The Quiet Death of ‘The Daily Currant’, Patient Zero in the Fake News Epidemic
Remember when George Bush accidentally voted for Obama? How about when Rick Santorum was caught using Grindr? If these events don’t sound familiar, it’s because they never actually happened. But you wouldn’t be to blame if you thought they did — they represent just two of the many articles published by satirical news site The Daily Currant whose headlines were taken at face value, and went viral. In a world increasingly inundated with “fake news,” The Daily Currant represents perhaps one of the first sites that began to achieve wide circulation not for the quality of its humor, but because readers failed to distinguish its content from reality. But the mechanism by which the site obtained success also proved to be its undoing. The Daily Currant wanted to make people laugh — not trick them — and as criticism from the press mounted, the site was driven from the web by the very people it most hoped to entertain.
Indeed, The Daily Currant was once a prominent part of the satirical news (and sometimes actual news) landscape, often mentioned in conjunction with The Onion, the indisputable standard in its field. Yet even as the 2016 race for president was ramping up — typically irresistible fodder for comedians and satirists — The Daily Currant was slowing down, its output dwindling to an anemic trickle of less than one article per month. On August 31, 2016, it posted a final, Donald Trump-related headline, then sank once more into the silence it had been cultivating for over a year. It left its readers slowly, with little pageantry: this once-satirical behemoth merely ceased to produce, without a word to its fans as to why. And what’s more, very few of them seem to have noticed, or cared.
The website, which used to field over a million hits a month, now lies dormant, switched onto a smaller server until founder and editor Daniel Barkley can figure out what to do with it. There it remains in suspended animation, a digitally decaying shrine to the creative outputs of Barkley and the handful of contributors he worked with, a group whose efforts to satirize the news were often as criticized as much as they were lauded.
Curiously, most of the over 86,000 fans of The Daily Currant’s Facebook page have remained as silent as the site itself surrounding this cessation of production. No one has commented asking why The Daily Currant stopped creating content, nor even — in this heightened political climate — when it would return to poking fun at the politicians and public figures it frequently satirized. Barkley told me that some followers have reached out to him personally over the past year, but a quick Google search and scroll through social media reveals that few have publicly questioned why this once-mainstay of satirical news met its end. All things considered, The Daily Currant disappeared from the collective consciousness without a trace, a feat potentially attributable to the Darwinian battle for attention that online content wages across our feeds each day. When one channel ceases to engage us, ten more crop up in its wake, ready to prove themselves able to survive where the previous failed. So, The Daily Currant has wordlessly expired. But why?
For all the jokes The Daily Currant tried to tell, it most frequently found the spotlight when those jokes were misinterpreted, circulated through social media by readers who took the website’s headlines at face value. Then came the think-pieces: The Daily Currant wasn’t funny, The Daily Currant was a scam, The Daily Currant was dangerous to political discourse. When a website produces fake news that continually fools the press (as it did The Washington Post and Breitbart, to name a few), it’s inevitably going to come under some scrutiny, regardless of the intention behind the content. And as The Daily Currant continued to churn out satirical headlines that many failed to recognize as such, the criticism piled up, until Barkley reached his breaking point.
“The feedback in the press was terrible, and I just got tired of dealing with all that stuff,” Barkley told me. “I spent a lot of my energy having to deal with the blowback, and it just wasn’t fun, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Barkley directly attributes these negative articles to his decision to close the site. “I just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “I can’t handle criticism in the press. I don’t like seeing my name in Gawker, I don’t like Googling my name now.”
Regardless of the impact that his site had, talking to Barkley, it’s clear that his intentions were pure. He personally reviewed every article on the basis of its comedic content, and only published those that met his standards. He says his style of humor is drier than The Onion’s, and that The Daily Currant was less of a household name — two potential reasons why his articles seemed to dupe people on a more consistent basis. Though he was consistently panned in the press for trying to trick people, Barkley told me he actually disliked when an article got picked up on social media “for the wrong reasons.” His thought process, he said, was to “try not to do that again.”
Nonetheless, the allegations that Barkley was intentionally misleading readers to try to turn a profit began to affect him severely. “I went through a whole period where I was questioning my own motivations,” he said. “I was like, ‘am I trying to fool people? I don’t think so, but am I?’” His worry became so profound that it moved him to reach out to scholars across the country, intellectuals who had devoted their lives to the study of comedy. Barkley contacted Scott Weems, author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, as well as professors at the University of Wisconson, University of Maryland, and Bryant University. “I said, ‘Look, guys: I’m getting criticism in the press. They say it’s not satire; they say I’m trying to fool people. What do you think?’” Barkley said. “Every single one of them said it was clearly satire, it meets the definition of satire,” he continued. “Most of them thought it was funny.”
Despite Barkley’s efforts, however, not much seemed to change. Readers continued to mistake what were meant to be humorous headlines for actual news stories, and more fake news sites began to spring up in The Daily Currant’s wake — these with the overt intention of deceiving readers for financial gain. These initial instances of the Currant’s satire being mistaken for fact may indeed mark a changing of the tides: an increasingly polarized public, a heightened political climate, a lack of regulation or fact-checking on social media. To a certain extent, people believe what they want to believe, and The Daily Currant’s headlines were subtle enough to catch the eyes of readers who failed to perform due diligence—people who secretly, perhaps, wanted the headline to be true.
As many begin to question what role sites like these may have played in the latest presidential election, the fact remains that intention must fall second to effect; misinformation can breed ignorance and confusion at best, and intolerance and chaos at worst. The Daily Currant was largely inactive during the presidential race. But the fake news websites that Barkley lamented being lumped in with — some he concedes were probably inspired by his own site’s accidental success at fooling the public — still continued to operate and proliferate. Though Barkley just wanted to write comedy, he may have unintentionally contributed to this growing group of fraudulent sites that continues to plague platforms like Facebook in his absence.
Still, it wasn’t all bad times for the site. Though he craved praise from the press, Barkley recognizes that he was able to make many people laugh over The Daily Currant’s four-year run. He is especially proud of an article that joked that Michelle Bachman thought falafel was a “gateway food” for Islam, which gained significant traction in the Middle East. Muslim himself, Barkley felt personally connected to this satirical piece, and was proud to see it received positively on an international level.
As for what’s next, Barkley isn’t quite sure — maybe a comedy podcast, maybe resuming a book deal that fell by the wayside. Whatever he decides to pursue, he intends to keep The Daily Currant online as an archive, accessible to any fan looking to take a walk down memory lane. “For the rest of your life?” I asked him. “Provided we don’t have tiny processors in our eyeballs,” he replied.