Facebook is a big and maddening place. Antiviral wants to make it better. To that end, we're putting together a comprehensive guide to the new, bad, weird, and bullshit "news sites" that are appearing on your feed. Here's part one: "Satire."
Ever since Facebook completed its evolution from a Friendster ripoff to an internet-transforming Elder God that can send millions of people to a single website at the twitch of an algorithm, a parasitic sub-genre of "satirical" news sources has latched onto the News Feed and thrived. Some of them lie to readers outright, with believable headlines that are only revealed as fabrications if you click through and read their disclaimers. Others make sincere, if weak, attempts at genuine satire. Their headlines don't aim to trick you into sharing, but they don't make any particular effort not to.
All of them are bullshit.
Facebook's News Feed, which uses proprietary calculations to determine what you see when you load the site, tend to reward sites that break news—but can't itself determine what counts as news. This makes it a perfect target for hoax sites. Although the wisdom of crowds acts as a natural vaccine against bullshit—skeptical friends love to point out when you've been fooled by a hoax, and the more friends you have, the more likely it is that one of them will catch it—it often acts too slowly. These sites aren't trying to earn your trust or win you as a repeat visitor, they're trying to fool you once (shame on them) and profit from a big Facebook score.
In January, on the same day that an Edelman survey found Google is now considered more trustworthy than the actual news sites it indexes, Facebook announced it will begin letting users flag fake news as fake in an attempt to cut back the spread of misinformation.
"The vast majority of publishers on Facebook will not be impacted by this update. A small set of publishers who are frequently posting hoaxes and scams will see their distribution decrease," wrote the engineers behind the change.
How did it come to this? Let's meet some of the candidates for inclusion in that "small set of publishers," the crap-factories that have been ruining it for the rest of us since 2013 and, presumably, making a profit doing it.
Based in: Real America
National Report is a (bad) "satire" site full of conservative-slanted "news" stories that seem absurd on their face, unless you're the exact kind of person they're attempting to mock: The Tea Party enthusiast who's willing to believe anything negative about the evil Muslim atheist communist monarch Baracks Hussein Obummer.
"We have been targeting Tea Party types recently as they are the most gullible and are willing to spread misinformation across the internet with little/no research," National Report publisher "Allen Montgomery" told the Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune in 2014.
"In general, people are eager to suspend critical thinking if what they are reading confirms their viewpoint," Montgomery told The Daily Banter in a 2014 interview, where he also described fooling people as "a public service" intended to make them think more critically about the media.
The National Report officially states its purpose as an online portal for general news and commentary from its staff, citizen journalists and other sources, and may include unconfirmed or satirical material.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- National Report came under heavy fire in 2014 for spreading a very popular fake Ebola story—claiming an entire town in Texas had been quarantined—at a time when a fearful public was willing to believe and share just about anything Ebola-related.
- Fox News fell for this one about President Obama personally funding a Muslim museum during the 2013 government shutdown. They later issued an on-air apology.
- Claimed citizens in a Wyoming town were being fitted with mandatory RFID chips as part of Obamacare.
- National Report also gained a lot of Facebook traction by famous hoaxes like Banksy Arrested and Exposed and Facebook Will Start Charging Users. (They also claimed Tinder would introduce a subscription fee, which was a lie at the time, but turned out to be true months later.)
Percentage of Stories on the Site that are Real and Not Hoaxes: Zero
Daily Buzz Live
Launched: Sep. 2013
Based in: Las Vegas
Originally launched as a Vine aggregator called Daily VINE Buzz (with a weird About page featuring Nicholas Cage's house, for some reason) it morphed into a mess of celebrity news, popular YouTube videos, and crime stories, starting with a repetitive series of stories about the death of Paul Walker in December 2013.
The addition of hoax stories ramped up through 2014, but Daily Buzz Live didn't pop up on the radar of Snopes and other debunkers until its "planetary alignment" story took off late last year. It's a strange site, in that most of its posts are what founder Jen Stuart describes as "popular, trending material," not hoaxes, but its most popular stories are all bogus rumors about fast food ingredients.
Stuart, who started the site in 2013, has the same philosophy about "creative material" (in other words, the made-up stuff) that National Report's Allen Montgomery takes toward his political "satire": Fake stories are a public service because they remind people not to believe everything they read.
"We found that the disconnect between how readers consume information versus checking facts and critically thinking for themselves, is an apparent problem on the Internet," she told Gawker in an email, "What we do here at Daily Buzz Live is create content (every so often) that should make its users think twice about the information received. This will hopefully not get lost in translation, we don't wish to deceive readers. We are only looking to take a lighthearted, funny approach to pointing out the flaws in most people's critical thinking and hopefully make them want to actually double check any story they feel isn't quite credible."
Stuart is also one of the few site owners willing to shed a little light on the business side of viral news. She says DailyBuzzLive is "definitely a full-time job," and that she has employed "two writers, a graphic designer, web developer, social media manager and two editors," and also pays writers on eLance.
"Daily Buzz Live is a news web publication with news articles. Most are inspired by real news events, And just a few stories are works of complete fiction. Those few articles are for entertainment purposes only. The articles and stories may or may not use real names, always a semi real and/or mostly, or substantially, fictitious ways. Therefore, just a few articles contained on this website Daily Buzz Live are works of fiction. Any truth or actual facts contained in those stories or posts are purely incidental or coincidental and not intended to be, or be construed as, facts.
The purpose of said stories is to entertain and amuse and not to disparage any persons, institutions, in anyway and no malice is intended towards anyone or anything, nor should any be construed from the fictional stories. That means some stories on this website are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental or is intended purely as a spoof of such person and is not intended to communicate any true or factual information about that person. Daily Buzz Live is intended for mature audiences only."
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Convinced a bunch of people on Facebook that a "planetary alignment" would lower the Earth's gravity, making it possible to float for several seconds. Based on an astrophysicist's April Fool's Day prank from the '70s. Debunked by several science writers.
- Brought back a 1978 rumor that McDonald' s uses "worm fillers" in its 100% beef burgers, but can legally call it 100% beef because they buy it from the "100% Beef Company." The same rumor made the rounds as a popular email forward in 1996. Debunked by Snopes and denied by McDonald's.
Real Percentage: 75-80?
(NASA did release a giant space picture, and after a careful and thorough assessment of 10 Of The Sexiest Charlie Hunnam Pictures Out There, I can confirm that they are hot. But the most popular stories on the site, the ones you're likely to see on Facebook, are made up.)
World News Daily Report
Launched: Late 2013 (with a story about a Pope Benedict XVI sex tape).
Based in: Montreal, most likely (although the site's About page claims it's a hugely popular American Zionist newspaper based in Tel Aviv and run by Israeli armed forces veterans).
World News Daily Report, the Weekly World News-style supermarket tabloid of the fake news game, seems to have sprung from a similar Montreal-based site—all in French—called Journal de Mourreal. The Journal launched in 2012, and World News Daily Report followed in 2013. They both use the same page layout, are registered to the same anonymous person, and received early Facebook likes from the same guy—possibly the mysterious founder.
It's not clear how many writers these sites have: they each use a number of pseudonymous bylines with hundreds of posts each, and Journal de Mourreal has at least one person photoshopping tabloid-style magazine covers for its Facebook page.
World News Daily Report covers classic conspiracy theory fodder—Jimmy Hoffa's body, the JFK assassination—but also more deceptive, believable stuff, like a guy taking a selfie just before a shark attack, a 600-pound woman giving birth to a 40-pound baby.
WNDR assumes however all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any persons, living, dead, or undead is purely a miracle.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Claimed the world's oldest tree had been accidentally cut down by loggers in the Amazon. This one had enough fake details to make it believable, especially because of some loose similarities to a real story from the '60s.
- Claimed an eyewitness account of Jesus bringing a dead baby back to life had been discovered in the Vatican archives.
Real Percentage: Zero
This is the site that claimed a Loch Ness Monster sighting was swinging the Scottish independence vote.
Launched: December 2014
Based In: U.S.
News Examiner was founded by Paul Horner, the writer behind the National Report's infamous Banksy hoax and creator of Super Official News—a site that reposts the same few successful fake stories over and over. Horner told the Washington Post he made $10,000 on the Banksy story (I wanna see the receipts) and decided to start his own hoax site.
He later told Gawker he split off from National Report after a falling out with publisher "Allen Montgomery," and Montgomery has since deleted "2+ years" of Horner's work from the site. Horner says he's personally responsible for 80% of the successful stories on National Report, including the Banksy hoax and the Facebook fee hoax.
Horner slips his name into all of his stories—for example, he reported that Banksy's real name was "Paul Horner"—and is also notorious for creating Fappy the Dolphin, a fake anti-masturbation mascot who was rumored to be the subject of a Michael Moore documentary. (That was a hoax, too, obviously.)
Update: Paul Horner has contacted Gawker regarding "the receipts." Here are the Google AdSense and Yahoo-Bing Ads screengrabs he sent us to verify his profit from the Banksy story. According to Horner, these account for the period from October 1 - December 1, 2014, and only cover National Report:
Best Worst Hoaxes
Aside from Banksy, Horner's greatest hits include a story about a kid being sentenced to 25 years in prison for calling a SWAT team on his video game opponent and the old saw about Facebook planning to charge users a fee. So far, his biggest story for the News Examiner is about an alleged "Assam Rape Festival" in India. He claims the country has an arrest warrant out for him as a result.
(Horner later told Gawker the Assam Rape Festival article is a copy of one he wrote for National Report that was deleted by "Montgomery." He says his most successful article that's original to News Examiner is one about a Banksy show in Phoenix.
Real Percentage: 5-10?
News Examiner does re-report the occasional true story—like this one about Kim Kardashian talking to Entertainment Tonight about Bruce Jenner—but most of its posts seem to fall right in line with Horner's previous fabricated work. The fact that one of his bylines on News Examiner is "Jimmy Rustling" should be a dead giveaway that he's trolling.
The News Nerd
Based In: Atlanta
News Nerd founder Kalin "Kato" Leonard is best known for cashing in on the MySpace boom of the mid-2000s with a custom page maker called freeweblayouts.com. At the time, his business partner said they were pulling in $100,000 from Google Ads.
Leonard started The News Nerd in 2013, and it's one of a couple fake news peddlers that focuses on entertainment, hip hop, and black celebrities. It's also one of the few that actually tries to work humor into its hoaxes. (It sometimes succeeds: "Drake to Appear on Next Season of Basketball Wives" and "Macklemore to Replace Vanilla Ice in New Ninja Turtles Film" are quality burns.)
But, as with most hoax sites, its biggest Facebook hits are the stories people spread because they actually believe them: A restaurant selling dog meat, Aretha Franklin punching out Patti LaBelle, and Notorious B.I.G.'s son getting engaged to a man.
"The stories posted on TheNewsNerd are for entertainment purposes only. The stories may mimic articles found in the headlines, but rest assured they are purely satirical."
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Soul legend Aretha Franklin sued them for $10 million over a fake story, published last April, that claimed she got into a fistfight with Patti LaBelle. They responded with another fake story about her, claiming she'd injured herself by tripping over her own left breast. Rude!
- Claimed George Zimmerman had sold a painting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager he shot and killed, for $30,000. A Photoshop of the alleged painting helped this story get over on Facebook.
- Claimed a teenager had burned to death doing the Facebook "fire challenge." This one coincided with 2014's popular Ice Bucket Challenge, and was made more believable by videos found on YouTube of actual teens setting themselves on fire. None of them died.
Real Percentage: None
Launched: Dec. 2013
Based In: Dallas
Huzlers, the other major purveyor of "urban news" hoaxes, is registered to Dallas-based marketer Pablo A. Reyes. You may know him from a story his own site, as the college student who allegedly died from weed.
Fight stories and rumors about rappers are Huzlers' bread and butter—is Lil Wayne gay for Drake?!— but they also work the most common hoax angles, like fake fast food ingredients (if there's one thing bullshit news sites can teach us, it's that people will believe absolutely anything about what's in fast food) and Bill Gates.
Out of every faux-news site, Huzlers is probably the most diligent about watching trends: On top of capitalizing on obvious opportunities like Super Bowl "DeflateGate" rumors, they also make up tall tales about YouTube pranksters and the kids in popular Vines.
Reyes told Gawker he only spends 20-30 hours a week on the site, and that he and a friend do all the writing themselves.
"Huzlers was only a small time project nothing serious we've had some big hits and even had the site go offline many times due to the amount of traffic at once as of now the site is juts a sitting duck and soon will just forward to our new website that will be non-satire based but just humor articles," he wrote in an email to Gawker.
He didn't say whether Facebook's crackdown affected that decision.
Reyes is the only site owner who seems to feel "satirical" news is on the way out. "Right now," he wrote, "my focus is on building apps."
Huzlers.com is a combination of urban news and satirical entertainment to keep its visitors in a state of disbelief.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Brought back the classic "moon landing was faked!" story.
- Spread the rumor that Starbucks puts semen in its lattes, which fooled at least one preacher.
- An "Ebola zombie" story capitalized on the atmosphere of hysteria after Ebola reached the U.S. in October of 2014.
- Passed off a story about a Chicago teen killing his brother over a high score on Flappy Bird, an iPhone game people cared deeply about at the time, for reasons that will be forever lost to the fog of history.
Real Percentage: One
This is a website called "Huzlers," yes, but they have run at least one real story: Apparently Kevin Gates banging his cousin was so good, they didn't need to embellish it (until their next story, a big fat fake one claiming he got her pregnant. LMFAO!!! BRUHHH!!!)
Empire News and Empire Sports News
Empire Sports News was created in 2014 by Aaron Smith, apparently one of the creators of the football simulation game Pigskin Empire (which is advertised on Empire's front pages). It bears the tagline "sports news is better when we write it." The site, which is not secretive about its ambition to "fool the world," expanded into non-sports hoaxes in mid-2014 with the launch of Empire News.
Smith seems to have written several articles for the site under his own byline— including a very popular one claiming Charles Manson had been granted parole—but it appears the site now has other editors. It's not clear how much money Empire brings in, or whether the people writing and editing the hoaxes get paid.
Smith replied to an email from Gawker, letting us know that "If you're really interested in what we do and would like to inquire about that then we'd be happy to talk. If you're only interest is asking how much we make so that you can lambast our business and our writers for making money off something you don't personally like then we really don't have much to say."
When we followed up with specific questions, he didn't reply.
Empire News is intended for entertainment purposes only. Our website and social media content uses only fictional names, except in cases of public figure and celebrity parody. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Responsible for the Malia Obama Pregnancy Scare of '14.
- Created one of the biggest Facebook hits of 2014, "Actress Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully in Her Los Angeles Home." It was about the former/forever Golden Girl dying her hair. Ha ha hilarious they sure fooled you.
- Convinced everyone that Netflix had canceled Orange Is The New Black.
- Empire Sports claimed WWE wrestler The Undertaker had died and that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was in a homosexual relationship with teammate Jason Witten. The Romo article was later reprinted by ... yep, Huzlers.
Real Percentage: Zero. Bagel. Donut.
Launched: Oct. 2012
Based In: Claims to be an international project based in China.
MediaMass isn't so much a news site as a brilliant SEO play. It plugs celebrity names into boilerplate news stories that end up ranking very highly on Google. For any celebrity, you can find a story claiming they're dead, expecting a baby, newly single, putting out a new album, "going Gangnam Style," getting married, having their nudes leaked, or nominated for Time's Person of the Year.
MediaMass holds the top Google result for "Scarlett Johansson dead," and presumably for death announcements about many other still-alive celebrities. The snake has started eating itself, though: Instead of reporting celebrities dead, it reports they're the victims of death hoaxes. Now every real celebrity death is followed by some gullible person on Twitter or Facebook linking to Mediamass to claim it's just a hoax.
And have you heard? Philip Seymour Hoffman is still alive!
"UPDATE [Today's Date] : This story seems to be false."
(Yes, this disclaimer appears on every single MediaMass story.)
Best Worst Hoaxes:
Perhaps the weirdest repeated story on MediaMass is "Beloved Dog Recovering from Surgery." "Thousands of celebrities, Bill Gates in USA, Zhang Ziyi in China, Ranbir Kapoor in India, etc. all have a dog called 'Spinee' recovering from successful surgery," the site brags on its meta-explanatory page.
Real Percentage: Zero
As Joe Mantegna says, "I am Joe Mantegna and this story is FALSE. I do not have a Golden Retriever."
Based In: U.S.
The "satirical paper of record" is an aggressively unfunny Onion, whose stories are often mistakenly shared as real because they don't contain any actual jokes.
As writer Jordan Pedersen told Splitsider, "It's become this weird thing where the Daily Currant has tricked itself into believing that they're brilliant satirists because they get a ton of page views, but what their high traffic confirms is actually the fact that they're such terrible satirists that people can't even tell they're making jokes."
When Pedersen confronted the Currant about "House Republicans Schedule Obama Impeachment Hearings," the Facebook thread turned into "this puerile flame war, with the Daily Currant basically calling all of us stupid and saying that their articles were 'subtle' and 'only for intelligent readers," he says.
What an idiot. What kind of moron wouldn't get the deftly hilarious humor of "House Republicans Schedule Obama Impeachment Hearings?!"
Daniel Barkeley, the Currant's founder, described his site to Splitsider, apparently without irony, as "A single-camera version of The Onion. It's more realistic, more character-driven and privileges narrative and plot over one-liners."
Or privileges "lies" over "humor." You know, whatever.
What Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read wrote about the Currant in 2013 is just as true today:
The Daily Currant is not a news source but a "satire" site whose output is largely limited to semi-believable political wish-fulfillment articles distinguished by a commitment to a complete absence of what most people would recognize as "jokes."
"Our stories are purely fictional. However they are meant to address real-world issues through satire and often refer and link to real events happening in the world."
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- A fake Currant story was responsible for one of the Washington Post's best, most embarrassing corrections, issued by She The People blogger Suzi Parker:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post and the post's URL incorrectly reported that Sarah Palin had signed on as a contributor to the Al Jazeera America news network. The blogger cited a report on the Daily Currant Web site as the basis for that information without realizing that the piece was satirical.
- Shortly after mocking the Post for being suckered by the Currant, Breitbart.com fell for a Currant story claiming economist and only good New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy. Oops!
- The Drudge Report was taken in by a Currant story claiming New York City's then-mayor Michael Bloomberg had been denied a second slice at a pizza place in retaliation for his ban on large sodas.
Real Percentage: No percents
The Borowitz Report
Based In: The New Yorker, since 2012.
Andy Borowitz's columns aren't intentional hoaxes, but Borowitz's brand of humor is based on taking real news stories and warping and exaggerating them in a way that people have an unfortunate tendency to take seriously. Or, if you're The New Yorker and Borowitz is your number one traffic driver, a very fortunate tendency.
This is especially true once you remove a Borowitz headline from its context on the new yorker dot com slash humor and place it on, say, Facebook.
[W] hen you publish a fake headline that sounds almost real, place it on top of satire that's soft enough to skim without really reading, give it a newyorker.com URL, and promote it on Facebook, where basically every headline sounds like satire now, you know what you're really doing.
Not always, but frequently, these posts are going to go viral as the result of people who don't know they're jokes; as a bonus, every few months, a foreign outlet will aggregate them as if they're genuine.
Although it isn't funny, it does actually try, and that's enough that the New Yorker can feel Borowitz is a step above the Daily Currants of the world. It's up to you to decide whether that's true, or just the narcissism of small differences.
None, unless the tagline "the news, reshuffled" counts. Or the "/humor/" in the URL.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- In 2011, The Boston Herald picked up Borowitz's "Cheney Challenges Hillary to Hunting Contest" as real news.
- Multiple Chinese media outlets treated Borowitz's joke that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post by accidentally clicking on it as true.
- Italian magazine Panorama ran with a Borowitz story about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi running for mayor of New York City. This was particularly embarrassing because Berlusconi owns Panorama.
Real Percentage: Depends on your definition of "real."
Launched: 2014 (but they claim the mid-1800's)
Based In: Sydney, Australia
The Betoota Advocate is the fictional local newspaper of a real Australian town. Betoota does apparently exist, but its population has been zero since its last resident died in 2004. The paper has a long, made-up history, and its editors stay in character even during interviews.
Although a lot of the Advocate's humor about Australian politics, sports, and rural Queensland Country are pretty impenetrable to non-Australians, its deadpan Onion-esque tone should be a giveaway that it's satire.
Best Worst Hoaxes:
- Australia's Channel Nine ran with a fake Betoota Advocate story about a Sydney parking ranger who accidentally ticketed himself and then tried to argue out of the fine by claiming he'd only been there for two minutes. When the story aired, the Advocate rubbed it in by accusing Channel Nine of "churnalism" and plagiarism.
- ALS charity organization Deadspin picked up the Betoota Advocate's exclusive that 3-on-3 basketball was going to become an Olympic sport. It's not. Woulda been cool, though. Woulda been cool.
Real Percentage: Zero
(I think, but I'm not going to pretend I understand what any of these stories about cricket and rugby are talking about.)
Based In: Unknown. (Miami, probably.)
Best Worst Hoaxes:
FoxWeekly's entire existence is a hoax. It's a junk news site created by a fake "marketing group" called Rantic, best known for convincing media outlets that 4chan was threatening to release nude photos of Emma Watson.
Real Percentage: 65-70ish?
A big chunk of the stories on FoxWeekly promote Rantic's services or musical artists Rantic claims to work with—see, e.g. "Study: Those Who Buy Twitter Followers Find Success" and a whole bunch of entries promoting hacks for the mobile game Clash of Clans—but most of the posts are either opinion or real stories aggregated from other sites.
[Image by Jim Cooke]