I Want to Believe

Why does the media keep running fake stories from a joke-free satire site?

Clockwise Start T-L: Paul Krugman, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachmann.
From left, Paul Krugman, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann

From left, photos by Chip East/Reuters, Scott Olson/Getty Images, Bill Pugliano/Getty Images, and Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

It had been weeks, weeks, since a news organization was suckered by an obvious piece of satire. We were due for another face plant, and we got it: a hot piece of Breitbart.com clickbait titled “Krugman Files for Bankruptcy.”

“Paul Krugman, the economic darling of the left, has filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection,” wrote Larry O’Connor. “Apparently this Keynsian thing doesn’t really work on the micro level.”

It’s actually “Keynesian,” and it doesn’t, but that’s not the point. The point was that O’Connor, like so many before him, had accidentally run with fake news from the Daily Currant. In nine short months, the Web publication has fooled people into thinking Rick Santorum was on Grindr, that Michele Bachmann was going to ban falafel in public schools, and that Sarah Palin had joined Al-Jazeera. The dupe on that last story was Suzi Parker, a contributor to the Washington Post’s She the People blog. “If Parker had a shred of self-awareness, integrity, and dignity,” wrote media watcher John Nolte, “she would have changed the headline to ‘Too Good To Check,’ and under it posted an essay about how shallow, smug, bitterly angry partisanship can blind you to common sense.”

Nolte is an editor at Breitbart.com.

I asked O’Connor and Parker to comment on the most embarrassing mistakes they made all year and help me conduct some media autopsies. To my surprise, they both declined comment. Luckily, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple tracked down the origin of the Krugman story—a sponsored item on the Boston Globe’s website published without any editor’s knowledge or consent. “Prudent Investor,” branching out from his normal work as a Pilgrim’s Progress character, cited “Austria’s Format online mag.” The bogus story, credited to the Daily Currant, was titled “Paul Krugman Is Broke.” English-speakers shrugged and hit “share.”

Why is the Internet so easily fooled by this Satire-Magazin? Daniel Barkeley, the 28-year old who founded the site last summer, has his theories. “We write articles that seem more real than articles you might see in the the Onion,” he says. “If you look at Ricky Gervais’ shows, like The Office, or Armando Iannucci’s shows, like The Thick of It, those are fly-on-the-wall documentaries. 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.”

When Barkeley says “we,” he means himself and one colleague. It’s just two people who keep accidentally hoaxing the media. Barkeley went to the University of Oregon, then moved to Los Angeles, dreaming of a career as a comedy writer. “It was very spur of the moment,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody.” He switched to investment banking, went to school in France, and for his final assignment he designed a business—a satire website. One month later, the site was live. Less than a year later, Barkeley has built a “tight but livable” existence from online ads—a business that gets new attention, every month or so, when someone thinks a piece of satire is real.

New attention, but not necessarily new traffic. “I’m looking at the analytics,” says Barkeley, “and traffic isn’t much higher than it was a few days ago.” The Daily Currant’s faux scoops get shared at basically the same rate whether they spill into the mainstream or not. They’re written in the driest possible prose. A fake source in the Onion eventually starts cursing or otherwise giving up the game. A fake source in the Daily Currant sounds completely earnest. This was about as wacky as the Krugman story got:

The majority of his debts are related to mortgage financing on a $8.7 million apartment in lower Manhattan, but the list also includes $621,537 in credit card debt and $33,642 in store financing at famed jeweler Tiffanys and Co.

“The filing says that Krugman got into credit card trouble in 2004 after racking up $84,000 in a single month on his American Express black card in pursuit of rare Portuguese wines and 19th century English cloth.”

It’s funny if you realize that Krugman would never buy anything like this. But if you’re inclined to hate the guy, you’ll read the numbers and nod your head. In the harsh words of Gawker’s Max Read, the Daily Currant’s parodies are ‘semi-believable political wish-fulfillment articles distinguished by a commitment to a complete absence of what most people would recognize as ‘jokes.’ ”

And that’s why people share them. Sometimes an article surges on social media because it’s got a scoop that changes minds. The rest of the time, the article rockets around Facebook because it confirms what the reader already thinks and what his friends believe. For one 2011 study, two academics at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 7,000 New York Times articles that had made it to the site’s “most shared” list. “Participants were less likely to share the story if they were in the high sadness as opposed to the low sadness condition,” they wrote. “Second, the results were similar for arousal; the high sadness condition evoked less arousal than the low sadness condition. Third, as hypothesized, this decrease in arousal mediated the effect of condition on sharing.”

That’s one theory, but it could explain most of the social Web. You share the picture of Abraham Lincoln next to the inspiring quote because it makes you happy. You share a paean to free speech by a Russian composer—“The Russian state is acting like a dominant male in a group of monkeys!”—because you felt inspired. You share the story about Sarah Palin being stupid because you think Sarah Palin is really stupid and refuse to let the 2008 election end already.

“After the whole Todd Akin thing happened,” says Barkeley, “I put up a story about how he thought breast milk could cure gay people. The Guardian contacted me and wanted to know where the video was. I said ‘No, no, it was a fake.’ But at least they checked, right?”