You may have been shocked to learn last week that the anonymous artist known as Banksy was arrested by an anti-graffiti task force in London and revealed to be Paul Horner, a 35-year-old man from Liverpool. None of that is remotely true—but why couldn’t it be?
That’s the philosophy behind the National Report, the fake news site that reported the story, complete with “confirmations” from the BBC as well as Banksy’s PR rep and handling service. (Those links led to homepages on which no such corroboration appeared.) It’s one of dozens of vaguely titled sites that traffick in phony articles, including the News Nerd, MediaMass, Empire News, and the Daily Currant. And while many of these outlets’ reports defy anyone to take them seriously—“Deadly Heebola Virus Discovered In Israel,” anyone?—others verge on dangerous plausibility, designed to court panicked clicks from the overly credulous.
The Banksy piece, according to Allen Montgomery, the National Report’s publisher, is the site’s greatest success to date. Aside from the hundreds of lively comments from people taking it at face value, it’s attracted more than 6 million pageviews and been shared a staggering 3.25 million times on social media—suggesting that more than half of the people who read it passed it along to their friends. Can the Internet really be so dumb?
“At NR we almost always have a tell of some sort that should throw red flags for those being critical of the content they are consuming,” Montgomery told the Daily Dot in an email, brushing of the question of transparency. “[W]hen reading a news story, secondary sourcing is important as is the credibility of the source itself. If you are reading news on a site that you have never heard of, or from a site that is known to be partisan, it is always a good idea to run a quick Google search to find other (reliable) sources reporting the same information.”
Montgomery is National Report’s sole staffer; he manages 15-20 unpaid, scattered contributors at any given time. They’re largely allowed to pursue their own ideas and “have their own followings” online, but the organization is barely concerned with competition. “This is a large market and there is plenty of pie to go around,” Montgomery said. There’s also, he acknowledges, an artistic divide between the National Report and something like the Onion, which has also been known to confuse gullible readers. National Reports actively produces viral “misinformation,” whereas the Onion is more directly satirical. Montogomery added:
“While [the approaches] are different, the overlap between the two is considerable enough to blur the lines. While sites like the Onion have made it difficult to be considered satirical without knee-slapping, in-your-face type humor, satire in a historical sense simply is a vehicle for making readers think and hoaxes often fit this category. Confirmation bias is strong with readers, so oftentimes a hoax is also satirical in that it can spark conversation, change opinions, etc.”
This Swiftian line certainly explains why a good percentage of National Report stories contain nary a joke. “Humor in itself is not required to be a successful writer at NR,” Montgomery said. “We like to keep a balance of funny/slapstick, hoaxes and misinformation. If a reader is misled by something they read, it should only take a trip to the home page to confirm whether or not a story is true.”
“[W]e haven’t been negatively impacted,” Montgomery said. “[I]t will be interesting to see what exactly their criteria is for labelling fake news as such while allowing ‘real’ networks/personalities (FOX, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, etc.) to publish lies/misinformation without the label.” The comparison isn’t baseless: National Report likes to target“conspiracy types” with material about “RFID chips, Chemtrails, 9/11 Truthers,” and the like. “[A]nd of course anything that is negative of President Obama gets the fringe all lathered up,” he said. “Stories that bring out racists, bigots, haters … often lead to comments that are laugh-out-loud funny.”
Even so, we wonder if there might come a tipping point when everyone would realize, on sight, that a National Review story isn’t true, though this assumes anyone who posts them is ever corrected. “I suppose it is possible, but we are certainly far from being a household name with regards to fake news,” Montgomery said. “Readers are still fooled by pieces from the Onion, so we aren’t too concerned about it, but we do have a contingency plan in place for if/when that happens.” Start publishing real journalism? That’s as far-fetched as the fake stuff.
For now, the ad money is rolling in (some writers “have their own advertising accounts and several are able to make a really decent living as contributors,” Montgomery said), and the general public has shown no interest in discerning between patently false news and the real thing. So be on your guard, and remember: If a website you’ve never heard of scoops the biggest story of the week, it’s probably a pack of lies—but those have a way of thriving online.