It looks like a Snopes fact check. It reads like a Snopes fact check. And on first glance, it looks like one of the outlandish fake news stories that ends up getting debunked.
But the article — titled “FACT-CHECK: Did Kim Jong Un Really Invite Donald Trump To His Birthday party?” — isn’t from Snopes at all. It’s satire.
And it’s just one example of the ongoing feud between the fact-checking project and one of the internet’s most notorious hoaxers.
The story starts with a made-up rumor that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump’s birthday party at the White House. To the average internet user, it should be immediately clear that the story is satirical; the lead image shows Trump with retired basketball player Dennis Rodman and the first link is to an Urban Dictionary entry for the phrase “I just made this up.”
On No Fake News Online — whose slogan is “Fact-checkers fake fact-checking fake news” — Christopher Blair regularly publishes spoofs like this. From his home in Maine, the 46-year-old internet hoaxer (also known as “Busta Troll”) has long run a network of websites with made-up stories aimed at tricking conservatives into sharing them, attracting the attention of several fact-checking sites and raising questions about the line between fake news and satire.
Now he’s going after Snopes directly.
“Snopes' mission has become more about making sure that we don't make a penny rather than the truth, which is terrifying since they have become (in the eyes of Facebook) the arbiters of truth,” said John Prager, a longtime collaborator of Blair’s and a writer for the left-leaning site Addicting Info, in a Facebook message to Poynter. “We like having a laugh about the sophomorish way (Snopes has) responded to us.”
In the misinformation world, it’s not uncommon for fact-checkers to have a combative relationship with those they debunk. Leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, Paul Horner — one of the most infamous political fake news writers — often took shots at projects like Snopes. He created fake sites using URLs like “snopes.com.co” to trick people into believing they were the real thing.
Horner’s empire has not survived his death, but Blair has continued on — in spite of changes to Facebook’s algorithm that have dramatically decreased his profit margin.
Prager said the reach and revenue of Blair’s sites has decreased dramatically since the tech company’s fact-checking program launched in December 2016. That’s because the initiative limits the reach of stories that have been debunked by Facebook’s fact-checking partners like Snopes, which regularly fact-checks Blair’s articles. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)
He wouldn’t share any concrete numbers about his reach or revenue, but Blair said he has shuttered several of the sites that used to comprise his network. And he blames Snopes co-founder and CEO David Mikkelson.
“With his newly guaranteed links and headlines from Facebook's till, he can sit back all day and call people fake news and make a killing,” Blair told Poynter in a message. “Mikkelson is screwing satirists for profit and he's going to get good and sued for it.”
So far, Snopes is unfazed by the threats.
“He threatens to sue us all the time. So far nothing has come of it,” Brooke Binkowski told Poynter before getting fired as managing editor last week. “He’s got a boner for us. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I don’t kiss his ass — I’m not scared of him.”
“I don’t want to be his friend. I don’t want to be his enemy — I do not care about him. What I care about is the effect that this kind of corrosive disinformation has on the general public discourse.”
Welcome to one of the biggest beefs in fact-checking.
Fighting over Facebook
It started at least a year and a half ago.
That’s when, in December 2016, Snopes joined Facebook’s fact-checking program. It was among the first four organizations to join the partnership, including (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and the Associated Press, with the goal of weeding out fake news stories on the platform.
Since then, the program has ballooned to more than 25 fact-checking projects in several countries and grown to target images as well as links. In many ways, it’s become Facebook’s most visible effort to counter misinformation — and fact-checkers say the partnership is working despite its flaws.
As a result, it’s allegedly decimated the reach of sites like Blair’s America’s Last Line of Defense (LLOD), which, at its height, was reportedly racking up more than 1 million clicks per month. In October, BuzzFeed reported that, once an article is debunked by one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners, its reach in the News Feed decreases by up to 80 percent after an average of three days.
And that would have a big impact on fake news pages’ ability to monetize — including Blair’s. Aside from merely losing engagement, according to Facebook’s fact-checking partnership, pages that are repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers lose their ability to make money from advertising (although a recent Poynter analysis found sites like InfoWars and YourNewsWire still saw overall strong engagement).
In the spring, Facebook further cracked down on Blair’s sites, making it impossible to share links to several of them. As of publication, Poynter also couldn’t visit the site listed for the Last Line of Defense page.
“Blair has recently switched off a whole bunch of his domain names,” said Maarten Schenk, a fact-checker for Lead Stories who regularly tracks Blair’s sites. “His Facebook reach has been destroyed.”
In a message to Poynter, Blair partner John Prager confirmed that.
“We have no reach on links to any site, liberal, conservative or otherwise, which means we have no revenue,” he said. “Liberal blogging was nice and we made good money. LLOD was a fluke we knew would die."
“We do what we do now for free and for fun and because we believe. It's been like this since about January.”
Because of that, Blair has mostly stopped posting stories in favor of falsified memes and images to avoid detection by Facebook’s fact-checking tool, which only lets fact-checkers debunk article links in most countries. Those memes frequently go viral — but presumably not for much longer, as the tech company announced recently that it will continue rolling out image debunking.
Following Blair’s demotion on Facebook, Snopes has continued to debunk hoaxes on his various pages. While Blair has repeatedly said that everything he publishes is satire, and labeled as such on his sites, Binkowski said Snopes fact-checks anything that readers ask them about. Frequently, those requests lead to Blair.
But if Snopes starts debunking stories from No Fake News Online, Blair said he plans to file a lawsuit.
“This is more parody than satire even. If Mikkelson comes here it's a personal attack and yes, I will own Snopes at that point,” Blair said.
Meanwhile, other fact-checkers and tech platforms are caught in the crossfire.
“I don’t want to end up in a pissing match between Snopes and Chris Blair because I’ll only get wet,” Schenk said.
Fact-checking gets personal
Sky Palma doesn’t like Christopher Blair.
The founder and editor in chief of Deadstate.org regularly gets into long, rambling Twitter fights with the internet hoaxer and John Prager. He often references their made-up stories as pro-Donald Trump, racist, profit-motivated fake news — which he says Blair attempts to justify by calling it satire.
But Palma told Poynter in an email that he doesn’t think there’s an ongoing feud between them.
“If anything, it's a one-sided feud, where Chris Blair constantly rails against Snopes for fact-checking his pseudo-satire pieces,” he said. “Despite the disclaimers at the bottom of their articles, their intent was clear: to publish racist and Islamophobic content designed to be widely shared by gullible Trump supporters.”
Meanwhile, Blair and Prager — self-professed liberals — say Palma has misrepresented their work.
“Palma's brother has had zero impact on us. We view him as a form of entertainment,” Prager said.
The other Palma in question is a Snopes reporter — and therein lies another main source of Blair’s beef with the fact-checking project. Bethania Palma has extensively debunked the hoaxer’s stories in the past, including one that forced Blair to apologize.
In October, FreedumJunkshun.com, one of Blair’s old sites that appears to have been taken over by a Vietnamese blog, published a story claiming that one of the American soldiers killed in Niger was a deserter. Snopes debunked the story, and Blair later issued an apology after receiving significant backlash, saying he regretted that “facts made their way into our narrative.”
Bethania Palma covered the entire incident. She noted that, while Blair promised in his apology to donate the profits from the hoax to a fund for military families, the organization told her that they did not accept donations and Blair had not reached out to them. She also wrote that Snopes had reached out to Blair with questions days before but had not heard back.
That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
Following Snopes’ stories about Blair’s deserter article, the hoaxer sent Palma a curse-ladened email (forwarded to Poynter) saying that she would never get another quote from him again. In a similar email sent to Binkowski in April (and forwarded to Poynter), Blair lambasted Snopes for continuing to debunk his work and again brought up Palma’s debunk from October.
Palma previously told Poynter she thinks Blair apologized because the backlash could have affected his bottom line. She also said she doesn’t think Blair exclusively writes satire — he seems to profit off fake news stories.
Prager told Poynter that, after the incident, he started noticing more debunks from Snopes than he’d seen in the past.
“I have noticed an uptick in their ‘fact checks’ of our stories since that argument, and Palma's brother regularly brags about the impact ‘he and his sister; have had on our sites,” Prager said.
This is what happens when you expose a fake news writer. They use their penchant for lies to slander you to their gullible audience. Bear in mind, John Prager writes for liberal clickbait sites like https://t.co/BuW9cHgJcp, but he moonlights as a pro-Trump fake news purveyor. https://t.co/YtYtCVZepu
— Sky Palma (@DeadStateTweets) April 30, 2018
But Binkowski said the notion that Snopes is baselessly trying to remove Blair’s content from Facebook just because Sky Palma doesn’t like him is wrong.
“For some reason, he thinks that Sky Palma has a thing against him because he’s Bethania’s brother, so any criticism Sky gives him means she has a thing too,” she said.
Despite the feud, Blair said he doesn’t hate Snopes — on the contrary. He said he donated to and promoted their GoFundMe last summer, which launched to help the fact-checking organization pay for an ongoing legal battle over its ownership (Poynter was unable to confirm that Blair had donated). The fund was still going strong as of publication, with more than $835,000 in donations.
Still, he takes issue with how they seem to have singled out his work.
“The sad thing is I don't want Snopes to tear themselves apart over us. I don't want to see them destroyed,” Blair said. “I want them to have unimpeachable credibility. It's more important now than ever. But they don't have that and don't seem interested.”
Satire or nah?
At the heart of the feud between Snopes and Christopher Blair is the thin line between misinformation and satire.
Fact-checkers are now afforded significant delegated power over Facebook’s News Feed. Though it is the social network that ultimately decides what to do with the fact-checking signals, its fact-checking partners have leeway in what they choose to debunk — which has resulted in satire becoming the victim of at least one high-profile incident.
In March, Facebook reversed a verdict from Snopes that labeled a satirical story about CNN and a washing machine false. The incident highlighted both how satire is increasingly a gray area for the fact-checking tool and how much power fact-checkers have in limiting what users see on the social media platform.
Snopes is no stranger to fact-checking satirical stories — it’s part of its debunking policy. The site has even fact-checked The Onion a handful of times. But when it and other fact-checkers flag satire on Facebook as false, it butts up against the company’s own policies, which say it won’t decrease the reach of satire in News Feed.
Blair said all of his work falls into this category, and points to labels on his sites denoting the content as satire as proof that he’s not just another fake news writer. And both he and Prager think it should be exempt from Facebook’s fact-checking product.
“I think that known satire sites should be exempted if they have multiple disclaimers and are very clear about what they do on both the website and Facebook page,” Prager said. “While some have suggested ‘labeling’ satire, I think that's a bad idea because it detracts from the impact. Good satire should at first glance appear real to its target audience.”
According to Facebook’s anti-misinformation policy, satire is not algorithmically suppressed in the News Feed.
But Snopes says Blair’s work is misinformation because people always seem to believe it. Binkowski said a huge source for the project’s fact checks are emails from readers — and that’s usually enough of a reason to debunk a story.
“If we get a couple of emails about Chris Blair and something he wrote, which we have gotten, then we’ll do it,” she said. “My rule of thumb is, for every one person who complains, there are another 99 people who aren’t complaining … a lot of the stuff that he puts out there gets a lot of traffic.”
In a March 2017 investigation, BuzzFeed News found that Blair’s content is often reposted by other fake news sites online, amassing even more engagement on social media. One story was rerun on at least 19 websites by people in countries like Macedonia and Kosovo.
“Blair is at the top of the fake news heap. A lot of fake news sites are taking bits and pieces of what he writes and incorporating them,” Binkowski said.
Still, Prager and Blair take issue with the bulk of Snopes’ debunks, which he said rarely address his viral stories. Prager told Poynter the Niger deserter story only had about 30 views before the project debunked it.
“If something goes viral, I completely understand making people aware that it isn't true. Presenting stories that go nowhere as part of a personal beef, however, is irresponsible and reckless,” he said.
And more recently, Sky Palma said Blair has changed the way he presents some stories.
“Blair and his page seem to be trying to do actual satire now. My criticisms of him in the past were due to the fact that he was doing nothing of the sort,” he said. “He was writing fake news for profit. If he had always done what he's apparently trying to do now, I would have never had an issue with him.”
Binkowski said Snopes will continue to fact-check anything their readers ask them about — including Blair’s articles and memes. And, although he’s made strides to tone down some of his content since Snopes started flagging stories on Facebook, she said the bulk of Blair’s work is still misinformation.
“He’s fucking crazy,” she said. “You have to be funny to write satire. He claims that he rounds up crazy conservatives and reports them. You can do that without writing corrosive bullshit.”
The beef continues.