On February 21, I started a fake news satire website that would accumulate over 1 million page views in the course of nine days. I simply scribbled out short stories, espousing the most ridiculous conspiracy theories and nonsensical banter, often involving celebrities or high profile politicians. I plastered disclaimers stating that the site was a work of satire – its contents fiction and presumably fake news. I would post the stories in a few ‘Trump groups’ where they would often spread like wildfire, despite the disclaimers and high level of absurdity.
My most viewed and shared story, by a decent margin, featured actress Whoopi Goldberg proclaiming US Navy Seal Widow, Carryn Owens, attended the Trump inauguration to be honored because she was “looking for attention.” On Monday’s episode of popular ABC talk show ‘The View,’ Whoopi thrashed me for spreading fake news that she claims “endangered [her] family’s li[ves] and endangered [her] life.” Goldberg said that she would be pursuing a libel suit against me, and that “Costa Rica isn’t big enough” for me to escape the impending lawsuit. She even went as far as to say that she wants to introduce legislation that would include criminal charges for anyone who wrote satire about anyone without their permission, including President Trump and his family; a policy that would almost certainly be a slippery slope into the decline of long cherished American first amendment and free speech rights.
I want to take the first part of this response to flesh out a couple things Goldberg got wrong about me and my intentions:
Firstly, Goldberg declined to mention that I had a disclaimer on the site, which made it clear that my writings were entirely based in fiction and that everything I wrote was satire or fake news. Goldberg had even posted my disclaimer on her Facebook page the day after the story was released, so she was certainly aware of its presence. Apart from this, the website was littered with off-the-wall stories like, “Obama Plans to Use Mind Control Drugs on Trump” and “HYPOCRISY: Obama Spotted Golfing with Putin.” In my estimation, the average person would only need to view the site for a few moments to know that it was a work of satire.
Secondly, Goldberg had said that I had started the story simply to see how quickly “stories would spread.” It is true that I was testing the speed at which I could get ‘Shares’ when I first started the website. By the time I wrote the story about Goldberg, the project had grown into a full blown experiment with significant social and political consequences involving the spread and belief in off-the-wall fake news stories and how they relate to confirmation bias.
Goldberg also claimed that I had eventually shut down the site from the “crap” I was getting. This is simply false. I never shut down or retracted anything. The day after the Goldberg story was released, I posted a story called ‘Breaking: Satire Makes Fools of Gullible Trump Supporters’ detailing my nine days of adventure and experimentation in the world of online fake news.
Emails flooded my inbox after the segment aired, many asking me the same question: “What if someone crazy had read your story and hurt her?” After all, Goldberg claimed that she had to spend money on increased security as a result of the story. She likened it to a recent event where a man walked into Comet Ping Pong (a Washington DC pizza parlor, now famous for the debunked ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy) with an assault rifle, in an attempt to free child sex slaves he believed were being imprisoned in the restaurant’s basement.
While I don’t doubt that Whoopi may have perceived an increased threat as a result of the story, I would argue that in reality the story made no actual difference in her safety. She hadn’t been accused of abusing children or killing anyone, but simply for a comment that she made about a vulnerable and widely-admired person. Few people who didn’t already harbor negative feelings towards Goldberg believed the story. Many false stories circulate about Goldberg, as they do with all celebrities of her caliber. Has any one of these stories resulted in a violent attack on a celebrity? Was it the sheer size of the story that caused me to be noticed? Or was it the fact that I happen to be the one person who came out and revealed their identity after the nine day stint?
As perplexing as I found these queries, the one same question continues to circulate in my mind: In the era of fake news, at what point does culpability shift from the writer to the reader? As I said, I had posted disclaimers on every page of the site, and once I published the final article explaining my tales, I put a link at the end of the article for people who may have missed the disclaimer. Why had Whoopi singled me out and not placed virtually any responsibility on the readers who shared the articles, often accompanied with captions of intense hatred? Where was the focus on the bigger problem of today’s fake news culture perpetuated by us readers? After all, we could lock up every person in the world who writes fake news, and in relatively no time they will have been replaced by new propagators looking to profit from a very fertile market, just as illegal drug- and sex-trades have for centuries.
I think I know the answer.
Ultimately, an individual makes an easier target. Society would rather put a Band-Aid on a wound than look for a lasting solution if it’s easier and more popular. This tendency is central to the consistent denial of the fake news problem. It’s the same sort of mentality that led many to blame the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the subsequent terror attacks rather than the terrorists themselves. While I wouldn’t deny that my stories had an impact for the short time I was publishing them, I think that Goldberg misidentified me as the primary villain in the whole fiasco. Suing me or locking me up will not stop fake news, which was clearly around before I started my experiment and is still happening now that I’ve stopped. If we really want to stop misinformation, society needs to take a collective look in the mirror rather than targeting individual propagators as a long term solution.
I want to apologize to Goldberg and anyone else who may have been impacted by my recent stories, but it’s important to understand that they were ultimately taking lumps for a greater cause, not just subject to the nihilistic whims of some sociopath in Costa Rica.