I am known by many people as many things, but above all I am a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and by all means, a hard-working, middle-class American. My educational background in political science and mass communications led to random jobs in publishing, and eventually to a position in software, which I have maintained for the past 10 years. Unfortunately, this isn’t a story about some random guy living a regular life.
Among the many things I referenced, I am also known under my pseudonym “Allen Montgomery”, founder of DisInfoMedia, Inc., and the subject of an NPR investigation that exposed me, Jestin Coler, as what NPR referred to as the “King of Fake News.” I began my foray into fake news as an attempt, likely misguided, to understand the science behind creating viral content and how such content was distributed through social media. My flagship site, National Report, launched in 2013, along with roughly a dozen sister sites.
The first year of the site focused on building an audience, building a team of contributors, and exploring the limits of what people would believe. I built the site myself and contributors submitted content for free, so overhead consisted of monthly hosting fees and Facebook marketing, which I paid out-of-pocket. As a news junkie, I had become fixated on the rise of what is now considered the “alt-right,” and personally focused on spreading what I knew to be fictional content with hopes it would be republished by right-wing sites in order to discredit their reputation. I noticed large groups, primarily on Facebook, pushing information that I knew to be false about President Obama, or Democrats in general, and was curious to see how exactly that happened.
As our traffic grew, and our Alexa rating dropped, advertisers came calling. For the first time, I realized the potential financial benefits. The motivation then changed from simply messing around online to supplementing my income to assist in providing for my family. During the next year, I focused my time on studying analytics and monetizing the site through ad networks.
National Report implemented a business model where contributors were paid not through the corporation, but through their own Google AdSense accounts. Ads in-content were paid to the contributor, while ads under-content or on the sidebar went to the “house” to pay for things like hosting, images, development, marketing, legal, etc.
This method proved lucrative for both contributors and the corporation, as it provided incentive for contributors to push the envelope with regard to content and encouraged them to do their own promotion. Since editorial direction was bottom up, not top down, contributors had the freedom to write about topics that interested them and were given free rein to explore their own creativity—within reason.
Through this method, National Report and its sister sites were able to reach nearly 100 million pageviews peddling stories of random variety—hoaxes, pranks, fake news, satire, etc. Contributors were making far more than at any other site of its genre—and were happy to be involved.
In January 2015, Facebook announced changes to its algorithm to slow traffic from my site and sites like mine. I then made the editorial decision to avoid fake news and focus on the more accepted literary practice of traditional satire.
I spent a lot of time thinking through the various ways in which previous sites had been debunked. I saw many players in the genre putting out viral stories surrounding the election and was assured by everyone in the media that Hillary had the election in hand. So I made the decision to run with the Denver Guardian. The site was up just five days, but a story published regarding the mysterious death of a fictional FBI agent investigating Hillary emails was viewed by roughly 1.6 million people, angering one NPR reporter enough to track me down and expose my identity.
Soon after the election a narrative was born suggesting that fake news influenced the election, and I became a public face of the fake news industry as well as a scapegoat for both a failed presidential campaign and a shocked media, one that provided non-stop, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump but didn’t understand how he could have won.
Based on my experience, here’s what journalists need to know about covering fake news and those who create it:
- While Google AdSense, arguably the highest paying ad network, has taken minor steps to disincentivize fake news sites, there are many ad networks willing and eager to take their place. Discussing specific financial benefits of creating fake news leads to more players entering the game. I know many of the players in the industry and can say without a doubt that money is the primary motivation.
- The term “fake news” has transformed significantly since the election. Being more concise with the language used to describe fake news would be beneficial. Lumping hyper-partisan content that contains grains of truth but is sensationalized to fit a narrative alongside content that is on-its-face fictional muddies the waters and leads those on the left and the right to denounce anything they don’t agree with as fake news.
- This is not an issue isolated to the fringe right. Both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to fake news, and with the recent shift in the balance of power I see liberals as being a prime target for anything negative about President Trump or his administration.
- Censoring speech is not the answer. In her first public appearance following her loss, Hillary Clinton called for private and public sector action to “stop” fake news. Harry Reid followed suit, suggesting Facebook and Google need to do more to crack down on fake news, stating, “Maybe it is a slippery slope, but let’s start going down the slope.” The idea of limiting speech is far more dangerous to democracy than fake news. As long as there is a demand for this type of content there will continue to be suppliers.
What can news outlets learn from the appeal of fake news to audiences?
The goal of fake news with which I am most familiar—not state-sponsored propaganda, hyper-partisan content, or news that you don’t agree with—is money through ad sales. Stories that work best are those that are sensational in nature, but appeal to the consumer’s confirmation bias.
In order to maximize pageviews and increase revenue, stories aim to create an emotional response to get readers to share content. That emotional response can be one of hope, inspiration, anger, fear, etc., but the end goal is the share. While reaching a single reader is nice, reaching that reader and their hundred(s) of contacts is far nicer.
Newsrooms have lost touch with their audiences and should focus their attention on a deeper understanding of their consumers by studying their language and the topics that concern them most, while working to produce content that creates emotional connections to individual readers. A common criticism of the media is that “they” (journalists) are elitist and focus on pushing agendas. Making personal connections with consumers by being transparent, putting aside personal bias and focusing on individual readers, can go a long way with rebuilding trust.
Where do we go from here?
While some suggest fake news is responsible for the decline in trust in traditional media sources, I would argue the opposite. Fake news is the result of declining trust. As consumers of content become more disheartened by trusted sources, they seek information from sources that are less credible. In that regard, President Trump may be a blessing in that his continued criticism of the media has led to deep conversations about the future of journalism and the important role played by the fourth estate.
As for me, my time in the fake news industry has come to an end. My attempt to understand the flow of information led to a place of which I’m not particularly proud. What started as a hobby grew far larger than I had expected and brought untold stress upon my family and myself.
I had considered my efforts at raising awareness about the need for fact-checking and holding news outlets accountable for doing their due diligence to be noble, but seeing the president himself falling victim to, and spreading, fictional stories made me realize my efforts were less than helpful. Discussions of potential global impact, the influence of foreign actors, and questions of shifting trust have reminded me of the importance of truth. I remain hopeful for the future of journalism, an industry I have always held in the highest regard, and look forward to what comes next in the information revolution.