Jestin Coler – A Homegrown “King of Fake News”

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Some people might be under the impressions that the Russians have a monopoly on disinformation and “fake news”.  The fact is, we have a substantial supply right here in the US.  An excellent example is Jestin Coler who was recently described as the “King of Fake News” by National Public Radio (1).  He was exposed (2) by Laura Sydell, Digital Culture Correspondent for National Public Radio, on November 23, 2016.  Her story is based on an interview with Mr. Coler.  He told his own story on May 1, 2017 (3) and it is interesting to compare the two.

I found it interesting that in Ms. Sydell’s story about fake news, she herself misleads the reader while making what seems to be a significant point.  She tries to show just how far fake news can go when she tries to lead the reader to believe that a fake news story resulted in the creation (implied) and proposal (stated) of actual legislation in the state of Colorado.  She writes:

He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He wrote one fake story for about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.

“What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana, based on something that had just never happened,” Coler says.

The second link (4) in this quote points to a story in the Denver Post regarding the legislation proposed by Senator Vickie Marble.  However, the article paints a slightly different picture than the one Ms. Sydell seems to portray:

It had the makings of must-read story: A Republican lawmaker believes a faux news report that Colorado’s pot shops are accepting food stamps and introduces a bill to outlaw the practice.

Only here’s the catch:

The satire was written after Colorado marijuana dispensaries opened for business on Jan. 1.

Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins began working on her bill in August.

She produced an e-mail dated Sept. 4 from one of the legislature’s attorneys, who was writing her bill.

“Attached please find a draft of your bill that expands the places where recipients may not use the food stamp benefit cards to cover marijuana stores and strip clubs,” the drafter wrote.

While it seems that many Colorado Republicans swallowed the story hook line and sinker (5) and while Senator Marble and her colleagues might have thought the commotion resulting from the story provided a good opportunity to get their bill passed, it seems clear that they had been working on the bill for some time – before the fake news story.  This makes Ms. Sydell’s portrayal of events somewhat fake.

The two versions of Mr. Coler’s story basically agree on his initial academic motivation for getting into the fake news business as well as his ultimate financial motivation for staying in it.  In his story he says:

In January 2015, Facebook announced changes to its algorithm to slow traffic from my site and sites like mine. I then made the editorial decision to avoid fake news and focus on the more accepted literary practice of traditional satire.

But then, for some reason, with the excuse that he believed it would not make any difference to the outcome of the election – he took Hilary Clinton’s election as given – he went with another fake story on November 5, 2016 on a bogus news site he created:

So I made the decision to run with the Denver Guardian. The site was up just five days, but a story published regarding the mysterious death of a fictional FBI agent investigating Hillary emails was viewed by roughly 1.6 million people, angering one NPR reporter enough to track me down and expose my identity.

This is the story he ran on the bogus news site he created:

Walkerville, MD — An FBI agent believed to be responsible for the latest email leaks “pertinent to the investigation” into Hillary Clinton’s private email server while she was Secretary of State, was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide early Saturday morning, according to police.

Investigators believe FBI agent, Michael Brown, 45, shot and killed his 33-year-old wife, Susan Brown, late Friday night before setting the couple’s home on fire and then turning the gun on himself. Brown was a 12 year veteran of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department before spending the last six years in the FBI.

The story was debunked on Snopes (6).  And while Snopes reports “There was no truth to this story” Mr. Coler makes a more explicit statement (2):

“The people wanted to hear this,” he says. “So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then … our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums, and boy it spread like wildfire.”

In the original interview, Mr. Coler observes that his methods worked well with audiences on the right-wing but that he did not have success with more liberal groups (2):

We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.

But by the time of his own story he seems to have changed his tune (3):

This is not an issue isolated to the fringe right. Both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to fake news, and with the recent shift in the balance of power I see liberals as being a prime target for anything negative about President Trump or his administration.

It is always about finding just the right angle that will appeal to your target audience.

It seems like Mr. Coler had a change in attitude somewhere between his original interview and his own telling of his story.  At first he said (2):

As a liberal, do you have any regrets?
I don’t. Again, this is something that I’ve been crying about for a while. But outside of that, there are many factors as to why Trump won that don’t involve fake news, right? As much as I like Hillary, she was a poor candidate. She brought in a lot of baggage.
You don’t feel responsible.
I do not.

And in his own telling (3):

As for me, my time in the fake news industry has come to an end. My attempt to understand the flow of information led to a place of which I’m not particularly proud. What started as a hobby grew far larger than I had expected and brought untold stress upon my family and myself.

However, as Mr. Coler is quick to point out, there is no shortage of creators and disseminators of disinformation and fake news to take his place.  His departure from the business, if indeed genuine, will not have any real impact.  In fact he predicts the situation will become steadily worse.

Finally, Mr. Coler came to a very interesting conclusion (3):

While some suggest fake news is responsible for the decline in trust in traditional media sources, I would argue the opposite. Fake news is the result of declining trust. As consumers of content become more disheartened by trusted sources, they seek information from sources that are less credible.