James McDaniel, a 28-year-old Clearwater native, said he created a fake-news website last month as a joke to see just how naive Internet readers could be.
The headlines came quick and easy. “Bombshell: WikiLeaks leaks ‘lost’ Clinton email.” “Obama tweet: Trump must be removed, by any means necessary.” “Man pardoned by Obama 3 months ago arrested for murder.” “Whoopi Goldberg: Navy SEAL Widow was ‘Looking for Attention’.”
So, too, did eyeballs. In a week and a half, McDaniel said, UndergroundNewsReport.com totaled more than 1 million page views.
PolitiFact spotted two of McDaniel’s fake articles — the claim about the man pardoned by Obama and the one about Whoopi Goldberg — as part of its partnership with Facebook to try to slow the spread of fake news stories. Both rated Pants on Fire.
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In the course of our reporting, we reached out to McDaniel through an email address on his website. Surprisingly, he agreed to talk to us about his website and the fake stories. His story offers a glimpse into the fake-news industry.
McDaniel, who lives in Costa Rica and works for an American nutrition company, says his website was dreamt up as a side project for laughs.
Unlike many fake-news purveyors, McDaniel didn’t want to sway conversations or make money through ad revenue. Curious about how easily people could be fooled, he cooked up a post he thought would normally sound too crazy for anyone to believe, just to see if it caught on.
His first story was a fabricated tale about how Obama allegedly ran a pedophile ring out of the White House, and then McDaniel decided to create more. He started posting the links he created to Donald Trump fan groups on Facebook to see if they would take the bait.
UndergroundNewsReport.com was launched Feb. 21. In less than two weeks, more than 1 million people had viewed stories on the site and spread them across social media platforms.
“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.”
After a week and a half, on March 3, McDaniel added a post to the website explaining what he was doing. He provided a link to the post at the end of each article.
His fake story about Whoopi Goldberg condemning Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in January’s Yemen raid, convinced him to stop. (When Owens’ body arrived at Dover Air Force Base, Owens’ father, Bill, who lives in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, declined to speak with President Donald Trump at a ceremony.)
Commenters turned threads to grave discussions about dead service members and Goldberg’s lack of respect.
“I might have carried on a bit longer because I was having fun,” McDaniel wrote, “but people took the Whoopi Goldberg story so seriously and it had gotten so big I thought I had better pull the plug.”
It was no great loss to McDaniel. He had registered the domain name on GoDaddy.com, and while his site used advertising from the Content.ad network, he didn’t make much off it — a total of $615, he said, which he planned to donate to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.
His fake news-generating days are behind him, he said, although he planned to leave the website up as a “relic,” so people could still see the stories and comments.
As for his own news consumption, McDaniel said he knows he’s been duped by contrived stories in the past, but now tries to be much more careful, considering the sheer volume of fake news out there.
“I definitely don't share anything that I don’t consider to be from a reliable source,” he said, “and any time I see something interesting from an alternative media outlet, I do a quick bit of research to see how reliable the story is.”
Politifact Florida is a partnership between The Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald to check out truth in politics.