The godfather of fake news

Christopher Blair takes a sip of his coffee.

Then he carefully focuses on one of the three screens in front of him.

He’s in his home office, 45 minutes outside Portland, Maine, on the US East Coast.

Stroking his thick beard, he looks at his bookmarks bar.

He takes another sip before his coffee goes cold, inhales long and hard, then logs into the back end of one of his many websites.

He begins by choosing a subject. Which “lucky” politician will be on the receiving end of his attention today?

Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? One of the Obamas?

Or maybe the subject of his story won’t be a person, but a policy. Gun control? Police brutality? Feminism? Anything that will push buttons.

Perhaps he’ll make up a controversial incident, a crime, a new law or a constitutional amendment.

“Changing” the US constitution is particularly fun – he’s already written more than 30 fake amendments. (There are only 27 genuine ones.)

Blair sits back in his chair and focuses intently on the screen. He leans forward, places his hands on the keyboard and starts the same way he does every time.

Caps lock. BREAKING. Colon…

BREAKING: Clinton Foundation Ship Seized at Port of Baltimore Carrying Drugs, Guns and Sex Slaves

The words flow from the thoughts in his head. Unconnected to reality, he needs no research, and no notes.

His fingers rhythmically tap the keys. Letters form into words, words into sentences and sentences into a blog of about 200 words.

It doesn’t take long to write.

Publish.

Blair sits back in his chair and watches the likes and shares roll in.

The Fact Checker.

More than 3,000 miles (5,000km) away in a small town an hour east of the Belgian capital, Brussels, there’s another office in another family home.

Outside, children play in the garden on a warm summer’s afternoon.

Maarten Schenk navigates the steep set of stairs to his basement office. There’s an L-shaped desk in one corner – in another, a cooler is filled with bottles of peach-flavoured iced tea.

His desk resembles Blair’s. On it, sit three computer monitors, with the machine hard drives tucked away neatly underneath.

On one of the screens, he suddenly notices a lot of activity. The US is waking up, and spiking numbers on one page catch Schenk’s attention.

He watches as one particular story is gathering momentum and is quickly being shared on Facebook and other social networks.

Schenk logs into his own website and starts to type.

His job is to tell the world that what he’s seeing online – the story that’s currently going viral about a Clinton Foundation ship, allegedly carrying drugs, guns and sex slaves – is a complete fabrication.

It’s fake news.

During the 2016 US presidential election, journalists began noticing a rash of viral made-up stories on Facebook.

Bizarrely, many of the pages appeared to be posted by people from the Balkans and, after BuzzFeed reported on an unusual cluster of pages, reporters flocked to a small town called Veles in Macedonia.

“The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” one faker told the BBC. “Who cares if they are true or false?”

The stories were, in the main, pitched to Donald Trump supporters. They included rumours about Hillary Clinton’s health problems and illegal dealings, stories about luminaries like Pope Francis lining up behind the Republican candidate, and other false news sure to either please or rile Trump’s supporters.

Satire – not news, not opinion, and not propaganda – is how Blair describes his work.

His aim is to trick conservative Americans into sharing false news, in the hope of showing what he calls their “stupidity”.

“We’ve gone out of our way to market it as satire, to make sure that everybody knows that this isn’t real,” he says, pointing out that some of his pages have more prominent disclaimers than the world-famous satire site The Onion.

Once his stories go viral, the Facebook comments burst forth. And that’s when Christopher Blair the fake news writer becomes Christopher Blair the crusading left-wing troll.

“The mission with the trolling first and foremost is we pull them into the comments [section underneath each fake article],” he says.

It’s then that he starts on the offensive. The faker becomes the exposer, weeding out and reporting the most extreme users among his fans.

“I can show you hundreds of profiles we’ve had taken down,” he says. He claims that he’s exposed Ku Klux Klan members and hardcore racists.

“We’ve had people fired from their jobs,” he says.

“We’ve exposed them to their families. Say what you want about me being a monster. I’m pretty proud.”

Read the complete article on the BBC web site here.

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