The following web headlines received hundreds of thousands of views and shut down local Internet servers:
1) “Emirates to Introduce Shisha Lounges Onboard A380 Fleet” in Dubai;
2) “Man Takes Viagra, Wears Sweatpants for TSA Pat Down” in Washington DC;
3) “The Assassination of [London Mayor] Boris Johnson” in London.
Each of them was fake. But none of them was from The Onion, Private Eye or the Harvard Lampoon, some of the famous names in satire writing.
Fake news sites proliferate now, from Mexico’s El Deforma to India’s Unreal Times; from the rural Texas Cockroach to the UK’s popular Daily Mash. Fake news, like regular news, has even become a fixture of communities unattached to a specific location, like Duffel-Blog’s parody of US military news and Riskbitz, which skewers the insurance industry.
Like real news, fake news has had to adapt to the rapidly changing way people consume the news. Out of these changes small community satire sites have grown in number and popularity. And they are casting doubt on and giving local news events a more pointed perspective in the same way the Onion does for national news.
Social media has made it easier for smaller satire sites to receive attention.
“Because of social media, home pages don’t really matter anymore. People rarely come to an outlet through a homepage,” said Dannagal Young, a communications researcher at University of Delaware who researches satire. A picture and headline from Christwire looks as legitimate as a real Christian news site — a lesson Rachel Maddow learned the hard way in 2011, when she criticized Christwire’s call to invade Egypt to protect Christian interests.
Young says local satire sites can succeed in the same way hyper-niche sites have succeeded in pockets across the country.
“When I read the Onion I think it’s really funny but maybe there are only one or two stories that hit me in the right way because they are things that I’m passionate about,” said Young. “But if I live in Atlanta, chances are I’m going to be far more engaged in the content of the Atlanta Banana.”
These websites grab attention with material that reflects local concerns. One look at the home page of the Pan-Arabia Enquirer can tell you that people in Dubai are anxious about excessive displays of wealth. The Newstoad, a Scottish site, describes itself in very British tabloid terms, “sitting on a lily pad tapping phones, blackmailing politicians and bribing policemen.”
Like much of the comedy world today, satire sites are run and staffed by males: jaded journalists, aspiring comics, writers and web designers. Ten or 20 regular writers might contribute articles from all parts of the country or sometimes one lone guy writes and edits it all in his basement. Usually the editors make just enough money to pay their website costs, but a few have gone on to successful solo comedy careers, or to write for the Onion or the Daily Show.
The sites skew liberal. Several editors, like those at News-Mutiny, said their original inspiration was George W. Bush, and a few stopped posting after Obama was elected. But even the editor of the Daily Rash, one of the few conservative sites out there, said he gets a majority of his traffic from “politically correct” liberals angry about his frequent Joe Biden jokes.
But within that general liberal tendency, the site’s editors each stake out a specific comedic stance: more or less scathing, more or less political, more or less silly. While the London editor of The Sleaze says his humor “is rather more vicious and direct. I believe in going for the jugular rather than beating around the bush,” he refuses to compromise his content by putting advertisements on his site.
The editor of the Rock City Times in Arkansas, Greg Henderson, prefers to be “clean,” “because it gives you a bigger base audience.” He has started to make enough money after just one year to live off of advertisements on the site.
But like other sites, The Rock City Times trades in irreverence. A business journalist in northwest Arkansas felt he couldn’t be critical of Walmart’s headquarters because Walmart is by far the biggest employer in the area. But he could publish an article anonymously on Rock City about how Walmart planned to shoot down Amazon’s delivery drones with missiles.
More than 10,000 people shared it on Facebook and the journalist made a point he couldn’t make as pointedly for his day job: that Walmart’s online business strategy was terrible. Walmart, like so many politicians who have gone on the Colbert Report, played along with the joke, and even re-tweeted the article as if it were real.
But truth telling has its limits. Henderson, the editor of Rock City, is passionate about gay rights, but won’t write about race “because it’s still too touchy in the south.”
Like many of the editors, Henderson, a former PR spokesman, writes satire out of frustration with his own experiences working in the media world. “If you’re in a little town in Arkansas of 15,000 or 20,000 people, the number of stories is pretty minimal, so you’re doing junk reporting,” said Henderson.
Editors like Henderson are not just making jokes by mimicking the media; they believe the media is itself a joke. A recent New York Daily News headline would’ve been right at home on a fake site: “Nursing home worker: Minnesota rape victim, 89, is a flirt.” Or as one of the two editors of the Texas Cockroach wrote in an email: “This morning, I read a help wanted ad running in my local newspaper for a ‘Hispanic yard worker.’ You just can’t make this stuff up.”
Although these sites label themselves as fake, their popularity depends in part on them not seeming that way. The editor of the Atlanta Banana, Jim Hodgson — who wants to write comedy without having to move to New York or LA — recently posted a story about a new strip club full of Princess Leia slaves. The article received thousands of visits and over 50 comments. “People got in touch with me saying we should really do it,” he said. “A group of ladies who wear storm trooper masks and take their clothes off sent us a message. But I’m a writer. I don’t want to run a strip club.”
Everyone has a story like this. “It’s so common an occurrence these days it’s not even all that remarkable,” said the former editor of the Watley Review, who started his website in 2003, but has an agreement with his employer, a political consultancy, to publish anonymously. “None of us are trying to muddy the waters. It’s just a sad state of affairs when the most extreme situations we could write about are being taken at face value.”
A few satire editors grumble about the 63,000 Facebook followers that sites like the Daily Currant have attracted by not stating clearly that the article is fake. The police chief in Annapolis, Md. recently cited a Daily Currant article about 37 marijuana deaths in Colorado as real testimony against legalization in his state.
These articles draw the duped and people who like to laugh at them when they get it wrong, such as visitors to the site Lamebook, which posts screen shots of the lame people who are fooled by fake stories. The need to correct misinformation on the Web has become so ubiquitous that the Washington Post last week started publishing the column, “What was fake on the Internet this week.”
The sites are mostly scattered across the web. But a few attempts at syndication have produced collective work with rigorous standards for inclusion. The site Humorfeed used strict peer-review guidelines to create a news-wire of fake news and even published real articles about how the fake industry works. It mailed out “Satire News Award” plaques for the top three articles among the 50 to 100 sites it drew from.
“People really cared about this a lot because there are very few ways for a site to get recognition,” the editor, who also ran the Watley Review, said. But it “was the toughest month of the year” to run the bitterly contested awards process. He stopped accepting new sites in 2009. In addition to the time commitment, he said he didn’t have the multimedia skills to keep up with bigger sites that were diversifying into video, such as Cracked, which only a couple years before had asked to join Humorfeed.
The question remains whether all of these more localized labors of love can, with volunteer staffs and little money, become fixtures in their communities.
“People always say books are supposed to die,” said Andrew Marlot, who started his comedy career with Satire Wire in 1999 and later parlayed the site’s success into a comedy career that has included several book and TV deals. “There will always be people that prefer reading stuff and there will always be people better at writing stuff.”
Marlot catered to techies back when they drove substantial traffic on the Internet. “I was lucky in a sense, when I started off there weren’t really very many satire sites, so it was easier to get attention,” said Marlot.
Marlot wrote an article in 2002 about countries like China and Syria that were jealous of North Korea and Iran for being included in America’s “Axis of Evil.” Readers cut and pasted his article on “The Axis of Just as Evil” into emails, the way people did back then. At some point Marlot’s name got removed and John Cleese’s name got added. Friends sent him his own article and told him that his writing sounded just like John Cleese. His friends were wrong, but what they said about his writing was true.
Although it works a little differently now, the deceptions continue.
Oliver Morrison is a freelance journalist in New York and a former teacher at KIPP Delta in Helena, Arkansas.