Confessions of an online troll: How lies become truth
“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.