ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
We all have that person on Facebook. Maybe it's a friend. Maybe it's a relative. But the person - I want to put this very kindly - the person forwards news articles that are not entirely true. For Laura Sydell - she's an NPR correspondent - for Laura, that person is her aunt.
LAURA SYDELL, HOST:
My aunt is really into what's fake news. She thinks it's real. I mean, she posts things like Muslim nurses refuse to wash hands before operations.
SMITH: Not true.
SYDELL: Not true.
SMITH: More, more.
SYDELL: I'm looking. I'm looking here. Michelle Obama is a transvestite, that Obama is a secret Muslim who's possibly gay, so he's a gay Muslim.
SMITH: So it's fake, fake and fake. You must have pointed out to your aunt that this stuff was fake.
SYDELL: I did. And we got into a big fight over it. She essentially didn't believe me and said, well, you work for the mainstream media. But it definitely got me thinking about all of this and where was it coming from. And I began to go down this road to really try and understand this whole phenomena of fake news.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.
SYDELL: And I'm Laura Sydell.
SMITH: Today on the show, a detective story. We are going to take one - just one - fake news story, a particularly odious one that implies that Hillary Clinton is a murderer, and we are going to follow this fake news story all the way back, find who wrote it, who published it and why.
SYDELL: Every single word of this article is fake. But what is real is that it was shared over half a million times on Facebook. And that means somebody somewhere was making very real money off of this.
SMITH: We find him. We find a fake news mogul running a fake news empire, and he tells us all his secrets.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: OK, Laura, we picked one fake news story. Give us the headline.
SYDELL: "FBI Agents Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide."
SMITH: This article is amazing. It has a complicated, dark plot about how one of the FBI investigators looking into the Clinton email scandal dies under mysterious circumstances. There are names and dates and locations. It's a murder. It's a suicide. I mean, the facts don't matter because, of course, it's all made up. It's all fake, but it looks so professional. There's this big photo of a giant fireball - looks legit. And it's on a site called the Denver Guardian, which looks real. It has weather and local stories. Someone has put a lot of time into this.
SYDELL: So this is all I have to go on. I have a pile of fake details. There's no author. There's no name on the site. And I tried to find out who owned the domain name, denverguardian.com, and I hit a wall. It was registered anonymously, but luckily I know this guy.
JOHN JANSEN: (Laughter) Hang on. Let's just see if we can figure this out - one second.
SYDELL: This is John Jansen, head of engineering at Master-McNeil, a tech company in Berkeley, Calif.
SMITH: But in his spare time, he's an internet detective.
JANSEN: I'm basically responsible for reverse engineering a whole bunch of different websites.
SYDELL: So think of John like an archaeologist. He's digging around into the foundations of websites. I set him to work on this FBI murder-suicide article, and he starts to look through the computer code of the site, denverguardian.com.
SMITH: And there it is, the first entry used to set up the website made by someone with the handle LetTexasSecede.
SYDELL: Which sounds a lot like somebody with some kind of political agenda.
JANSEN: That was sort of the thread that started to unravel everything really.
SMITH: And he discovers this whole network of fake news outlets with real seeming names.
SYDELL: Nationalreport.net, unitedmediapublishing.com, conservativefrontline.com, internationalreport.net.
SMITH: All filled with fake news. So our detective, John Jansen, checks the IP addresses. All of these websites share the same server.
SYDELL: So Jansen digs some more. He finds an old email address, cross-checks that and he finds a name.
JANSEN: There's an individual whose name is Jestin Coler who appears to be behind a bunch of this stuff.
SMITH: Jestin Coler, which cannot be a real name. I mean, the word jest is in there - Jestin Coler.
SYDELL: And yet, this guy has a LinkedIn profile. It says he once sold magazine subscriptions, worked as a database administrator and a freelance writer.
SMITH: Ha, a writer.
JANSEN: The next thing is that he's a contributing freelance writer for International Yachtsman magazine. Don't blame anyone for sailing. That's OK.
SYDELL: (Laughter) So Hillary is being tormented by a secret cabal of international yachtsmen.
SMITH: Or sailing journalists. And, you know, it's tempting to think that there's probably some poor writer who couldn't sell his articles about sailing and decided to just start making stuff up. But then we discover the business. Jestin Coler had started a company called - get this - Disinfomedia.
SYDELL: It's so obvious. I mean, it's kind of like calling yourself Evil Corp.
SMITH: I know, but even something called Disinfomedia had to write down an address when they incorporated, and that real address is in a suburb of Los Angeles, Calif.
SYDELL: Near the ocean.
SMITH: Where there are yachts. This whole thing is coming together.
SYDELL: It's a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. I grab the fake article.
So keep your eye on that.
And I take my producer, Luke Vander Ploeg, and we go.
What is it? What's the numbers?
LUKE VANDER PLOEG, BYLINE: Sixteen four...
SYDELL: To an address we have that's listed as the office of Disinfomedia.
Is this it?
VANDER PLOEG: Yeah, I think it is.
SYDELL: And we get there and it's a strip mall.
It's a strip mall.
One of these typical LA strip malls.
Sushi, a nail spa.
And then we drive up to the exact address that we have.
Oh, you know what? This appears to be...
And lo and behold...
...A post office box, 16458.
SMITH: Oh, of course it is. If you're a fake news guy, you probably have a fake address.
SYDELL: Yes. I was bummed, but I did have second address, and the second address was right around the corner.
With a minivan, all right. So he's got a minivan. It's a one-story home, kind of a beach bungalow home.
And there's a palm tree in the front lawn because, hey, this is Southern California.
There is an American flag, so he may be a patriot. So all right, we're going to give it a shot now.
So we get out of the car. I'm a little nervous because it's clearly somebody's home.
JESTIN COLER: Hi.
SYDELL: Looking for Jestin Coler.
SYDELL: Wanted to ask him something.
SYDELL: Had a story that I'm wondering if you wrote.
SYDELL: You didn't write it.
SYDELL: I'm a - just so you know, I'm a reporter with NPR. And we were looking online and, through a lot of tracing, discovered that Disinformationmedia (ph) was the owner of several websites that, you know, such as the nationalreport.net.
COLER: Sorry, guys. I don't know what to tell you.
COLER: Have a good day.
SYDELL: All right. Thank you.
SMITH: But, Laura, that was totally him.
SYDELL: Oh, I'm sure it was him. We actually even checked. The mailman happened to be going by and we said, does Jestin Coler live there? And he confirmed he does indeed, so we were sure it was him. He just didn't want to talk to us, but we did leave him our contact info. And we went back to the office, and maybe an hour and a half later we got an email from Jestin Coler. He said he would talk.
COLER: My name is Jestin Coler. I'm the owner of Disinfomedia, Inc.
SMITH: You found him, Laura. You found our guy.
SYDELL: I did. And he was not quite what I was expecting. He was this kind of average-looking 40-year-old guy with a wife and two kids and a really beautiful, comfortable home.
You wrote for a yachting magazine.
COLER: I did write for a yachting magazine, sure did, yeah.
SYDELL: You like yachts.
COLER: I don't care for yachts, no, but they hired me as a travel writer and (laughter) the pay was good, so...
SYDELL: That was part of his real news career. The fake part didn't start until 2013.
SMITH: And that's the part we really wanted to know about. Why did he write fake news, and how did he get away with it for so long? Jestin says he was always interested in the art of propaganda. You know, what would people believe, how do you exploit that? And he says he started Disinfomedia at first just for fun, just to test out his ideas.
SYDELL: And he also says he is not a conservative. He did not do this to bring down Hillary Clinton. In fact - this really surprised me - he says he's liberal and that he started doing this fake news business basically to provoke the alt-right.
SMITH: He's like a reverse troll.
COLER: Kind of the whole idea from the start was to kind of build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly false or fictional stories and then kind of be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.
SMITH: This sort of made my head hurt. Jestin claims that he wrote fake news stories about Democrats so that conservatives would spread them around and then look stupid when the stories were discovered as fake.
SYDELL: I know. I know. It sounds a bit odd, and we checked what we could about him. Jestin Coler is his real name, and he actually is a registered Democrat.
SMITH: And I do have to say, when he talks about the specific fake news story he's written, you can hear the glee he has in basically screwing with everyone's head.
COLER: One of my personal favorites was a story that I wrote about a pot shop, a marijuana shop, in Colorado.
SYDELL: Jestin wrote a news story about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.
COLER: And it sounds ridiculous of course.
SYDELL: But it got picked up and it spread like crazy. Here's Fox News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
BRIAN KILMEADE: Can people collecting food stamps in Colorado add marijuana to their shopping lists? Right now, the answer is yes.
COLER: So that one I got a decent chuckle out of myself. I thought that was a good time.
SMITH: He does sound like a prankster. I mean, he clearly delights in getting a rise out of people.
SYDELL: So yeah, I went and I looked at some of his sites. He has one that's called National Report, and the headlines are kind of more trying to be like The Onion for conservatives. Like, take this one - "Bernie Sanders Combs Hair For Debate; Look At His Poll Numbers Now."
SMITH: And Jestin says, at least in the beginning, he was an equal opportunity prankster. He tried to peddle fake news for lefties, he says, making up vile things about conservatives.
COLER: It just has never worked. It never takes off. People will always say - you know, you'll get de-bunked, like, within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.
SMITH: I'm just going to stop occasionally here in the podcast to say that Jestin is an admitted liar.
SYDELL: And despite saying he's in it for fun, at some point, fake news clearly became a money-maker for Jestin. You get people to share a fake news article, he can sell all these eyeballs to advertisers and his fake news sites do have real ads.
SMITH: Jestin would not give us the exact amount of money he is making off of fake news. But he eventually admitted that he made in the ballpark of $10,000 to $30,000 a month.
SYDELL: You were making good money at it, so it also gave you a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact.
SYDELL: He was a fake news businessman, and he figured out the best way to deliver his product.
SMITH: Step one - make it look real. He bought domain names like washingtonpost.co - dot-co - and usatoday.co - dot-co. Some were so fake that they sounded real like the Denver Guardian.
COLER: You know, kind of the idea was to make the sites look as legit as possible, right? So the home page, of course, is going to be local news, a local forecast, local sports. The actual fake news stories were going to be buried off the home page. So, you know, if you were reading a story and then you clicked to the home page, you'd be like, oh, this looks like Denver Guardian or, you know, any number of sites.
SYDELL: Jestin couldn't actually keep up with the demand, so step two - he found a lot of former writers just like himself willing to write fake news.
COLER: There's probably 20 to 25 contributors.
SMITH: Step three to profiting off of fake news - the arrival of Donald J. Trump.
COLER: I mean, my gosh, the number of just fake accounts on Facebook exploded during the Trump election.
SYDELL: And this brings us to the article we have been tracking this whole time, the one about the FBI agent who was killed after his alleged involvement in leaking Clinton's emails. Jestin did not write it, doesn't know the real name of the contributor who did, but he did publish it, and he says it got 1.6 million views over 10 days.
COLER: You know, the people wanted to hear this, you know? So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional - the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then, you know, had our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums, and, boy, it spread like wildfire.
SMITH: The story was quickly debunked on sites like snopes.com. And the real paper in Denver, The Denver Post. But for lots of Trump supporters, this did not matter.
COLER: They don't care that it was debunked, you know? Snopes is run by George Soros and is a Obama mouthpiece to them. And, you know, the credibility of these kind of sources, I guess, has been just tarnished so much that nobody even listens anymore.
SMITH: In case you didn't quite get that, snopes.com is a sort of fact-checking website. It is not actually owned by George Soros.
SYDELL: Well, in some ways, Jestin did prove his point. You can prank people pretty easily. You can make money off of it. You can degrade the truth. You can make everything worthless. You can do all of these things. The thing is it ends up being serious business because Hillary Clinton did lose the election, and some people think fake news was a contributing factor to this. So I asked him...
Do you, as somebody who identifies as a liberal, have any regrets to the extent to which fake news went viral during the presidential campaign?
COLER: I don't. There are many factors as to why Trump won that don't involve fake news, right? You know, as much as I like Hillary, she was a poor candidate. She brought in a lot of baggage. So I don't - I don't find myself - I don't - I'm not guilty of that. I'm not going to - I'm not going to live with that on my conscience.
SYDELL: Yeah, so you don't feel responsible.
COLER: I do not.
SMITH: Since the election, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in news organizations, including ours, about how to stop people like Jestin, how to stop this stuff from being spread around or at least some way to label it and target news as fake before everyone reads it, before everyone believes it. But after hearing Jestin, you know, I can not imagine that that is going to work. Like, there is a demand for this product. People want conspiracy. Like, people want fake news that confirms what they already believe. And we know from history what happens when you try to outlaw a product that everyone wants. It's impossible.
SYDELL: Jestin told me one of his sites, nationalreport.net, was actually blocked on Facebook, and it lost its ad contract with Google. But he said, from his perspective, that doesn't even matter.
COLER: There are literally hundreds of ad networks, literally hundreds of them. Early last week, I just - my inbox was just filled every day with people - because they knew that Facebook was - or Google, excuse me, was cracking down - hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.
SMITH: You know, Laura, it occurs to me that there has never been a better time to be in the fake news business. I mean, after all, this election showed that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will view these articles and that the articles work. You know, from Justin's perspective, there is money to be made.
SYDELL: And yet, Jestin may turn all of this down. He's been talking with his wife, and he says he is thinking about getting out of the fake news business.
COLER: You know, this was something I had enjoyed doing. But, you know, the - kind of the joy is gone I guess. Time to move on just to keep getting deeper into just straight satire and kind of stay away from this sort of stuff.
SYDELL: So he might just be telling us what we want to hear, and it may be I'm just gullible, but I have a feeling he ended up in over his head.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: We are always interested in dark corners of the internet that we don't know about. So if you see any other wrongdoing out there, give us an email - email@example.com - or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.
SYDELL: Our episode today was produced by Elizabeth Kulas. Special thanks, Sean Gourley, Dan Kaminsky and Uri Berliner.
SMITH: Now that you're finished listening to PLANET MONEY, may we suggest a brand-new show being carried by NPR? It's called Radio Ambulante. It's our first ever podcast in Spanish. Think engaging stories like you hear here, only in Espanol. Check it out on the NPR One app or at npr.org/podcast. And just a special note here - a lot of people write in and say, how do we support PLANET MONEY? Can we send you a check? And weirdly enough, we say no, no. But here is something you can do. You can support your local NPR station. The way to do that is to find stations.npr.org, find your local station, and maybe donate a few bucks, and tell them PLANET MONEY sent me. Helping them helps us. I'm Robert Smith.
SYDELL: I'm Laura Sydell. Thanks for listening.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.