Day 6

Marco Chacon meant his fake election news to be satire — but people took it as fact

In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, tech companies like Google and Facebook are facing mounting criticism over how they handled fake news. Meanwhile, Marco Chacon is explaining how his satirical news site was confused for real news and picked up by conspiracy theorists and even mainstream media.
Stories on Marco Chacon's parody news site, Real True News, feature photoshopped images relating to the story. This is our attempt. (Photo illustration by Craig Desson)
Listen10:59

When blogger Marco Chacon started his new website, Realtruenews.org, he wrote election stories that were so silly, so over the top and so steeped in satire that no one could possibly take them seriously.

But people did. And as he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, it wasn't just a few.

"One of my stories got picked up on a few conspiracy sites and was viewed by tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people," he says.

It was like the Twilight zone. I was stunned.- Marco Chacon

Chacon knows it's good to go viral, but he felt uneasy with how people were interpreting his work.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "My first thought was that the people presenting it knew it was fake and they were trying to fool their listeners."

The more he looked into it, the more he realized that wasn't the case. He says it appeared that these people were taking  his work literally, and believed the story despite a lack of sources or attribution and an utterly absurd premise.

He says that is when he realized there was nothing that was too absurd.

"It was like the Twilight Zone. I was stunned."

                                     

A place for election satire

The satirical story in question was a fabricated interview with an employee at FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver's popular politics and opinion poll analysis site.

In Chacon's story, the anonymous insider explains how they secretly manipulate the entire world of polling to make liberals feel better. But as Trump surged in the polls, they couldn't figure out why their methods had stopped working.

Marco Chacon's parody news site posted this satirical story about Hillary Clinton colluding with ISIS in June. (RealTrueNews.org)

That was one of many tall tales. The site also features a story about Hillary selling passport-making machines directly to ISIS.

There's another one explaining why Barack Obama won't say "radical Islam": because those words would break the Islamic spell that protects him.

"RealTrueNews was a parody response to a deluge — a waterfall — of fake news that was already out there. So I just got even crazier," Chacon says.

The FiveThirtyEight story got a lot of attention on the web, but it was a different story that appeared on mainstream news coverage.

                  

The Fox News retraction

On October 7, Fox News host Megyn Kelly incorrectly connected a RealTrueNews story about Hillary Clinton to the Wikileaks Podesta email scandal, despite the fact the story made no reference to the leaks.

The story has Hillary Clinton talking to an executive at Goldman Sachs. She's explaining that the biggest threat to the democratic party isn't Donald Trump, but a third party insurgency of 'Bronies,' also known as grown men who love My Little Pony.

Kelly, host of The Kelly File on Fox News, read a line from the story in which Hillary Clinton calls a bunch of people on the internet a "bucket of losers." Kelly then proceeded to debate it with a panel of political experts. No one flinched.



"I heard that she said it, frantically looked for the clip, found it and I was stunned. You know that saying, 'your blood runs cold?' I know what that means now," Chacon says.

Producers at The Kelly File realized their mistake, and Kelly retracted the quote before the end of her programme. But the fake quote lived in reality longer than Chacon would have liked.

                        

Debunking the bunk

"Some of the conservative message boards would post RealTrueNews stories and they would be instantly debunked. They saw through it. They knew it was parody, or false, or whatever. They'd instantly admonish the people and close the threads," he says.

Chacon says that's the kind of thing that should have been happening. And not just as it relates to his site.  He points out that there was a lot of satire out there and it should be recognized and accepted as a form of social commentary.

There is also a big difference between political satire and the phenomenon of fake news that infected this campaign.

Tech companies like Google and Facebook are facing mounting criticism over how they handled fake news during the U.S. election. Meanwhile, Marco Chacon is explaining how his satirical news site was confused for real news and picked up by mainstream media. 10:59

"When you look at fake news sites, the actual fake news sites like ABC.co and things like that, they look like a rip-off or a clone of the ABC News page," he says.  "They're written in such a way that they're trying to be true — I was never doing anything like that."

He says his site went out of its way to look and read like satire, and he doesn't believe his site helped elect Donald Trump in any way.

"Do I think it has an impact on the election? No, not RealTrueNews. I think the phenomenon [of fake news] itself did."