America is in the midst of a fake news epidemic. And on Sunday, it became painfully clear that lives are at stake, as a man stormed a Washington, D.C. pizza place, armed with an assault rifle. He was there to “self-investigate” #Pizzagate, the bogus conspiracy story that held Comet Ping, the pizza joint, was home to an international child abuse ring linked to Hillary Clinton and aides.
Although real news outlets had diligently reported for weeks that #Pizzagate allegations were false, the fake news kept circulating on social media — even with the help of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Advisor.
On Monday, Samantha Bee, the Full Frontal comedian and host, asked the basic question: “What sort of demon brain comes up with hoaxes like this?” And she devoted a segment to a pre-taped interview conducted by her producer Mike Rubens with a purveyor of fake news: a man named Jestin Coler, the CEO of Disinfomedia. The company owns several faux news sites, according to NPR, which has called Coler “godfather” of the fake news industry.
Rubens calls Coler one of the “fake news hucksters” behind the proliferation of fake news online, which often spreads rapidly through social media platforms like Facebook. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some measures his company intends to take to cut down on the fake news shared on the platform, though it remains to be seen how effective the company can be in that regard.)
Full Frontal points out the absurdity that Coler, who is actually a liberal Democrat and voted for Hillary Clinton in last month’s election, had been helping to spread lies about Clinton online through his web of fake-news sites. Full Frontal’s Rubens notes that Coler’s sites “confusingly feature satire alongside those race-baiting, Hillary-hating fake stories your dumb uncle shares with you on Facebook.”
Coler told Full Frontal he became interested in the alt-right movement a few years ago and his company set out to “infiltrate these groups and see if they would fall for the stories we were writing in order to then publicly discredit them as being factual news sources.” Those stories, Coler admitted, include what he calls “right-wing red meat,” including anything negative about Clinton, President Barack Obama, or stories that incite Islamophobia. (One example is a 2013 story from Coler’s site, National Report, which falsely claimed that a Michigan city had become the first in the U.S. to implement Sharia law.)
Coler doesn’t offer up much in the way of contrition when confronted with some of the hateful, dangerous reader comments on the Sharia law story, which include various physical threats against Muslims.
Instead, Coler tells Full Frontal that it is up to readers to distinguish between real and fake news online. Rubens likened that approach to “teaching people about the dangers of drugs by giving them drugs.”
Later, Coler does admit that his company has been opportunistic in taking advantage of an increasingly fragmented media landscape that allows for the spread of fake news online, which Rubens notes is “laying the foundation for a post-news society” in which the line between curated, heavily-reported news and loosely-tied conspiracy theories gets blurred. After all, as Rubens points out, the fallout from #Pizzagate is evidence that fake news can have serious repercussions in real life.