Last week, I became fake news.
Well, kind of. Milo Yiannopoulos really is starting his own media venture. I wrote about it on May 2. The next day, an article with the same headline — "Milo Yiannopoulos to launch Milo Inc., 'dedicated to the destruction of political correctness'" — was published on a site called "good-kingnews.com."
The article was almost identical. Almost. But if you read it closely, there were some quirks. The phrase "the alt-right" became "the alt-proper." The magazine "Vanity Fair" became "Vanity Truthful." The Free Speech Movement became the "Cost-free Speech Motion." Instead of prompting people to follow me on Twitter, it asked people to "abide by me on Twitter."
Ian Dennis Miller is the one who tipped me off. Miller is a PhD student at the University of Toronto who is writing a dissertation about memes, social networks and how information spreads within online political communities.
In the course of his work, Miller informally monitors the Trump-centric subreddit "The_Donald." (A subreddit is a subject-specific chat board within the Reddit social media site.) That's where he discovered the curious version of my article. He clicked through and was puzzled by the nonsense language and the fact that my name and Twitter account were linked at the end of it (which the site later removed).
Even more puzzling: None of the commenters on Reddit seemed to notice.
In more than a hundred comments on the Reddit post, not one person questioned the glaring issues with sentences such as "the programs are to seek the services of 30 people today to function out of an workplace" or a reference to "Black Lives Subject activists."
As for the bizarre language, Miller's best guess is that the site takes articles like mine from legitimate news sites, and then feeds them into something that translates them into another language and then back to English. You end up with substitutions that make sense in some places and don't in others: "Showcasing" works in place of "featuring," but "Cost-free 7 Days" doesn't quite have the same ring as "Free Speech Week."
In another story on the site, Attorney General Jeff Sessions became “Attorney Basic Periods” and later “Jeff Periods.” And in another, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is called the “White Dwelling counselor.”
The site itself was anonymously registered in February. When Miller looked at other stories on the site, he noticed copy/paste errors similar to including my Twitter handle in the story. Since we can’t find out who runs the site, it's impossible to say exactly why the site exists in the first place, but there's a good chance it's to make money off ads.
Tweaking the language of the articles is most likely a ploy to evade Google's algorithm, Miller said. That makes it seem like the articles originated on that site, instead of being copied from other sources, which can make those stories appear higher in Google's rankings, meaning more eyeballs on the stories, meaning more ad money.
Ten hours after it was posted, the article was upvoted to #26 on The_Donald — just shy of the front page.
By Friday morning, it had racked up just shy of 7,000 upvotes.
"At least thousands of people saw it and at least thousands of people voted it up," Miller said. Of phrases like the "Cost-Free Speech Motion," he said, "nobody questioned that."
But, he said, that's not unusual. On sites like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter, people post headlines and links, and not everyone clicks through to read them before offering their opinion.
(NPR made fun of this phenomenon in 2014 by posting an article titled, "Why doesn't America read anymore?" It prompted more than a few comments on Facebook rebuking the premise without clicking through to the April Fools' Day message in the story.)
In this case, Miller said, the purpose of posting the article to Reddit wasn't to make people read it. It was to serve as a starting point for people to discuss Milo Yiannopoulos and complain about "political correctness."
Of course, there is some irony in the fact that supporters of President Trump — a man who's obsessed with the idea of fake news — failed to notice a pretty obvious example staring them in the face.
The user who posted "my" story to Reddit, I_am_Orlando, is a prolific member of The_Donald, with more than 200,000 "post karma" (the total number of upvotes their posts have received, minus the number of downvotes.)
One of the user’s more recent posts: A headline decrying CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS as "fake news."
Follow (or abide by) me on Twitter @jessica_roy.