Con­fes­sions of an on­line troll: How lies be­come truth

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Eli Saslow

“What vi­ral in­san­ity should we spread this morn­ing?”

NORTH WATERBORO, Maine — The only light in the house comes from the glow of three com­puter mon­i­tors as Christo­pher Blair, 46, sits down at a key­board and starts to type. His wife has left for work and his chil­dren are on their way to school, but wait­ing on­line is his other com­mu­nity, an un­re­al­ity where noth­ing is ex­actly as it seems. He logs onto his web­site and be­gins to in­vent his first news story of the day.

“BREAK­ING,” he writes, peck­ing out each let­ter with his in­dex fin­gers as he con­sid­ers the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Maybe he would an­nounce that Hil­lary Clin­ton 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 pops onto Blair’s screen from a friend who helps with his web­site. “What vi­ral in­san­ity should we spread this morn­ing?” the friend asks.

“The more ex­treme we be­come, the more peo­ple be­lieve it,” Blair replies.

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 made up sto­ries about Cal­i­for­nia in­sti­tut­ing Shariah, 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, most of whom do not rec­og­nize his posts as satire, click “like” and then “share.” In­stead, Blair’s page has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar on Face­book among Trump-sup­port­ing con­ser­va­tives over 55.

“Noth­ing on this page is real,” reads one of the 14 dis­claimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the Amer­ica of 2018, his sto­ries have be­come real, re­in­forc­ing peo­ple’s bi­ases, spread­ing onto Mace­do­nian and Rus­sian fake news sites, amass­ing an au­di­ence of as many 6 mil­lion vis­i­tors each month who think his posts are fac­tual. What Blair first con­ceived of as an elab­o­rate joke has be­gun to re­veal some­thing darker.

“No mat­ter how racist, how big­oted, how of­fen­sive, how ob­vi­ously fake we get, peo­ple keep com­ing back,” Blair wrote on his 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 is be­yond the shut­tered cur­tains of his of­fice: a three-bed­room home in the for­est of Maine where the paved road turns to gravel; not his house but a rental; not on the lake but near it. Over the past decade, his fam­ily 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 last years, some­times dis­guis­ing him­self in ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­to­graphs as a beau­ti­ful South­ern blonde 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.

One day, while 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 Mani­gault New­man. Nei­ther Obama nor Clin­ton had been in­vited to the cer­e­mony. No­body had flipped off the pres­i­dent. The en­tire premise was ridicu­lous, which was ex­actly Blair’s point.

“We live in an Idioc­racy,” reads a small note on Blair’s desk, and he is tak­ing full ad­van­tage. In a good month, the ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue from his web­site earns him as much as $15,000, and it also won him a loyal army of on­line fans. Hun­dreds of lib­er­als now visit Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense to hu­mil­i­ate con­ser­va­tives who share Blair’s fake sto­ries as fact. In Blair’s pri­vate Face­book mes­sages with his lib­eral sup­port­ers, his con­ser­va­tive au­di­ence is called “sheep,” “hill­bil­lies,” “maw-maw and paw-paw,” “TrumpTards,” “pota­toes” and “taters.”

“How could any think­ing per­son be­lieve this non­sense?” he said. He hit the pub­lish but­ton and watched as his lie be­gan to spread.

It is barely dawn in Pahrump, Nev., when Shirley Chapian, 76, logs onto Face­book. “Good morn­ing, Shirley! Thanks for be­ing here,” reads an au­to­mated note at the top of her page. She puts her fin­ger on the mouse and be­gins scrolling down.

“Click LIKE if you be­lieve we must stop Sharia Law from com­ing to Amer­ica be­fore it’s too late,” reads the first item, and she clicks “like.”

“Share to help END the on­go­ing mi­grant in­va­sion!” reads an­other, and she clicks “share.”

The house is empty and quiet ex­cept for the click­ing of her

Chapian com­puter mouse. She lives alone, and on many days her only per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion oc­curs on Face­book. Mixed into her morn­ing news feed are pho­tos and up­dates from some of her 300 friends, but most items come di­rectly from po­lit­i­cal groups: “Free Speech Pa­tri­ots,” “Tak­ing Back Amer­ica,” “Ban Is­lam,” “Trump 2020” and “Rebel Life.” Each po­lit­i­cal page pub­lishes sev­eral posts each day di­rectly into Chapian’s feed, many of which claim to be “BREAK­ING NEWS.”

On her com­puter, the at­tack against Amer­ica is ur­gent and un­re­lent­ing. Lib­er­als are re­strict­ing free speech. Im­mi­grants are storm­ing the bor­der and cast­ing il­le­gal votes. Politi­cians are schem­ing to take away ev­ery­one’s guns. “The sec­ond you stop pay­ing at­ten­tion, there’s an­other trav­esty un­der­way in this coun­try,” Chapian once wrote on her own Face­book page, 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.’ ”

On dis­play above Chapian’s screen are needle­points that had once oc­cu­pied much of her free time, in­tri­cate pieces of art­work that took hun­dreds of hours to com­plete, but now she doesn’t have the pa­tience.

She has spent al­most a decade in Pahrump with­out re­ally know­ing why. The heat can be un­bear­able. She has no fam­ily in Ne­vada.

She had lived much of her life in places such as San Fran­cisco, New York and Mi­ami. She’d gone to col­lege for a few years and be­come an in­sur­ance ad­juster, work­ing as one of the few women in the field in the 1980s and ’90s, and join­ing the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women to ad­vo­cate for an equal wage be­fore even­tu­ally mov­ing to Rhode Is­land to work for a hospice and care for her ag­ing par­ents. Af­ter her mother died, Chapian de­cided to re­tire and move to Las Ve­gas to live with a friend, and when Las Ve­gas be­came too ex­pen­sive, a real es­tate agent told her about Pahrump. She bought a three-bed­room trailer for less than $100,000 and painted it pur­ple. She met a few friends at the lo­cal se­nior cen­ter and started eat­ing at the Thai restau­rant in town. A few years af­ter ar­riv­ing, she bought a new com­puter mon­i­tor and signed up for Face­book in 2009, choos­ing as her pro­file im­age a photo of her cat.

She wrote: “Look­ing to con­nect with friends and other like­minded peo­ple.”

She had usu­ally voted for Repub­li­cans, just like her par­ents, but it was only on Face­book that Chapian be­came 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. It wasn’t just that Obama was lib­eral, she read; he was ac­tu­ally a so­cial­ist. It wasn’t just that his po­lit­i­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions were thin; it was that he had fab­ri­cated those qual­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing parts of his col­lege tran­scripts and maybe even his birth cer­tifi­cate.

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, and soon Chapian was fol­low­ing more than 2,500 con­ser­va­tive pages, an ide­o­log­i­cal echo cham­ber that of­ten traf­ficked in skep­ti­cism. Cli­mate change was a hoax. The main­stream me­dia was cen­sored or scripted. Po­lit­i­cal Wash­ing­ton was un­der con­trol of a “deep state.”

Chapian didn’t be­lieve ev­ery­thing she read on­line, but she was also dis­trust­ful of main­stream fact-check­ers and re­ported news. It some­times felt to her like real facts had be­come in­dis­cernible — that the truth was of­ten some­where in be­tween. What she trusted most was her own abil­ity to think crit­i­cally and dis­cern the truth, and in­creas­ingly her in­stincts aligned with the on­line com­mu­nity where she spent most of her time.

“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 ar­rives in her news feed, from a page called Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, which Chapian has been fol­low­ing for more than a year. It shows a pic­ture of Trump stand­ing at a White House cer­e­mony. Cir­cled in the back­ground are two women, one black and one white.

“Pres­i­dent Trump ex­tended an olive branch and in­vited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton,” the post reads. “They thanked him by giv­ing him ‘the fin­ger’ dur­ing the na­tional an­them.”

Chapian looks at the photo and noth­ing about it sur­prises her. Of course Trump had in­vited Clin­ton and Obama to the White House in a gen­er­ous act of pa­tri­o­tism. Of course the Democrats — or “De­mon­rats,” as Chapian some­times called them — had acted badly and dis­re­spected Amer­ica. It was the ex­act same nar­ra­tive she sees play­ing out on her screen hun­dreds of times each day, and this time she de­cides to click ‘like’ and leave a com­ment.

“Well, they never did have any class,” she writes.

Blair has in­vented thou­sands of sto­ries in the past two years, al­ways traf­fick­ing in the same stereo­types to fool the same peo­ple, but he never tires 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 is only a mod­er­ate suc­cess. It in­cludes no ad­ver­tise­ments, so it won’t earn Blair any money. It isn’t even the most pop­u­lar of the 11 items he 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 be­lieve 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 comes his fa­vorite part, the gotcha, when he lets his vic­tims in on the joke.

“OK, taters. Here’s your re­al­ity check,” he writes 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 pseu­dopa­tri­otic na­tion­al­is­tic garbage ... Con­grat­u­la­tions, stupid.”

Be­yond the money he’s 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 be­gin to ques­tion the root of some of their ideas.

Blair doesn’t have time to per­son­ally con­front each of the sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand con­ser­va­tives who fol­low his Face­book page, so he built a com­mu­nity of more than 100 lib­er­als to po­lice the page with him. To­gether they pa­trol the com­ments, vent­ing their own po­lit­i­cal anger, sham­ing con­ser­va­tives who have been fooled, taunt­ing them, bait­ing them into mak­ing racist com­ments that can then be re­ported to Face­book. Blair said he and his fol­low­ers have got­ten hun­dreds of peo­ple banned from Face­book and sev­eral oth­ers fired or de­moted in their jobs for of­fen­sive be­hav­ior on­line. He has also forced Face­book to shut down 22 fake news sites for pla­gia­riz­ing his con­tent, many of which are Mace­do­nian sites that re­run his sto­ries with­out la­bel­ing them as satire.

What Blair isn’t sure he has ever done is change a sin­gle per­son’s mind. The peo­ple he fooled of­ten come back to the page, and he con­tin­ues to feed them the kind of vi­ral con­tent that boosts his read­er­ship and his bank ac­count: in­vented sto­ries about Colin Kaeper­nick, kneel­ing NFL play­ers, imams, Black Lives Mat­ter pro­test­ers, im­mi­grants, Soros, the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, Michelle and Malia Obama. Some­times he won­ders: Rather than of awak­en­ing peo­ple to re­al­ity, is he push­ing them fur­ther from it?

“Well, they never did have any class,” com­ments Shirley Chapian, from Pahrump, Nev., and Blair watches 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.”

Chapian sees the com­ments af­ter her post and won­ders as she of­ten does when she’s at­tacked: Who are these peo­ple? And what are they talk­ing about? Of course Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clin­ton had flipped off the pres­i­dent. It is true to what she knows of their char­ac­ter. That’s what mat­ters.

In­stead of re­spond­ing di­rectly to strangers on Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, Chapian writes on her own Face­book page. “Nasty lib­er­als,” and then goes back to her news feed, each day blend­ing into the next.

She scrolls upon an­other post from Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense, read­ing fast, obliv­i­ous to the satire la­bels. It shows a group of chil­dren kneel­ing on prayer mats in a class­room. “Cal­i­for­nia School chil­dren forced to Sharia in Class,” it reads. “All of them have stopped eat­ing ba­con. Two be­gan speak­ing in Al­lah. Stop mak­ing chil­dren pray to imag­i­nary Gods!!”

She has seen hun­dreds of sto­ries on Face­book about the threat of Shariah, and this con­firms much of what she al­ready be­lieves. It’s 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.


Christo­pher Blair cre­ates and posts fake news daily for his satir­i­cal Face­book page, Amer­ica’s Last Line of De­fense.

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