“We regret that facts made their way into our narrative.”
That’s an excerpt from an apology issued by fake news site FreedumJunkshun.com in late October. The statement, which was posted on a related Facebook page titled America's Last Line of Defense, came after the site received significant criticism for a story it published Oct. 26 falsely claiming one of the American soldiers killed in Niger was a deserter.
It was a remarkable move from a site that’s classified by PolitiFact as a “parody” fake news site, and yet another example of the blurring line between satire and deliberate misinformation.
“Honestly, I think it’s because they got called out for it,” said Bethania Palma, a reporter for Snopes who covered the incident.
The story received about 1,300 engagements on Facebook before being taken down, BuzzSumo estimates, but other fake news sites were quick to republish it. Snopes debunked the allegation, which cited a made-up quote from right-wing site Breitbart.com, Oct. 26 based on a statement from the U.S. Department of Defense that said Sgt. La David Johnson, the soldier in question, was an “honorable soldier.”
According to the apology on America's Last Line Of Defense, which has more than 130,000 likes, critics pointed out that the site, owned by infamous hoaxer Christopher Blair, “should have used a fake name and photo.” Blair agreed.
“I offer a personal apology to the family of the soldier in the story,” he said in the statement. “The revenue from the article will be donated to Operation We Are Here, a relief fund for Gold Star families.” (Snopes reported the site doesn’t accept donations and its founder hadn’t heard from Blair).
In short: A supposedly satirical fake news site apologized for making one of its stories too real. And that’s pretty rare.
Palma said she couldn’t recall a time when she encountered a similar statement online, although mainstream satirical publications like The Onion have apologized in the past. Josh Gillin, a former staff writer focusing on fake news at PolitiFact, told Poynter in an email he’s only seen one instance of it from earlier this year, when a Clearwater, Florida, man shut down his site after a fake story about Whoopi Goldberg criticizing the spouse of a dead Navy SEAL was taken too seriously (PolitiFact is a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times).
So what incentive did Blair have to apologize for a story that was made up in the first place?
“It might’ve been to make good on (his) audience,” Palma said, “of course there’s the issue of their bottom line.”
Some issues, such as veterans, are particularly risky for fake news writers to cover, Palma said. If the piece is received poorly, that might drive away audience members and decrease clicks, thereby choking potential advertising revenue.
But more central to the reason why Blair apologized is the fact that he doesn’t even see his articles as fake news aimed at misinforming people — he thinks it’s all good-natured satire.
“I have chosen to apologize twice (this year), because … I'm not a horrible human being,” Blair said in a Facebook message to Poynter from Busta Troll, one of his many pseudonyms. “If it delves outside the realm of a public figure open to parody, satire and public ridicule, it was a mistake.”
Blair said the second time he apologized was regarding a false story about an Imam who refused to open his mosque to hurricane victims. While his professed intention was to “highlight the hypocrisy of Joel Osteen and the Christian Right,” Blair’s story used a photo of a real Canadian Imam that sparked backlash online.
FreedumJunkshun, which was created in December 2016 and now appears to be offline despite expiring in a couple of weeks, is only one of the websites owned and operated by Blair. A 45-year-old man from Maine, his sites are among the biggest sources of political misinformation online, PolitiFact reported. Examples of headlines include “Barack Obama arrested for wiretapping Donald Trump” and “Clinton Foundation ship caught smuggling refugees.”
In the past, Blair has repeatedly said his sites are merely political satire aimed at tricking conservatives into reading stories most people wouldn’t believe — not malicious fake news. On Facebook he reaffirmed that stance to Poynter.
“Fake news is that horrible thing that sways elections and destroys America. I have no part of that. I write fiction,” he said. “I don't package it as real in any way. I have gone out of my way to make it clear that my sites are satire.”
In that, Blair seems to take an ideological page from hoaxers such as the late Paul Horner, who regularly included absurdities in the body of his fake news stories to clue readers in on the joke. On Blair sites like FreedumJunkshun.com, Potatriotpost.com and LastLineofDefense.org — which appears to be offline but redirected to Nunadisbereel.com in mid-October, according to the Wayback Machine — labels cheekily denoting them as satirical fiction are affixed to the footers.
Where Blair differs from the comedic flavor of fake news is in his intent. Whereas Horner and others claimed to be focused on teaching people to do their own fact-checking, Blair is more bent toward trolling conservatives online using satirical fakery.
“We've had pages taken down, posts removed, racists banned forever,” he said. “This isn't some gang of assholes making shit up to laugh at the rest of the world. It's a targeted liberal troll (operation).”
But regardless of purported intention or satire labels, the primary effect could still be misinformation. Horner’s articles were broadly believed and amassed thousands of pageviews, and Facebook users regularly share content from Blair’s sites under the assumption it’s real. The notion that satirical fake news is somehow different in effect from malicious fake news is flawed.
"I keep seeing proprietors of supposedly satirical fake news websites using this excuse, but I know of no research to suggest it is accurate," Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College, told PolitiFact regarding Blair’s claim that his sites don’t change readers’ minds. "It seems more like a way to make the other side look bad and/or make money while spreading misinformation."
Work from researchers such as Michelle Amazeen, a Boston University mass communications professor, suggests that fake news stories can further spread misinformation by influencing what the mainstream media cover. And domains that claim to be satirical can have similar effects, albeit within the misinformation ecosystem — BuzzFeed reported that many stories from Blair’s sites were reposted without credit by fake news farms in Eastern Europe.
With that in mind, slapping a satire label on a fake news story doesn’t necessarily make it so, Palma said.
“Obviously people believe that this person who died fighting for his country was a traitor, which was really sad,” she said. “This is a private citizen, he’s a veteran who was killed in action. There’s just no satirical value to this story whatsoever.”
Granted, the lines between objective reporting, satire and fakery have long been thin. Andy Borowitz, a satire writer for The New Yorker, told Poynter in an email that news consumers throughout history have had trouble discerning fact from fiction — a conundrum that predates the internet.
“The problem of readers believing satirical stories to be true is not a new development nor a byproduct of the social media age,” Borowitz said.
“When, in 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote ‘A Modest Proposal,’ one of the most celebrated satires in the English language, many readers took it to be true — including the Queen of England.”
Labeling and tone both have at least something to do with how satire is received. Borowitz always puts a prominent disclaimer at the top — as opposed to the bottom — of his pieces, whose primary function is fairly clear: to make people laugh. They’re even listed in a designated humor section on The New Yorker’s website.
To Palma and others, Blair’s sites don’t meet those same criteria.
“They think it’s funny that people believe what they post. I’m not sure what brand of content that would be, but it’s not satire,” she said. “It just seems like they’re cashing in on fake news. In this case it was egregious.”