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Fake News and the Big Lie

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On February 21, 2017, James McDaniel launched a news website. A couple of weeks later, after careful promotion in social media, his news service was getting over 1 million page views. This is the kind of result that established news organizations covet and spend millions of dollars nurturing. So, you’d think that a larger media company would have gobbled up McDaniel’s news site — UndergroundNewsReport — and rewarded him with a title of senior vice president. Well, not so fast.

You see, McDaniel’s site was all about fake news. He created the site and all the stories as a joke — to see how gullible and naive Internet audiences could be. And, by this measure it succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It seems that the wilder the story, the more incredible the “news”, the faster it spread, and the bigger the audience.

This goes some way to confirming the theory of the “big lie” — a propaganda technique used by the Nazi regime during WWII. Adolf Hitler coined the term big lie in his 1925 autobiography. He described the big lie as being so vast and complex that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” That is, make the fake news so ridiculous, so brazenly incredible that it has be believed, especially by those whose worldview appears to be confirmed in the process.

A month in to the joke would-be media mogul and jokester James McDaniel closed his “news” service down. His fake story about Whoopi Goldberg condemning Carryn Owens, the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in January’s Yemen raid, convinced him to stop — the story and reaction to it got quickly out of hand.

His caution to the naive and gullible among us is telling: “I definitely don’t share anything that I don’t consider to be from a reliable source… and anytime I see something interesting from an alternative media outlet, I do a quick bit of research to see how reliable the story is.

Here are some choice snippets from Punditfact’s interview with McDaniel. Punditfact is a fact checking organization.

“I was surprised by how gullible the people in the Trump groups were, but as I continued to write ridiculous things they just kept getting shared and I kept drawing more viewers,” McDaniel told PolitiFact. “I saw how many fake ridiculous stories were making rounds in these groups and just wanted to see how ridiculous they could get.”

McDaniel even tried to warn viewers by putting a disclaimer on the bottom of his web pages saying his posts “are fiction, and presumably fake news.” While a handful of people took the time to email him to ask if stories were real or send hate mail, most of the comments on his links blindly accepted what he wrote as the truth.

For example, many readers of the story about Clinton’s lost email appear to believe WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was releasing information tying the former Democratic presidential nominee to Pizzagate. That’s the conspiracy theory that claims Democrats are secretly running a pedophile ring out of a D.C.-area pizza shop.

“It’s over for them but PIZZAGATE goes VERY deep it WILL Rock the world I also believe killary has kuro (sic) disease from eating body parts the symptoms are there she is very close to destination of hell where she belongs,” a commenter listed as “Bryon” wrote.

“Trump is being set up for impeachment and Pence wants his place,” a reader named “Di” commented. “If Obama, Clintons, Soros re not arrested now and their funds frozen there’s going to be a revolution in May.”

McDaniel said he would sometimes peg his posts to real news events, but more often, he just made them up wholesale. He’d find photos on the Internet and generally rip off an article without even rereading it. In all, he speculated, he worked on the site about two hours per day.

“I think that almost every story I did, or at least the successful ones, relayed off of things that Trump supporters already believed. Obama is a Muslim terrorist. Hillary (Clinton) is a demonic child trafficker,” McDaniel said. “These are things much more widely believed among Trump supporters than I had previously thought.”

Image: Composite screenshot of UndergroundNewsReport website. Credit: UndergroundNewsReport.