‘NOTH­ING ON THIS PAGE IS REAL’

How ob­vi­ous lies be­came truth in on­line Amer­ica

Windsor Star - - WEEKEND REVIEW - ELI SASLOW

The only light in the house came from the glow of three com­puter mon­i­tors, and Christo­pher Blair, 46, sat down at a key­board and started to type. His wife had left for work and his chil­dren were on their way to school, but wait­ing on­line was his other com­mu­nity, an un­re­al­ity where noth­ing was ex­actly as it seemed. He logged onto his web­site and be­gan to in­vent his first news story of the day. “BREAK­ING,” he wrote, peck­ing out each let­ter with his in­dex fin­gers as he con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Maybe he would an­nounce that Hil­lary Clin­ton had died dur­ing a se­cret over­seas mis­sion to smug­gle more refugees into Amer­ica. Maybe he would award Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump the No­bel Peace Prize for his courage in deny­ing cli­mate change.

A new mes­sage popped onto Blair’s screen from a friend who helped with his web­site. “What vi­ral in­san­ity should we spread this morn­ing ?” the friend asked. “The more ex­treme we be­come, the more peo­ple be­lieve it,” Blair replied.

He had launched his new web­site on Face­book dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign as a prac­ti­cal joke among friends — a po­lit­i­cal satire site started by Blair and a few other liberal blog­gers who wanted to make fun of what they con­sid­ered to be ex­trem­ist ideas spreading through­out the far right. In the last two years on his page, Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, Blair had made up sto­ries about Cal­i­for­nia in­sti­tut­ing sharia, for­mer pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton be­com­ing a se­rial killer, un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants de­fac­ing Mount Rush­more, and for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama dodg­ing the Viet­nam draft when he was 9. “Share if you’re out­raged!” his posts of­ten read, and thou­sands of peo­ple on Face­book had clicked “like” and then “share,” most of whom did not rec­og­nize his posts as satire. In­stead, Blair’s page had be­come one of the most pop­u­lar on Face­book among Trump-sup­port­ing con­ser­va­tives over 55. “Noth­ing on this page is real,” read one of the 14 dis­claimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the Amer­ica of 2018 his sto­ries had be­come real, re­in­forc­ing peo­ple’s bi­ases, spreading onto Mace­do­nian and Rus­sian fake news sites, amass­ing an au­di­ence of as many six mil­lion vis­i­tors each month who thought his posts were fac­tual. What Blair had first con­ceived of as an elab­o­rate joke was begin­ning to re­veal some­thing darker. “No mat­ter how racist, how big­oted, how of­fen­sive, how ob­vi­ously fake we get, peo­ple keep com­ing back,” Blair once wrote on his own per­sonal Face­book page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where peo­ple re­al­ize they ’re be­ing fed garbage and de­cide to re­turn to re­al­ity?”

Blair’s own re­al­ity was out be­yond the shut­tered cur­tains of his of­fice: a three-bed­room home in the for­est of Maine where the paved road turned to gravel; not his house, but a rental; not on the lake, but near it.

Over the past decade his fam­ily had moved around the coun­try a half-dozen times as he looked for steady work, bounc­ing be­tween con­struc­tion and restau­rant jobs while some­times liv­ing on food stamps.

Dur­ing the eco­nomic crash of 2008, his wife had taken a job at Wendy’s to help pay down their credit-card debt, and Blair, a life­long Demo­crat, had be­gun vent­ing his po­lit­i­cal frus­tra­tion on­line, ar­gu­ing with strangers in an In­ter­net fo­rum called Brawl Hall. He some­times mas­quer­aded as a tea party con­ser­va­tive on Face­book so he could gain ad­min­is­tra­tive ac­cess into their pri­vate groups and then flood their pages with liberal ideas be­fore us­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tive sta­tus to shut their pages down. He had cre­ated more than a dozen on­line pro­files over the years, some­times dis­guis­ing him­self in ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­to­graphs as a beau­ti­ful south­ern blond woman or as a ban­dana-wear­ing con­ser­va­tive named Flagg Ea­gle­ton, bait­ing peo­ple into mak­ing racist or sex­ist com­ments and then pub­licly evis­cer­at­ing them for it. In his writ­ing, Blair was blunt, witty and pro­lific, and grad­u­ally he’d built a liberal fol­low­ing on the In­ter­net and earned a full-time job as a po­lit­i­cal blogger. On the screen, like nowhere else, he could say ex­actly how he felt and be­come whomever he wanted.

Now he hunched over a desk wedged be­tween an over­turned tread­mill and two tur­tle tanks, scan­ning through con­ser­va­tive fo­rums on Face­book for some­thing that might in­spire his next post. He no­ticed a photo on­line of Trump stand­ing at at­ten­tion for the na­tional an­them dur­ing a White House cer­e­mony. Be­hind the pres­i­dent were sev­eral dozen dig­ni­taries, in­clud­ing a white woman stand­ing next to a black woman, and Blair copied the pic­ture, cir­cled the two women in red and wrote the first thing that came into his mind. “Pres­i­dent Trump ex­tended an olive branch and in­vited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton,” Blair wrote. “They thanked him by giv­ing him ‘the finger’ dur­ing the na­tional an­them. Lock them up for trea­son!” Blair fin­ished typ­ing and looked again at the pic­ture. The white woman was not in fact Chelsea Clin­ton but for­mer White House strate­gist Hope Hicks. The black woman was not Michelle Obama but for­mer Trump aide Omarosa New­man. Nei­ther Obama nor Clin­ton had been in­vited to the cer­e­mony. No­body had flipped off the pres­i­dent. The en­tire premise was ut­terly ridicu­lous, which was ex­actly Blair’s point.

“We live in an Idioc­racy,” read a small note on Blair’s desk, and he was tak­ing full ad­van­tage. In a good month, the advertising revenue from his web­site earned him as much as $15,000, and it had also won him a loyal army of on­line fans. Hun­dreds of lib­er­als now vis­ited Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense to hu­mil­i­ate con­ser­va­tives who shared Blair’s fake sto­ries as fact. “How could any think­ing per­son be­lieve this non­sense?” he said. He hit the pub­lish but­ton and watched as his lie be­gan to spread.

It was barely dawn in Pahrump, Nev., when Shirley Chapian, 76, logged onto Face­book for her morn­ing com­puter game of Crim­i­nal Case. She be­lieved in start­ing each day with a prob­lem-solv­ing chal­lenge, a quick mental ex­er­cise to keep her brain sharp more than a decade into re­tire­ment. For a while it had been the daily crossword puz­zle, but then the lo­cal news­pa­per stopped de­liv­er­ing and a friend in­tro­duced her to the vi­ral Face­book game with 65 mil­lion play­ers. She spent an hour as a 1930s de­tec­tive, in­ter­ro­gat­ing wit­nesses and try­ing to parse their lies from the truth un­til fi­nally she solved case No. 48 and clicked over to her Face­book news feed. “Click LIKE if you be­lieve we must stop Sharia Law from com­ing to Amer­ica be­fore it’s too late,” read the first item, and she clicked “like.” “Share to help END the on­go­ing mi­grant in­va­sion!” read an­other, and she clicked “share.”

On her com­puter the at­tack against Amer­ica was ur­gent and un­re­lent­ing. Lib­er­als were re­strict­ing free speech. Im­mi­grants were storm­ing the border and cast­ing il­le­gal votes. Politi­cians were schem­ing to take away ev­ery­one’s guns. “The sec­ond you stop pay­ing at­ten­tion, there’s an­other trav­esty un­der­way in this coun­try,” Chapian once wrote in her own Face­book post, so she had de­cided to al­ways pay at­ten­tion, some­times scrolling and shar­ing for hours at a time. “BREAK­ING: Demo­crat megadonor ac­cused of sex­ual as­sault!!!” “Is Michelle Obama re­ally dat­ing Bruce Spring­steen?”

“Iowa Farmer Claims Bill Clin­ton had Sex with Cow dur­ing ‘Co­caine Party.’ ”

Chapian had usu­ally voted for Repub­li­cans, just like her par­ents, but it was only on Face­book that she had be­come a com­mit­ted con­ser­va­tive. She was wary of Obama in the months af­ter his elec­tion, be­liev­ing him to be both ar­ro­gant and in­ex­pe­ri­enced, and on Face­book she sought out a litany of in­for­ma­tion that seemed to con­firm her worst fears, un­aware that some of that in­for­ma­tion was false. For years, she had watched net­work TV news, but in­creas­ingly Chapian won­dered about the widen­ing gap be­tween what she read on­line and what she heard on the net­works. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once on Face­book, and if she be­lieved the main­stream me­dia was be­com­ing in­suf­fi­cient or bi­ased, it was her re­spon­si­bil­ity to seek out al­ter­na­tives. She signed up for a dozen con­ser­va­tive newsletters and be­gan to watch Alex Jones on In­fowars. One far right Face­book group even­tu­ally led her to the next with tar­geted advertising, and soon Chapian was fol­low­ing more than 2,500 con­ser­va­tive pages, an ide­o­log­i­cal echo cham­ber that of­ten traf­ficked in skep­ti­cism. Chapian didn’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing she read on­line, but she was also dis­trust­ful of main­stream fact-check­ers and re­ported news.

“I’m not a con­spir­acy-the­o­ry­type per­son, but ...” she wrote, be­fore shar­ing a link to an un­sourced story suggest­ing that Demo­cratic donor Ge­orge Soros had been a com­mit­ted Nazi, or that a Park­land shoot­ing sur­vivor was ac­tu­ally a paid ac­tor.

Now an­other post ar­rived in her news feed, from a page called Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, which Chapian had been fol­low­ing for more than a year. It showed a pic­ture of Trump stand­ing at a White House cer­e­mony. Cir­cled in the back­ground were two women, one black and one white. “Pres­i­dent Trump ex­tended an olive branch and in­vited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton,” the post read. “They thanked him by giv­ing him ‘the finger’ dur­ing the na­tional an­them.” Chapian looked at the photo and noth­ing about it sur­prised her. It was the ex­act same nar­ra­tive she saw play­ing out on her screen hun­dreds of times each day, and this time she de­cided to click “like” and leave a com­ment.

“Well, they never did have any class,” she wrote. Blair had in­vented thou­sands of sto­ries in the past two years, al­ways traf­fick­ing in the same stereo­types to fool the same peo­ple, but he never tired of watch­ing a post take off: Eight shares in the first minute, 160 within 15 min­utes, more than 1,000 by the end of the hour.

By the stan­dards of Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, the item about Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton was only a mod­er­ate suc­cess. It in­cluded no ad­ver­tise­ments, so it wouldn’t earn Blair any money. It wasn’t even the most pop­u­lar of the 11 items he’d pub­lished that day. But, just an hour ear­lier, Blair had come up with an idea at his com­puter in Maine, and now hun­dreds or maybe thou­sands of peo­ple across the coun­try be­lieved Obama and Clin­ton had flipped off the pres­i­dent. “Gross. Those women have no re­spect for them­selves,” wrote a woman in Fort Washakie, Wyo. “They de­serve to be pub­licly shunned,” said a man in Gainesville, Fla.

Blair had fooled them. Now came his favourite part, the gotcha, when he could let his vic­tims in on the joke.

“OK, taters. Here’s your re­al­ity check,” he wrote on Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, plac­ing his com­ment promi­nently along­side the orig­i­nal post. “That is Omarosa and Hope Hicks, not Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton. They wouldn’t be caught dead pos­ing for this pseudo-pa­tri­otic na­tion­al­is­tic garbage .... Con­grat­u­la­tions, stupid.” Be­yond the money he earned, this was what Blair had con­ceived of as the pur­pose for his web­site: to en­gage di­rectly with peo­ple who spread false or ex­trem­ist sto­ries and prove those sto­ries were wrong. Maybe, af­ter peo­ple had been pub­licly em­bar­rassed, they would think more crit­i­cally about what they shared on­line. Maybe they would be­gin to ques­tion the root of some of their ideas. Blair didn’t have time to per­son­ally con­front each of the sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand con­ser­va­tives who fol­lowed his Face­book page, so he’d built a com­mu­nity of more than 100 lib­er­als to po­lice the page with him. To­gether they pa­trolled the com­ments, vent­ing their own po­lit­i­cal anger, sham­ing con­ser­va­tives who had been fooled, taunt­ing them, bait­ing them into mak­ing racist com­ments that could then be re­ported to Face­book. Blair said he and his fol­low­ers had got hun­dreds of peo­ple banned from Face­book and sev­eral oth­ers fired or de­moted in their jobs for of­fen­sive be­hav­iour on­line. He had also forced Face­book to shut down 22 fake news sites for pla­gia­riz­ing his con­tent, many of which were Mace­do­nian sites that reran his sto­ries with­out la­belling them as satire.

What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a sin­gle per­son’s mind. The peo­ple he fooled of­ten came back to the page, and he con­tin­ued to feed them the kind of vi­ral con­tent that boosted his read­er­ship and his bank ac­count: in­vented sto­ries about Colin Kaeper­nick, kneel­ing NFL play­ers, imams, Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers, im­mi­grants, Ge­orge Soros, the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, Michelle and Malia Obama. He had be­gun to in­clude more ob­vi­ous dis­claimers at the top of ev­ery post and to in­ten­tion­ally mis­spell sev­eral words in or­der to high­light the id­iocy of his work, but still traf­fic con­tin­ued to climb. Some­times he won­dered: Rather than of awak­en­ing peo­ple to re­al­ity, was he push­ing them fur­ther from it?

“Well, they never did have any class,” com­mented Shirley Chapian, from Pahrump, Nev., and Blair watched his liberal mob re­spond. “That’s kind of an ironic com­ment com­ing from pure trailer trash, don’t you think?” “You’re a gullible mo­ron who just fell for a fake story on a Liberal satire page”

“You my dear ... are as smart as a potato.”

“What a waste of flesh and time.” “Wel­come to the in­ter­net. Crit­i­cal think­ing re­quired.” Chapian saw the com­ments af­ter her post and won­dered as she of­ten did when she was at­tacked: Who were these peo­ple? And what were they talk­ing about? Of course Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton had flipped off the pres­i­dent. It was true to what she knew of their char­ac­ter. That was what mat­tered. In­stead of re­spond­ing di­rectly to strangers on Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, Chapian wrote on her own Face­book page. “Nasty lib­er­als,” she said, and then she went back to her news feed, each day blend­ing into the next.

She had spent a few hours scrolling one af­ter­noon when she heard a noise out­side her win­dow, and she turned away from the screen to look out­side. A neigh­bour was sweep­ing his side­walk, push­ing tiny white rocks back into his rock gar­den. There were no signs of “Sharia Law.” The mi­grant car­a­van was still hun­dreds of miles away in Mex­ico. An­tifa pro­test­ers had yet to de­scend on Pahrump. Chapian squinted against the sun, closed the shades and went back to her screen. She scrolled upon an­other post from Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, read­ing fast, obliv­i­ous to the satire la­bels and not notic­ing Blair’s trade­mark awk­ward phras­ings and mis­spellings. It showed a group of chil­dren kneel­ing on prayer mats in a class­room. “Cal­i­for­nia School­child­ren forced to Sharia in Class,” it read. “All of them have stopped eat­ing ba­con. Two be­gan speak­ing in Al­lah. Stop mak­ing chil­dren pray to imag­i­nary Gods!!” Chapian re­coiled from the screen. “Please!” she said. “If I had a kid in a school sys­tem like that, I’d yank them out so fast.”

She had seen hun­dreds of sto­ries on Face­book about the threat of sharia, and this con­firmed much of what she al­ready be­lieved. It was prob­a­bly true, she thought. It was true enough.

“Do peo­ple un­der­stand that things like this are hap­pen­ing in this coun­try?” she said. She clicked the post and the traf­fic reg­is­tered back to a com­puter in Maine, where Blair watched an­other story go vi­ral and won­dered when his au­di­ence would get his joke.

Blair had fooled them. Now came his favourite part, the gotcha, when he could let his vic­tims in on the joke.

PHO­TOS: JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Christo­pher Blair, 46, pic­tured here in the woods near his home in North Waterboro, Maine, wanted to make fun of what he and oth­ers con­sid­ered ex­trem­ist ideas among the far right. He has built a com­mu­nity of more than 100 lib­er­als to po­lice his Face­book page.

Christo­pher Blair sits at his desk at home in Maine and checks his Face­book page, Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense. He launched the po­lit­i­cal-satire por­tal dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

PHO­TOS: JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Shirley Chapian, 76, sits in a lot near her home in Pahrump, Nev. The con­ser­va­tive is more than a decade into re­tire­ment. Many days, her only per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion oc­curs on Face­book. The ma­jor­ity of her in­ter­net news feed comes from po­lit­i­cal groups she fol­lows. She has of­ten been mis­lead by Christo­pher Blair’s satire site.

Shirley Chapian says she doesn’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing she reads, but is dis­trust­ful of re­ported main­stream news.

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