To claim that the 2016 presidential election may have been swayed by the dominance of viral fake news stories is an understatement at this point. After all, the so-called #Pizzagate scandal — which falsely claims that Hillary Clinton and some of her associates ran a child pedophilia ring out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. — is the reason why an armed man entered the place demanding answers on Sunday. It’s also why the son of President-elect Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor pick is still touting it and other fake stories online as true-until-proven-false facts.
Hence Samantha Bee’s triumphant return to television Monday night, which involved multiple segments dedicated to election news coverage, why fake stories like #Pizzagate stick around, and who (or what) was responsible for their popularity. The Washington Post and countless other outlets have already investigated and interviewed purveyors of fake news in the election’s aftermath, but that didn’t stop Full Frontal producer and correspondent Michael Rubens from talking to Jestin Coler, a self-described “fake news provider” whom NPR interviewed in November.
“[We’ll use] any sort of a gun-grabbing story, pro-abortion, anti-Obama or anti-Hillary, anti-Muslim, anything anti-Mexican or immigrant,” Coler explains to a visibly annoyed Rubens, who later uses a “some people” line to call him an “asshole.” All joking aside, the process used to generate and spread fake news that Coler describes is downright frightening. “In 2013 I became very interested in what is now referred to as the alt-right. Ultimately, we were trying to infiltrate these groups and see if they would fall for the stories we were writing, in order to then publicly discredit them as being factual news sources.”
Unfortunately Coler’s “gotchya” efforts didn’t pan out, as Rubens demonstrates with several reader comments lifted from his websites’ stories. Instead they (and countless other sources of viral conspiracy theories) have charged everyday people like Edgar Maddison Welch, the Comet Ping Pong shooter, and Michael G. Flynn to embark upon literal and figurative crusades against otherwise innocent individuals, groups and places while citing spurious information as their inspiration.