surveyed 103 Facebook users during the months when gun control, gay marriage, and federal budget cuts were dominating the headlines. They found that people who "perceive more friends as holding viewpoints different to their own engage less on Facebook than those with more similarity in their network."
They also found that "echo chamber" or "filter bubble" effects definitely exist, but only to a certain extent — 73 percent of social media users reported disagreeing with a friend's post. Yet only 18 percent opted to unfriend, unblock, or hide posts from that friend. So what happens in those other interactions?
"Participating in conversations around political debates often amounted to avoiding confrontation and siding with like-minded friends," the authors found. They also concluded that, "when politics appear on Facebook there is currently more opportunity for politically engaged users to become more polarized rather than to converse with the other side."
Montgomery and Horner say that the trick to fooling people into posting fake news as real is to come up with stories that readers want to believe. When Horner wrote that Dennis Rodman was headed to the Middle East to meet with Islamic State leaders, he said people bought it hook, line, and sinker because Rodman's reputation made it seem within the realm of possibility.
"It's this idea of confirmation bias," Montgomery said. "We write things people already want to believe, things they're much more prone to pass on, and people kind of suspend critical thinking, so to speak."
Horner said he's also pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, and gave the impression that his writing for National Report is as much for the lulz as it is an endeavor to make people savvier news consumers. That said, he claimed that some hoax stories are his personal form of activism, like a viral piece he wrote about a 15-year-old kid getting sentenced to 25 years in jail for a "swatting" prank.
"There wasn't a lot of satire there," Horner said. "I see these things that are wrong in society. I'm not a congressman and I'm not a senator, but I have a voice. Those are the scare stories I wrote, to scare little assholes from doing that shit."
Sometimes the National Report stories outrage enough people that they require a formal, non-satirical response. That happened in August with a hoax about an NYPD officer who killed a 3-month-old infant after a woman on a public park bench refused to stop breastfeeding. The story spawned a firestorm of fury directed at both the NYPD — from people who didn't understand the story was fake — and at National Report for their flippancy.
"Satire is not required to be humorous, nor was this particular post meant to be funny," Montgomery wrote in a response to the outrage that has since been deleted along with the original story. "Police brutality is a very real and very serious issue. If you are looking for safe, neatly packaged laughs, then please continue reading the Onion as your only source of satire."
Montgomery stood by those remarks in his interview with VICE News, saying he "doesn't feel bad" for people who get burned by his fake news. He pointed out in his since-deleted non-apology that the satire seemed to be doing its job, judging by the frenzied response.
"The reason this story struck such a chord with readers is that it hits too close to reality," Montgomery wrote. "While we thought we were making the story outlandish enough (seriously, killing a baby over a breastfeeding argument) to be questioned by reasonable readers, the fact it wasn't is more of a reflection on the NYPD (and possibly police brutality, in general) than of National Report."
_Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: _@keegan_hamilton