KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A lot of fake or misleading news stories were shared on social media during the presidential race, and one headline that took off a few days before the election caught our eye - "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide." The story is completely false, but it was shared on Facebook over half a million times. NPR's Laura Sydell went to find out who created it and why.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The story in question appeared on a site that had the look and feel of a local newspaper. Denverguardian.com even had the weather. But it only had one news story, the fake one. I tried to look up who owned it. I hit a wall. It turns out you can register a site anonymously. So I enlisted some help.
By day, John Jansen is head of engineering for a tech company, but in the interest of real news, he helped us track down the owner of denverguardian.com.
JOHN JANSEN: So commonly that's called scraping or crawling websites.
SYDELL: Jansen is kind of like an archaeologist. He says nothing you do on the web disappears. It just gets buried like a fossil. But if you do some digging, you'll find those fossils and learn a lot of history.
The Denver Guardian was built and designed using a pretty common platform - WordPress. It's used by bloggers and people who want to create their own websites. Jansen found the first entry ever for the site was done by someone with a handle - LetTexasSecede.
JANSEN: That was sort of the thread that started to unravel everything really. I was able to track that through to a bunch of other sites which are where that handle was also present.
SYDELL: Here are some of the sites - nationalreport.net, usatoday.com.co, washingtonpost.com.co, all the addresses linked to a single rented server. That meant they were likely owned by the same company. Jansen found an email on one of those sites, and from there, he found a name.
JANSEN: There's an individual whose name is Jestin Coler, who appears to be behind a bunch of the stuff.
SYDELL: Online, Coler was listed as the founder and CEO of a company called Disinfomedia. He also had a LinkedIn profile. It says he once sold magazine subscriptions, worked as a database administrator and a freelance writer for International Yachtsmen. And using his name, we found a home address. On a warm, sunny afternoon, I set out with a producer for a suburb of Los Angeles. Here I am arriving at his house.
It's a one-story beach bungalow home with a unwatered grass lawn. There is an American flag. He may be a patriot. And of course this is Southern California, so of course there is a palm tree on the front lawn as well. So all right, we're going to give it a shot now.
I rang the bell and waited. Hi there.
JESTIN COLER: Hi.
SYDELL: I'm looking for Jestin Coler.
SYDELL: I'm a reporter with NPR. We were looking online, and through a lot of tracing, discovered that Disinformation Media (ph) was the owner of several websites such as...
COLER: I don't know what to tell you guys.
COLER: Sorry, guys. I don't know what to tell you.
COLER: Have a good day.
SYDELL: That's not you? All right.
COLER: All right, thanks, guys.
SYDELL: Thank you.
We left Coler our contact information, and a couple of hours later, he had a change of heart. He sent us an email and agreed to talk.
COLER: My name is Disinfomedia, and I'm the owner of Disinfomedia Inc.
SYDELL: Coler is a soft-spoken 40-year-old with a wife and two kids. He says he got into fake news around 2013 to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right.
COLER: 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 be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.
SYDELL: Coler was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He wrote one fake news story for nationalreport.net about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.
COLER: What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana based on something that had just never happened.
SYDELL: During the run up to the election, fake news really took off.
COLER: It was just anybody with a blog can get on there and find a big, huge Facebook group of kind of rabid Trump supporters just waiting to eat up this red meat that they're about to get served, cause an explosion in the number of sites.
SYDELL: Coler says they've tried to write fake news for liberals, but they never take the bait. Coler's company, Disinfomedia, owns many faux news sites. He won't say how many, but he says he's one of the biggest fake news businesses out there, which makes him kind of like a godfather of the industry.
At any given time, he's got between 20 and 25 writers. And one of them wrote the story in the Denver Guardian that an FBI agent who leaked Clinton emails was killed. Coler says over 10 days, the site got 1.6 million views. He says stories like this work because they fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories.
COLER: 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, 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.
SYDELL: And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn't give exact figures. Coler says stories about other fake news sites making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him.
Coler fits into a pattern of other fake news sites that make good money, especially by targeting Trump supporters. He insists this is not about money. It's about showing how easily fake news spreads. But when it did spread - and it spread a lot before the election - Coler didn't stop.
You were making good money on it, so it also gave you a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact.
SYDELL: Coler did talk to other news organizations over email and identified himself as a fake news entrepreneur but only over email and under a different name - Allen Montgomery. Coler, a registered Democrat, says he has no regrets about his fake news empire. He doesn't think fake news swayed the election.
COLER: There are many factors as to why Trump won that don't involve fake news, right? As much as I like Hillary, she was a poor candidate. She brought in a lot of baggage.
SYDELL: Coler doesn't think fake news is going away. One of his sites, National Report, was flagged as fake news under a new Google policy, and Google stopped running ads on it. But Coler had other options.
COLER: There are literally hundreds of ad networks. Early last week, my inbox was just filled every day with people because they knew that Google is cracking down - hundreds of people wanting to work with my sites.
SYDELL: Coler says he's been talking it over with his wife, and he may be getting out of the fake news racket. But he says dozens, maybe hundreds, of entrepreneurs will be ready to take his place. And he thinks it will only get harder to tell their websites from real news sites. They know that fake news sells, and they will only be in it for the money. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
MCEVERS: There's an extended conversation with fake news entrepreneur Jestin Coler on npr.org.
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