‘PatriotHole’: How the Fake News Makes Fun of Fake News

patriotholeDoug Baxter is close to figuring out what the Clinton Foundation is really up to. He’s still connecting the dots, but so far it seems that the Clintons have been funneling billions of dollars to research institutions around the country in order to figure out a way for women to have sex with each other. Doug may be fictional, but you can be sure he’ll chase that smoking gun for as long as it takes.

Doug is the star of a series set to debut next month on PatriotHole, the new section of ClickHole that debuted in May. Announcing itself as “A Loud Light in the Darkness,” PatriotHole took over ClickHole for two days, vowing to “boldly chase clicks of hero Americans and sell them aggressive, backwards-looking merchandise.” And even after ClickHole returned, the new site stuck around, with its own section and its own social media channels.

“There’s a huge part of the internet now that loves right-wing conspiracies,” says ClickHole Editor in Chief Matt Powers, “and so we started catering very specifically to very loud, red-blooded Americans.”

So the earliest headlines—like “Commander In Strong: These 4 Pictures Of Donald Trump Not Being Attacked By Birds Prove That He Has Utter Dominion Over The Skies”—combined the absurdist voice of ClickHole with the overbearing politics aimed at those red-blooded Americans. It was a familiar style, but with a distinctly new agenda and a new imagined audience of “defenders of America, fearless clickers of content.”

Just as ClickHole debuted as a way for The Onion to make fun of clickbait-heavy sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, PatriotHole is tackling a new, darker corner of the internet: conservative fringe media sites like Breitbart and Infowars. And if Doug Baxter sounds like Alex Jones—delusional, frightened, and obsessed with both conspiracies and the Clintons—that’s no accident.

“As Infowars and Breitbart rose to prominence, if we wanted to make fun of the whole internet, we needed to make fun of them too,” says senior writer Lauren Moser, who is working on the Baxter series. And while ClickHole has included digs at the alt-right media since the site debuted in 2014 with articles about that subculture’s penchant for hoaxes and its disdain for “social justice warriors,” the value of a separate site became clear last fall. As Powers puts it, what was a trickle became a deluge after November. “The national landscape changed so much after the election and inauguration of Trump,” says Powers. “We were looking for a new way to comment on the new level of discourse that has suddenly infected the internet.”

How to do that wasn’t necessarily clear. ClickHole targets the whole internet with a relatively apolitical voice instead of focusing on one specific kind of site. Besides, the unhinged tone of sources like Infowars can be hard to satirize. How do you exaggerate the absurdity of someone who thinks the government is turning frogs gay? But as soon as the ClickHole staff started writing in the PatriotHole voice, they realized it would have legs.

“I think it was definitely one of the most fun headline meetings we’d had in like a year,” says Noah Prestwick, the head writer for video at ClickHole. “You could tell everyone was so excited to write in a new voice and channel this new spirit of whatever PatriotHole was becoming.”

Some of that excitement came from the liberating new voice, and some of it came from the ridiculous specifics of headlines like “It’s Called The Rape Cube, And It’s What Islamist Migrants Would Build If They Were Scientists With Billions Of Dollars,” or “CALLING ALL PATRIOTS! America’s Son, Don Jr., Is Under ATTACK! Flood Social Media With Your Nudes In Order To Distract The MSM And #KEEPDONSAFE!” These headlines call for a precise use of caps lock, which made things tough for Powers, who has to read all the headlines aloud in meetings. “When things are all caps, you have to shout them as you read them,” he says. “So it was a lot of shouting, and we were energized by it…I was shouting very insane things.”

But the success of PatriotHole goes beyond just shouting very insane things. The writers all knew that if the site were just about the outlandish beliefs of the right-wing media, the jokes would be pretty superficial and the well would quickly run dry. Like ClickHole, which does more than simply exaggerate the specifics in clickbait headlines, PatriotHole tries to use the voice of the internet to tell jokes about the people reading and watching the internet.

“We think it’d be a pretty shallow show if we just thought, ‘What’s the most insane thing that Alex Jones could think?’” senior writer Adam Levine says of the Baxter series. “So a lot of the PatriotHole episodes that we have are sort of about the mechanisms behind these conspiracy theories, as opposed to just the crazy beliefs themselves.”

For example, the inclusion of PatriotHole merch isn’t meant to just satirize the products Jones hawks on his show, but to reveal something about the mindset of the people who believe these conspiracies and why they seek them out. That imagined audience for the site is as much a part of the satire as any connections between Baxter and Jones.

Exploring this worldview opens the site up to do more than just make fun of a certain side of the political spectrum. Rather, it gives them a new voice to use cover the current state of politics. A headline like “I May Not Agree With Everything Trump Says, But It’s My Duty As An American To Repeat All Of His Talking Points Basically Verbatim” works as a dig at Trump loyalists, at his Republican enablers, and as a larger joke about the way politics is discussed online.

In these ways, PatriotHole is a natural progression for ClickHole. And behind the scenes at least, the two sites are synonymous: PatriotHole headlines are discussed in the typical ClickHole headline meetings, and every writer on staff pitches both. But the PatriotHole banner allows them to highlight an aspect of the internet that has, for better or worse, grown in prominence in the last year.

It also gives them a chance to evolve, as the Baxter series showcases. Instead of following the format of typical ClickHole videos, the new ones will feature recurring characters and an expanded world. And the episodes will vary in length and format. “They’re also going to vary in the way our character explores different issues that are important to him,” says Moser. “So some are going to be rants, where he’s yelling, and some are going to be investigative reports. So we’re going to get to explore a lot of different ways that the media reacts.”

And as the Trump administration continues to elevate fringe media figures to prominence and practice its own kind of conspiracy-mongering, PatriotHole will develop in response, potentially becoming a crucial outlet for political satire. Even the two-day unveiling of the site was, as Powers calls it, “a catharsis” for many readers: “When we launched PatriotHole earlier this year—people had seized on right-wing culture before—but PatriotHole provided a home for it.”

That home is here for the long-term, and it will evolve as the media does. As the Baxter series shows, the ClickHole team is using the PatriotHole voice not just to respond to current events, but to make fun of the emerging media landscape. And while the world of Trump-inspired comedy is well-populated already, PatriotHole’s commitment to exploring the world of the alt-right media may allow it to go deeper than many others.

In other words, there is no winking at the audience on PatriotHole. As Powers says, “PatriotHole doesn’t know that everything it puts out isn’t 100% real. In PatriotHole’s world, these things are real.” And in that sense at least, it is just as real as the real fake news.

 

John Schneider is a writer and comedian who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.

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