Roots of Fake News Traced to Liberal Democrat

Some groups are claiming Donald Trump got elected because of fake news, which proliferated social media during the election. But who is behind these stories and why do they publish them?
People wearing balaclavas are silhouetted as they pose with a laptops in front of a screen projected with the word 'cyber.' March 29, 2016 11:03pm EDT

Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Some groups are claiming Donald Trump got elected because of fake news, which proliferated social media during the election. But who is behind these stories and why do they publish them?

NPR got hold of one of the most famous fake news that circulated during campaign season, 'FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide,' which has been shared more than 500,000 times on Facebook.

It was published on Denverguardian.com -- and was the sole news story featured in it.

After doing a bit of investigation through the help of a professional, the research team found out that the site, along with other fake news websites like WashingtonPost.com.co and NationalReport.net, was owned by a company called Disinfomedia.

Justin Coler is its founder and CEO. He owns and manages a total of 25 websites.

"The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction," Coler admitted.

He said he was surprised at how people picked up on fake news and how quickly the stories spread. To prove his point, he said he once wrote about how people from California used food stamps to buy marijuana. The news rapidly circulated and actually led to a proposal in the House in Colorado to keep people from using their food stamps for marijuana.

Coler, a registered Democrat, claimed fake news "caused an explosion" in a number of sites. Owners of such sites make a lot of money through the ads.

Coler also said many fake Facebook accounts were created during the election. Most of these, he said, belonged to Trump's camp.

"We've tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off," he claimed.

However, he believed fake news did not propel Trump to the presidency.

"There are many factors as to why Trump won that don't involve fake news," he said. "As much as I like Hillary, she was a poor candidate. She brought in a lot of baggage."

There are many others like Coler who have made a living out of writing fake news. Paul Horner is one of them. One of the stories he released was Pres. Obama invalidating the election results, which has been shared 250,000 times on Facebook.

In an interview published at the Washington Post, Horner said fake news spread rapidly because "people are just dumber. They just keep passing stuff around."

Unlike Coler, however, Horner believed fake news was the reason Trump got elected.

"My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me," he said. "His followers don't fact-check anything - they'll post everything, believe anything."

He also claimed readers who clicked the ads on the fake news websites the most were "right-wing Republicans." He said he presently earns about $10,000 a month from Ad Sense revenues, which he could lose with Google's campaign to prevent fake news websites to use Ad Sense.

When asked if he also wrote fake news targeting the Clinton camp, Horner's answer was short and clear.

"No. I hate Trump," he said.

Facebook recently announced it would improve its algorithm to stop the proliferation of fake news. However, according to a Q&A article published in Bloomberg, working on the algorithm is probably not the best way to solve the problem.

"What's an algorithm to do? Facebook's engineers have trained their algorithm to know that if something is really popular, it must be relevant," the article said.

"It might be easy for the company to suppress an outright hoax -- by, say, searching for the topic on a major news site, or detecting a Snopes article debunking it -- but it's harder to automate the decision on what to do about propaganda-like content meant to rile people up," the article said.

Tags : fake news, Donald Trump, Facebook fake news, Google fake news, Ad Sense, Facebook Algorithm, Facebook algorithm fake news, Justin Coler, Paul Horner, social media, Facebook, Google, fake news websites ad revenues, Hillary Clinton