On Wednesday morning, a fake Washington Post ran a fake front page with a fake news story titled “Unpresidented: Ending Crisis, Trump Hastily Departs White House.” The fake Washington Post was printed on real paper and has a real fake–Washington Post website, My-washingtonpost.com, with the same fake headline as the fake paper. The fake story was dated May 1, 2019, a date that hasn’t happened yet—also International Workers’ Day, a global day for labor demonstrations around the world.
It couldn’t have taken anyone more than a few minutes max to recognize that this newspaper and the website it referenced weren’t actually by the Washington Post. They were created by the left-leaning activist art troupe the Yes Men. It’s political parody—an imagining of what a different tomorrow in a different political reality would look like.
In our contemporary moment, when the term fake news regularly spews from the president’s podium and the actual problem of false and misleading information online has led to real-world harm, one has to wonder if this type of stunt resonates. Is this really the time to create a fake newspaper to forward a progressive agenda when millions of people throughout the country are already of the mind that real, fact-checked journalism is actually the work of left-leaning politically motivated liars?
It absolutely is. And the reason is that what the Yes Men did here isn’t actually fake news. It’s not intended to deceive people forever or to inspire violence. It’s intended to force someone who sees it to do a double take and consider what it would mean if this headline were an account of actual political events. It’s satire and exaggeration. Technically, it’s a practice called culture jamming, which is when artists take common brands and refashion them slightly to force consumers to look more critically at the corporate interests that saturate our visual world. When done well, culture jamming asks us to meditate and offers a moment of friction between ourselves and the topic that is being parodied—whether it be the word capitalism in the iconic Coca-Cola font or a sticker that reads “Driving” slapped under the “Stop” of a stop sign or an OkCupid billboard in the Bay Area that used to read “DTF” and now reads “DTFire to the Prisons #August21,” an effort to promote the nationwide prison workers’ strike in the summer. All of these examples invite us to politicize imagery that would otherwise be mundane.
Real fake news (an odd phrase, but here we are), on the other hand, isn’t an attempt at parody; it’s an attempt to deceive people. It also rarely happens in isolation. Rather, it often starts with one article on a blog or a social media post claiming something outlandish, maybe referenced to an inside source (or maybe based on nothing at all). Take what happened with Pizzagate, a blatantly false story that purported that a pizzeria in D.C. was a host to a child sex ring run by top members of the Democratic Party. The story started as a Facebook comment by a woman with no professional bona fides as a journalist in Missouri who claimed that the trove of stolen emails from the Clinton campaign released by WikiLeaks in October 2016 revealed the existence of a pedophile ring in which Hillary Clinton herself was implicated. That Facebook post was screenshotted and shared by a white supremacist claiming to be a Jewish lawyer on Twitter. That tweet and Facebook post ended up in a post on a message board for popular conspiracy theories, which was then regurgitated in right-wing blogs that received hundreds of thousands of interactions on Facebook. From there, popular men’s rights activist Mike Cernovich ran with the story and it only got bigger—even former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn tweeted about the alleged Democrat-run sex ring. Eventually, a man named Edgar Maddison Welch was convinced enough to drive from his home in North Carolina armed with an AR-15, a revolver, and a knife to a pizzeria in D.C., where he fired several rounds as he searched for the pedophile ring he was certain was inside. (No one was killed. Welch is now in prison.)
In contrast, the parody Washington Post didn’t come from an echo chamber. It wasn’t part of a movement intended to stir hatred. It wasn’t even trying to sell its fake story as true—it was positing it as a possible future, not a current reality.
What’s more, the websites that do peddle in and confirm fake news aren’t pretending to be mainstream news sources. Rather, they’re often attempting to invalidate mainstream news—an act that is very different from parody. They’re also usually making money. Fake news sites and YouTube videos—like the videos that parroted the falsehood that teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting were actually paid actors, one of which skyrocketed to the coveted slot of YouTube’s top trending video—all make money from online advertisements and engagement. The whole ecosystem they exist in is motivated, in large part, by profit. The Yes Men stunt likely cost the artists money. (They hosted a crowdfunding campaign to back the stunt and raised over $36,000 of their $50,000 goal.)
There’s another enormous difference: The Yes Men made sure their caper happened in the real world. Yes, there was a website, but they went through the trouble (and expense) of printing a real paper and handing it out in a real place. One of the reasons why fake news is able to flourish online is because anyone can be anyone else and say whatever they want on the internet. We’re all avatars online, and if enough people, inauthentic accounts or otherwise, are all saying the same thing, it’s very easy to give the illusion of a shared reality or a false groundswell of grassroots support.
Things are different offline. When thousands of fake papers were distributed on the streets of D.C. on Wednesday, passersby knew the real Washington Post isn’t free. When they read the headlines as they walked down the sidewalk, they all looked at the same piece of paper—a piece of paper that looked like the esteemed Washington Post but obviously wasn’t. In that moment, everyone in that same physical space consumed the same art. When that happens, people look up. They look at each other. They laugh. They talk about it. Art begets reflection.
And so, in a sense, the fake newspaper, with its fake date and fake stories, might be exactly what we need in the midst of our fake news crisis. It’s art about our moment, and it was shared on streets we still share with each other. It was a creative expression that directed random people so often glued to individual smartphone screens to experience something together—and perhaps to collectively ask, if just for a moment, “What if?”