When Fake News Stories Make Real News Headlines

At times during the election, fake “news” amplified partisan rancor.

ByABC News
November 29, 2016, 2:43 PM

— -- When Marco Chacon first saw the phrase “bucket of losers” trending online, he said he “freaked out.”

It came from a story he had posted on his website about a supposed “secret transcript” of a Hillary Clinton speech given inside a Goldman Sachs boardroom, which claimed Clinton had called Bernie Sanders supporters a “bucket of losers.” Once posted, the story quickly went viral and was even picked up on Fox News.

It would have been the scoop of a lifetime, but the problem was Chacon had made the whole thing up.

“My hands were shaking, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous,’” he said. “I was thinking that, that had gone way too far.”

Fox News issued an on-air apology for reporting it.

Chacon’s story, posted on his website RealTrueNews.org, is yet another example of fake news making real news headlines.

In one of the most contentious elections in modern history, sensationalized and at times flat out fake “news” amplified partisan rancor across the country. Some examples of these fake stories include headlines like, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and this one, “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead of Apparent Murder-Suicide,” which is not only a fake story but the “Denver Guardian,” where it was posted, is also not real.

While established media outlets are brands built on accuracy, rogue websites, some masquerading as legitimate, are reporting mis-information and it’s spreading like wildfire online.

Even President Obama urged common sense during a press conference two weeks ago in Germany.

“If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” he said.

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman was one of the first people to recognize those problems and has been tracking the growth of fake news on the Internet for years.

“This year, 2016, it’s incomparable to the other years I’ve looked at,” Silverman said. “One of the big factors that you can’t ignore is Donald Trump. He generated a huge amount of online excitement, a lot of engagement on Facebook.”

Buzzfeed uncovered an unlikely breeding ground for some of the fake news sites: Macedonia, in particular Veles, a tiny, economically depressed city of 45,000 people.

“This is a town that had an industrial economy that has gone away and there are a lot of young people,” Silverman said. “It’s a way for them to earn some extra money and also a way for them to find something to do.”

“Nightline” traveled to Macedonia to speak to some of the website creators, though they did not want to be identified. The creators “Nightline” spoke to said most of their websites did not start out political and they only run these websites to make money, which they do through users clicking on ads on their sites.

“People from the states are watching your website and clicking on the banners and you’re making the money,” one of the site creators said. “It was like, overnight.”

At first they said they blogged about cars and liberal politics, but they say none of the stories got traction online until they started writing about Trump.

“When you write about Trump, the whole people are trying to read something that Hillary make like some bad things like email scandal with WikiLeaks,” said one of the site creators. “We start writing and people start opening the posts and reading about it and start re-sharing it.”

Fake news spiked on Facebook, overtaking real news in August, according to BuzzFeed, reportedly after human fact checkers were dismissed in favor of computer algorithms.

When asked if he thought the spread of fake news online had an impact on the election, Silverman said it would be impossible to know for sure.

“But there is no question that when, for example, we looked at the top 20 fake news stories about the election and compared them to the top 20 election stories from 19 major media outlets, the fake news ones got more engagement on Facebook,” Silverman said.

Two days after Trump won the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the notion that his social network had an impact on the election outcome.

“The idea that fake news influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said, while speaking at a California tech conference.

A recent Pew Research study found that 62 percent of American adults get their news from social media, with Facebook leading the way by far. Nearly two-thirds of its users get news from the platform.

It’s a fact that the young entrepreneurs “Nightline” spoke with in Macedonia were banking on.

“Ninety percent of the traffic [to my site] is from Facebook,” one of the creators said.

But the website creators were quick to argue that their sites were not fake news.

“I don’t agree the sites are fake,” one of them said. “Maybe some of the stories are fake but not all of them.”

One said he re-writes headlines, saying, “You have to have a good headline for your story to be successful.” For example, a headline he said he wrote was, “Rush Reveals Michelle’s Perverted Past After She Dumps on Trump,” but he said the original headline was, “Rush Reveals Michelle’s Past.”

Another admits he takes his rewriting further, copying and pasting stories from other media outlets but then changing “everything inside” the story.

And the websites these Macedonia site creators are lifting from are not exactly Pulitzer Prize winners. One website creator said he lifts stories from a sites called “Western Journalism,” “Conservative Tribune” and “The Federalist Papers.”

“It’s really easy to just make something up” online, said Silverman. “So the amount of effort actually to create something that gets a huge amount of attention on Facebook and can earn thousands and thousands of dollars is minimal.”

But after scoffing at the notice that fake news had an impact, Zuckerberg now seems to recognize there might be a problem. "The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously," Zuckerberg wrote in a recent Facebook post defending his company’s efforts. "We take this responsibility seriously. We've made significant progress, but there is more work to be done."

“Facebook is the platform where this stuff is taking off and going viral,” Silverman said. “If Facebook simply walks away and washes its hands of the whole thing it’s only going to get worse.”

But the biggest game changer could lie in eliminating the profit motive. One of the Macedonia site creators said they use Google AdSense to make money.

“Google is making money off fake news because Google has a huge ad network called AdSense that within a few minutes you can put AdSense ads on basically any website,” Silverman said. “Google really is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to online advertising.”

In a statement to ABC News, Google said that as of early last week, they “now prohibit Google ads from being placed on misrepresentative content,” adding, “moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information.”

While many of those sites were a sweet spot for cash, Marco Chacon said that for him, it was never about money.

“The number of hits we got I think in terms of advertising I may have gotten $200 on the site,” he said. “The only way I could think of to have a conversation with these people is to say, ‘if you have a piece of crazy fake news, look I got one too, and it’s even crazier, it’s absurd.’”

Some of those “absurd” stories on his site were stories claiming Dr. Ben Carson called for a “strategic grain reserve” under the Washington Monument, and another claimed President Obama ordered ISIS to “take out” Trump – all false, but Chacon still defended his website.

“First off, this is a parody of fake news, there’s real fake news ... nothing on RealTrueNews was designed to look real,” he said.

There is even a fake news website meant to look like the ABC News website.

“The crazy thing about this particular site is one of Donald Trump’s kids and his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had both shared at least one story from this fake site during the campaign,” Silverman said.

But separating fact from fiction is not easy when the distrust of mainstream media is at an all-time high.

“When the president-elect will say that the only reason Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote is because of millions of people voting illegally, which is completely not true, I think it gives license to folks to really be loose with the truth and for people to make things up,” Silverman said.

And our social media feed, designed to mirror our own opinions, confirms our biases. So when you give a customer what they want, Silverman said, “they end up drowning in it, to the exclusion of anything else.”

ABC News' Dada Jovanovic and Lauren Effron contributed to this report.