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The Great Satirical-News Scam of 2014

The Onion is funny. These other sites aren't—and that's intentional. They're cashing in on your gullibility and knee-jerk outrage.

There’s nothing that gets American journalists quite so giddy as an authoritarian mouthpiece failing to get a joke—as when, in September 2012, Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency reported on a Gallup poll that found an overwhelming majority of rural white Americans preferred President Ahmadinejad to President Obama. It wasn’t a real Gallup poll, of course: It was an Onion article, as every English-language news site in the world gleefully pointed out. A month later, it was The People’s Daily turn, as the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party reported that a certain American newspaper had named North Korea’s Kim Jong Un the “Sexiest Man Alive.” Again, the internet erupted with laughter.

But like any good tale of hubris, some those same American websites—along with countless, hapless Facebook users—proved equally gullible in the coming months. The Washington Post fell for a report that Sarah Palin was joining Al Jazeera America, Breitbart believed that Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy, and Drudge Report splashed an article claiming that a New York pizzeria owner, angry over the proposed ban on large sodas, had refused to serve Mayor Michael Bloomberg a second slice. The culprit this time wasn’t The Onion, though. It was The Daily Currant, a site that calls itself “The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record.”

Our domestic media, at least, had an excuse. While it takes a particularly keen immunity to irony to fall for an Onion article these days, The Daily Currant is a fake-news site of a different stripe: one entirely devoid of jokes. Whether this humorlessness is intentional or not—the site’s founder contends his critics don’t have a sense of subtlety—the site’s business model as an ad-driven clickbait-generator relies on it. When Currant stories go viral, it’s not because their satire contains essential truths, but rather because their satire is taken as truth—and usually that “truth” is engineered to outrage a particular frequency of the political spectrum. As Slate’s Josh Voorhees wrote after Drudge fell for the Bloomberg story, “It’s a classic Currant con, one that relies on its mark wanting to believe a particular story is true.”

To choose a recent example: “Obama Pledges $700 Billion Bailout of VA” isn’t a headline whose humor you might miss on the first pass but find sly in retrospect. It’s just an unfunny lie, and any American who doesn’t keep a close eye on the size of federal budgets—the VA’s was $139 billion last year—could be forgiven for believing it. Not every fake-news site needs to signal its intentions as quickly and openly as The Onion does, but The Daily Currant’s headlines don’t engage in subtlety so much as fail entirely to signal humorous intention. That would be acceptable, perhaps even clever, if the stories themselves skillfully exploited the reader’s initial credulity, the copy growing increasingly ludicrous until the reader realizes the joke. Instead, jokes sometimes materialize in the final lines, but they’re half-baked at best. The VA story ends with Obama dismissing calls for officials to resign. “Why,” Obama asks, “would holding people accountable for their actions be necessary?” That neither funny nor satirical. But it rings true to partisans who genuinely believe that Obama thinks that way—the same people who, in a flash of outrage, are most likely to share the story on social media.

The Currant’s string of successes in duping media outlets last year drove a brief flurry of head-scratching and hand-wringing. Gawker’s Max Read called the site “semi-believable political wish-fulfillment articles distinguished by a commitment to a complete absence of what most people would recognize as ‘jokes.’” Politico’s Dylan Byers put it bluntly in his headline, “The Daily Currant Isn’t Funny,” writing, “If their stories are plausible, it’s because they aren’t funny enough. No one—almost no one—mistakes The Onion for a real news organization. That’s not just because it has greater brand recognition. It’s because their stories make readers laugh.” And in The New Republic, Luke O’Neil argued that such stories “could do actual damage to political discourse and the media in general... Juicing an already true-enough premise with more unbelievability simply adds to the informational noise pollution—without even the expected payoff of a laugh.”

All legitimate gripes, but perhaps that’s overthinking it for a site that’s the product of under-thinking. The Daily Currant is trying to maximize clicks and shares, and has found a niche between The Onion and real news: all the believability of the latter, but all the libel protections of the former. There’s a Catch-22 to this approach, though. As more people have become aware of The Daily Currant—in December, Mediaite whined, “Just Stop It, Everyone: Internet Falls for Daily Currant Fake Story Once Again”—suckers have become increasingly rare. The site is a victim of its own success.

No matter. The formula is easily replicable, as other web entrepreneurs and hucksters have discovered. This poor imitation of The Onion has itself spawned a legion of poor imitations, websites so devoid of infotainment value and so cynical in their click-baiting that they make the likes of Viral Nova and Upworthy look staid.

Daniel Barkeley, The Daily Currant’s founder and editor-in-chief (and, as of last year, one of its two total employees) presents himself as a purveyor of comedic art. In an interview with Slate’s David Weigel, he cited Britain’s Ricky Gervais and Armando Iannucci as influences, saying, “That’s the kind of comedy I like—it’s made to look real. It’s funnier that way, and we think it’s more intelligent that way. So I guess a byproduct of that is that you end up with parodies that people think are true.”

A few months later, after Drudge fell for the Bloomberg pizza-slice story, Barkeley wrote in an email to Politico, “Our headlines themselves aren’t necessarily meant to be funny. (Some are, most aren’t). Rather, the humor is supposed to lie in the plot and actions of the characters. Additionally, satire is meant to have a deeper message.” He singled out an Onion headline, “’Fuck You,’ Obama Says In Hilarious Correspondents’ Dinner Speech,” as one that “clearly” does not have a deeper message.

The lecture didn’t stop there.

“Our style of satire is as old as literature itself,” Barkeley continued, “but hasn’t recently been applied to news articles, which is why many in the media appear to be confused by it. But even in the narrow genre of written news satire, this tradition has a long history with Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain both notorious for publishing such articles.”

Benjamin Franklin. Mark Twain. The Daily Currant. If you can’t see it, well, maybe you aren’t sophisticated enough for such a subtle brand of commentary.

Barkeley might be an un-clever hack or a clever troll. Or maybe, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce generously puts it, “the Currant exists to punk the mainstream media.” But at least Barkeley aspires—or pretends to aspire—to greatness, even if he falls desperately short of it. The same can’t be said for his many competitors, who see a potentially lucrative con predicated on exploiting the worst habits of social media driven news content.

Their names sound plausible, for the most part: The News Nerd, News-Hound, Huzlers, Demyx, Empire Sports News, Mediamass, National Report and so on. Like The Daily Currant, none suggests humor—except perhaps The Lightly Braised Turnip. Like the Currant, they all identify themselves, with varying degrees of prominence, as being in the business of fake news. There are variations, though. Before its website went down recently, Huzlers published real news alongside outright fabrications, which had the obvious effect of making all its stories seem real. Global Associated News doesn’t produce fake stories; it enables users to do so with its “fake celebrity news engine.”

But they all have one thing in common: ads. Banners, pop-ups, and sidebars—these sites are saturated with the worst kind of aggressive Internet advertising. On News Nerd, for instance, the article text only begins after no less than four Google ads. That’s perhaps the best hint that this not well-intentioned comedy, but a brazen traffic grab.

“These sites don’t worry about saturating their pages with a ton of ads because they don’t really care about anybody staying on the page very long after ending up there,” Joseph Finkelstein, an SEO expert with Los Angeles-based design firm Desired Reaction, told me. “The articles themselves are just filler stuffed with high trending, low competition keywords associated with current news stories. The way they make money is all in the headlines— they’re designed to be inflammatory but just believable enough to entice partisans to click on them—or better yet, share them—without looking too hard. Each page is so loaded up with revenue-generating advertisements that as long as they can get people to click over for a minute, they’re making money.”

That’s the con. News Nerd and its ilk cram user-unfriendly ads into every available space because the sites don’t rely on visitors ever deliberately returning. Instead, they publish intentionally deceptive content that’s just believable enough to get shared and go viral. An appreciable sense of humor would, in fact, be bad for business—unless they can do it as well as The Onion, which no one has proven able to. As long as news traffic is driven by social-media sharing, bad satire news sites will remain profitable.

But to blame News Nerd for your credulous reading of a News Nerd story is like blaming P.T. Barnum for your belief that George Washington had a 160-year-old nurse. So long as we keep buying the snake oil, somebody’s going to be craven enough to produce it. We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.

Upworthy and Viralnova, at least, are honest about what they’re selling: gaudy, sentimental, life-affirming stories. But the Currant class promises humor and almost universally fails to deliver it—because the actual goal is SEO clickbait. Given that, you might wonder why they even bother identifying themselves, usually in disclaimers at the bottom of the page, as satirical news sites.The answer is simple: to avoid a lawsuit.

In the U.S., satirical writing—even if it makes reference to real people, and even if those references are defaming—is protected speech. But according to Harvard Law professor Bruce Hay, there are established standards for determining whether or not content is comedic and not criminally libelous—standards that can get tricky when your business is predicated on deceiving your readers. “The question a court would ask is whether the average reader would think the article was factual or satirical,” he says. While it’s unclear if somebody would win a libel suit against a purely fake news site—nobody has tried suing one yet—the risk is theoretically significant enough that these sites have decided not to chance it. As long as the disclaimer is there, they assume they’re protected.

At least, that appears to be their reasoning. The creators of these sites, when they can be identified at all, aren’t talking. With the exception of National Report, these sites don’t have mastheads. When they allow contact at all, it’s through blind submission forms—not always in English—or generic email addresses. Most also use third-party services to mask the identity of the domain owner. Despite attempting to reach out to dozens of sites, I got only two replies. One was from Empire Sports News’s Aaron Smith, who said he was “possibly” willing to talk, but went silent at the first mention of ad revenue. Barkeley, of The Daily Currant, responded to my request for an interview with a brief email that read, “You’re more than welcome to do a takedown piece on our website. But you’ll have to do it without help. Good luck.” He ignored my follow-ups.

But the biggest mystery isn’t the identity of the conmen—it’s how much they’re hauling in. Barkeley told Slate that his humor provides him with a “tight but livable” income. A number of publically available valuation services, which are by no means precise, estimate that The Daily Currant brings in anywhere from mid-five figures to $130,000 dollars a year on ad revenue alone. Finkelstein, the SEO expert, says even those numbers may be low, as they doesn’t include revenue derived from short-term revenue bumps when a story goes viral. “I would estimate their yearly revenue from display advertising at about $100,000–$150,000 a year,” he said, noting that even with his expertise and access to estimation tools, it’s not an exact science. “It isn’t perfect, but it is close. But at most, over the few years they’ve existed, The Daily Currant may have made as much as $500,000 in revenue—split between two people who are hardly doing any work.”

The Daily Currant is likely the king of this particular con. But others may be catching up. The same public revenue calculators place Mediamass’s annual ad revenue alone at just under $40,000; Huzzlers’ is rapidly approaching $45,000. Not bad takes, especially when you consider that some of these sites don’t even bother to write their own unfunny canards: They just steal them from other sites.

The Adobo Chronicles, for example, is a seemingly well-intentioned, relatively ad-free satirical site. Its sole writer, Rene Astudillo, told me he donates the majority of his limited ad revenue to charity. In March, he ran a story claiming the American Psychiatric Association had classified “selfitis”—the taking of selfie photos—as a medical disorder. A solid joke: It was shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook. Less than a week later, Demyx took the article verbatim, cut the overtly comedic final paragraph, and threw it up on their ad-saturated page. They got 18,200 shares.

At first glance, stopping sites like Demyx seems simple enough: Just don’t click on their stories. Without the ad impressions, the sites won’t make any money. But that’s easier said than done: Fake-news sites are myriad, and many are fly-by-night operations. If we learn to recognize one, two more will take its place. But even disavowing all unknown news outlets wouldn’t eradicate the scourge. At times, these stories appear on legitimate sites through no fault of an editor. The bogus Krugman bankruptcy story made it to Breitbart via, where it appeared in the finance section due to an automated process.

So the best we can do, having landed on a story titled “Marijuana Cures Hepatitis C, Research Shows,” is read it long enough to realize that it’s not true—rather than sharing it first, without a thought. We’ll still be providing an ad impression, but at least we’ll have quarantined the infection.

Even that remedy may be asking too much of mankind. A March study by the Media Insight Project found that, as the Washington Post reported, “roughly six in 10 people acknowledge that they have done nothing more than read news headlines in the past week.” A month earlier, Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile tweeted that his traffic-analytics company had “found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading.”

For those who have fallen for these stories, the consequent humiliation can inoculate them against making the mistake a second time. But you can’t vaccinate suckers as fast as they’re born. Unless Google and Facebook change their algorithms—or humans suddenly become less gullible, and less prone to confirmation bias—these sites will likely persist, metastasizing across the internet like a profoundly unfunny cancer.