Eli Saslow is a reporter at The Washington Post. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. This morning I spent some time reading his article, ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America. It is both disturbing and enlightening. The story profiles two Americans, their views on the world and how one influences the others thinking via the internet.
The first person is an east coast blogger, Chris Blair, who seems to make a good living online, he is also a life-long Democrat, his blog is “America’s Last Line of Defense,” a satirical site where he post imaginary stories like “California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9. “Share if you’re outraged!” his posts often read, and thousands of people on Facebook had clicked “like” and then “share,” most of whom did not recognize his posts as satire. Instead, Blair’s page had become one of the most popular on Facebook among Trump-supporting conservatives over 55.
“Nothing on this page is real,” read one of the 14 disclaimers on Blair’s site, and yet in the America of 2018 his stories had become real, reinforcing people’s biases, spreading onto Macedonian and Russian fake news sites, amassing an audience of as many 6 million visitors each month who thought his posts were factual. What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker. “No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,” Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?”
The second person is Nevada resident, Shirley Chapian, 76. “She had lived much of her life in cities throughout Europe and across the United States — places such as San Francisco, New York and Miami. She’d gone to college for a few years and become an insurance adjuster, working as one of the few women in the field in the 1980s and ’90s and joining the National Organization for Women to advocate for an equal wage before eventually moving to Rhode Island to work for a hospice and care for her aging parents. After her mother died, Chapian decided to retire and move to Las Vegas to live with a friend, and when Las Vegas become too expensive a real estate agent told her about Pahrump. She bought a three-bedroom trailer for less than $100,000 and painted it purple. She met a few friends at the local senior center and started eating at the Thai restaurant in town. A few years after arriving, she bought a new computer monitor and signed up for Facebook in 2009, choosing as her profile image a photo of her cat.”
Shirley reads Blair’s website, and reacts to as if it were real.
She found a story on America’s Last Line of Defense, reading fast, oblivious to the satire labels and not noticing Blair’s trademark awkward phrasings and misspellings. It showed a group of children kneeling on prayer mats in a classroom. “California School children forced to Sharia in Class,” it read. “All of them have stopped eating bacon. Two began speaking in Allah. Stop making children pray to imaginary Gods!!”
“Chapian recoiled from the screen. “Please!” she said. “If I had a kid in a school system like that, I’d yank them out so fast.”
“She had seen hundreds of stories on Facebook about the threat of sharia, and this confirmed much of what she already believed. It was probably true, she thought. It was true enough.
“Do people understand that things like this are happening in this country?” she said. She clicked the post and the traffic registered back to a computer in Maine, where Blair watched another story go viral and wondered when his audience would get his joke.”