Readers of Lead Stories know we've been following the work of Christopher Blair (featured in the Boston Globe today by coincidence) for quite some time now. For those of you who don't know him, he's the person behind such iconic satirically trolling news sites as The Last Line of Defense, Reagan Was Right, Ladies of Liberty, Freedum Junkshun, Daily World Update, As American As Apple Pie, Freedom Crossroads and several others. Over the past few months we got unprecedented access to his operation and with his permission we are now revealing some of its inner workings and future plans.
We would especially like to thank John Prager (pictured) for his assistance in making this story happen. He has been a longtime ally and collaborator of Blair (although he kept his name out of the press until now) and it is largely though him that we got invited into the heart of the operation to take a good look around.
Blair's network of sites first came to our attention about a year and a half ago when we started seriously looking into several stories appearing on all kinds of Macedonian and Albanian fake news websites that were mainly catering to conservative American audiences with spectacular and inflammatory right wing stories that often had no connection to reality.
It turned out many of the articles had first showed up on Blair's websites before being copied by the rest of the sites and initially we thought they were just the hub of the network. But one thing was different about them: they actually carried satire disclaimers and they contained various hints that subtly indicated they weren't to be taken seriously. Take this story for example:
The well known fake news website The Resistance: The Last Line of Defense strikes again, this time with a hoax article titled: "BREAKING: Federal Court Bans CNN From White House Press Room".
In our article we noted how the story had been copied by a wide range of other sites but also pointed out the satire disclaimer on the original:
DISCLAIMER: The Resistance may include information from sources that may or may not be reliable and facts that don't necessarily exist. All articles should be considered satirical and any and all quotes attributed to actual people complete and total baloney. Pictures that represent actual people should be considered altered and not in any way real.
Stories would also have subtle hints in their category names, for example:
Other category names we noticed at the time were things like "Free Head Examinations", "Free Soup" and "Have A Scone They're Delicious".
It was only when Craig Silverman at Buzzfeed published following article (which misidenified Blair as "Christopher Lyman", archived version here) that we properly understood what was going on:
On Mar. 4, a website run by an American who identifies himself as "Busta Troll" published a completely false story claiming the FBI had a warrant for Barack Obama's arrest for illegally wiretapping Donald Trump.
Blair and his sites were being copied against his will by various Macedonian, Albanian and Georgian fake news websites. The article did correctly identify Blair's most used alias: "Busta Troll". A short while later Politifact's Joshua Gillin came out with full profile on Blair (archived here) that revealed his real name:
If you've seen a fake news story on the Internet, there's a good chance it came from the mind of a 45-year-old Maine man who umpires Little League games. Barack Obama arrested for wiretapping Donald Trump! Clinton Foundation ship caught smuggling refugees! Trey Gowdy's son found dead in a D.C.
Gillin's story explained the history of the the "Busta Troll" alias:
Blair uses his own characters to aid in his elaborate storylines, discrediting the very people he has made up. Lyman also was a fake name, devised during an elaborate 2014 scheme to reveal the identity of Busta Troll, an online persona known for "goating" conservative Facebook pages.
As Busta Troll, Blair would gain the trust of the Facebook page administrators, earn his own administrator privileges, then post scads of photos of goats, leading the victims to ultimately shut down the page.
This spawned an entire group of liberal trolls on Facebook that Blair called "the goat herd." An alleged conservative named Kevin Kopper offered a $1,000 bounty to find Busta Troll after Kopper said his Facebook page also had been hijacked. The money led to subsequent claims that Busta Troll was Christopher Lyman, a cabinetmaker from Orono, Maine, who umpired Little League games.
Except not only was Lyman a faux name and story, Kopper was entirely made up, too, the invention of another group of liberal bloggers that Blair would not identify. Busta Troll posted about it on his own page, admitting the yarn was faked.
Blair has been harshly criticized by people who say his brand of satire is actively helping fake news sites by providing them with free content.
This fake story shows the irresponsibility of Christopher Blair & his "satire" websites. It got some FB engagement on LLOD, but a fake news website that pushed it as fake news got *30,000* FB engagements. This stuff really gains legs when it's shared as fake news by bad actors. pic.twitter.com/Re7EOSZSQy-- Alex Kaplan (@AlKapDC) December 12, 2017
Blair has argued that trolling the fake news sites into stealing his content has allowed him to shut down more of them than many of his critics will ever manage. We reported on one of his bigest takedowns here:
Fake News Apocalypse: How A Liberal Troll Took Down Several Major Fake News Websites Using Copyright Law | Lead Stories
In a delicious twist of irony a famous satirical fake news website manages to take down or seriously hamper dozens of "real" fake news sites using nothing but copyright law.
Blair's sites generally ran all kinds of invented stories intended to get a rise out of conservatives and Trump supporters. Some examples include the Clinton Foundation being involved in all kinds of conspiracies, conservative celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Joe The Plumber or Ted Nugent dying or former President Obama and his family getting into all sorts of trouble...
At one point Blair even made it a habbit to release a fresh Hillary Clinton death hoax every Saturday, killing her on Thanksgiving, via an ISIS kidnapping, in a bridge collapse, with a plane crash, in a boating accident and even in a balloon crash (we flipped the pattern in our own recent April Fools' Day joke when we had Hillary murder Blair, all in jest of course).
But it was not all fun and games. In October 26, 2017 one of the sites published an article slandering a fallen soldier by calling him a deserter:
STORY UPDATED: check for updates below. Infamous fake/satire website Freedum Junkshun posted an article titled "BREAKING: Black Soldier Killed In Niger Was A Deserter" which opened: Sergeant La David T.
Back then we wrote: "Slandering a fallen soldier could be considered as satire by some (although we wouldn't agree with those people). And doing it while knowing the accusation will probably get picked up by 'real' fake news sites is another thing. However that seems to be just what happened here."
The story was later pulled and Blair issued an apology explaining he supported the decision to take it down because he wasn't actually the one who wrote it or took it down:
Hoax Alert Recently we criticized an article by fake/satire website Freedum Junkshun titled "BREAKING: Black Soldier Killed In Niger Was A Deserter" for using the real name and real image of a soldier who died in Niger (Sergeant La David T. Johnson) and accusing him of being a deserter without the slightest shred of evidence.
The apology revealed Blair had at least one co-author and also showed one of the methods they were using to come up with stories, namely paraphrasing actual things said by conservatives in various online forums:
The author of the article about a deceased soldier being a deserter decided to pull the story, and I fully support his decision. It was pointed out to us that we should have used a fake name and photo, and we agree. The author got so caught up in paraphrasing an actual conversation he saw on Breitbart that he didn't think to do that because he was so furious with those idiots. He agrees with the general sentiment that he was wrong in not changing the facts more like we normally do. This page and all its affiliated pages and websites are committed to posting nothing but pure satirical fiction, and we regret that facts made their way into our narrative.
But that wasn't the first time sites from the network got into trouble for crossing a line. Earlier in year The Resistance: The Last Line of Defense site used the picture of a real Canadian imam in a fake story about a Texas mosque refusing to help Christian hurricane victims.
The fake satire website The Resistance: The Last Line of Defense publised a hoax article titled "BREAKING: Texas Mosque Refuses To Help Refugees: 'Allah Forbids Helping Infidels'". UPDATE: A second fake article has been added, titled: " Hurricane Victims Storm And Occupy Texas Mosque Who Refused To Help Christians".
After much criticism the site was forced to change the picture but a few weeks later a different site of Blair used another picture of a real imam in a story:
Fake News: Georgia Mosque Did NOT Keep Hurricane Harvey Donations, Will NOT Send To Syrian Refugees Instead | Lead Stories
STORY UPDATED: check for updates below. Notorious self-described "liberal troll" Christopher Blair recently caught a lot of flak for inventing a fake story about a mosque and hurricane Harvey aid but that hasn't deterred one of his sites from publishing a new hoax article titled "Georgia Mosque KEEPS Hurricane Harvey Donations, Will Send To Syrian Refugees Instead".
The succes of Blair's sites attracted the attention of fact checkers like Snopes and ourselves but it also caught the attention of Facebook which cracked down on some of his sites by making it impossible to share links to any of the stories on them, effectively shutting them down.
STORY UPDATED: check for updates below. Facebook has blocked the sharing of links from the infamous satirical fake news website " The Resistance: The Last Line Of Defense" as of a few hours ago.
Visitors to Freedum Junkshun, one of Chris Blair's (in)famous satirical fake news sites, reportedly can no longer share links from the site on Facebook. We tested it ourselves and were greeted by this message: It is quite strange how a page that doesn't even exist and which returns a 404 error can be considered spam: http://freedumjunkshun.com/thislinkdoesnotexist.
Blair himself has claimed Snopes is biased against him, going as far as accusing one of their writers specifically of having it in for him in a Facebook post:
Well lookie here...When your favorite fact-checker, one that you helped save from financial ruin, runs a hit piece -- ignoring critical facts -- because the author is butthurt that I made her husband look foolish on his own thread full of manufactured outrage. Geez. You wonder how this kind of stuff gets started in the first place. It's almost like there's some vendetta against me. 🤣
Our own fact checks of Blair's articles didn't go unnoticed either: somewhere in October 2017 I received an anonymous email from somebody using the pen name "David Tango Foxtrot" which read:
Hey there. I and Chris are two different people. I feel bad when he gets blamed for writing something I wrote. If you see this email address in the bio, it's me ;)
BIG fan, by the way. You do great work. Love the site.
That was the beginning of a series of email conversations in which I would talk about articles from their network I had debunked and the Macedonian sites where I found them or inquiring if my mysterious correspondent or Chris were responsible for this or that site being taken down for copying stories from their websites. I also got informed by them when some of their sites were being blocked by Facebook or when some particularily noteworthy posts or comments appeared on their Facebook pages.
Throughout I had no idea who "David Tango Foxtrot" actually was. I did try to find out of course, at one point even thinking it might have been an alias for Blair himself. But then back in December of 2017 he decided to reveal his real identity to me: John Prager, a 35-year-old writer from Wheeling, West Virginia. He posts on Twitter as @evilliberalpig and describes himself as follows in his bio there:
Writer at Addicting Info. Nerd. Secret Muslim. "Race Traitor" according to Trump fans. Obama's top Deep State operative. XBOX: I Am FAKE NEWS
We connected on Facebook and continued the conversation there, swapping tips and gossip and the occasional joke. Recently I interviewed him via Facebook Messenger:
What was your background before you got into all this?
I do political writing, mostly focused on the hatred of the Right. Before that, I spent a lot of time agitating at local Tea Party rallies, where I was often treated to long-winded dissertations about the problems "blacks" bring to America
How did you and Chris get into writing right wing satire stories?
Chris and I talked about doing this for a while then one day pulled the trigger. We actually started it together but I drifted away because of "real work" and he made it a huge success in the mean time. And yes, I think it started there but Chris was a troll long before that.
What was the first site you started together?
The first satire site was LLOD (ed: Last Line of Defense), though he removed "The Resistance" from the name when it became a real thing with regard to Trump.
How did you two end up meeting?
We met in like 2012 or 2013. I was one of Busta Troll's first Facebook fans.We talked a lot and had a lot of mutual friends. Grew closer over time. Then after he "goated" a page that had made headlines for posting a photo calling for Obama's assassination, I wrote about it and other, bigger outlets picked it up. I think it was at that moment we realized we could do big things together. We never actually met in real life.
What was traffic like in the "glory days", how has it been lately?
The traffic was good in the glory days, but what was better was the Facebook traffic. Page lured in immensely stupid conservatives and there was an army of liberals waiting for them to say something racist. Nowadays it's not so great.
How financially rewarding has it been, and did you expect that kind of succes? Did it change the plans you originally had with the site(s)?
It was enough to pay the bills. The plan was always to make enough to survive while exposing conservative racism and stupidity then ultimately blow it all up and move on to something else. What DID change our plans about blowing it up was that we met a group of about 100 liberal friends who met on that page and dedicated their spare time to smacking racists around. So we kept it going and ultimately largely handed the page over to them to have fun 🙂
What were you biggest personal 'Holy fuck!' moments?
I think mine was when I somehow convinced more than a million inbreds that Malia Obama not only got arrested for marijuana possession but that she could somehow fit 6 lbs of pot in a Prada handbag. Or when these same people believed "San Recto" was a real country on Mexico's southern border.
Is the goal now trolling people into saying stuff that breaks FB's rules so they can be reported and kicked off? A moth-candle approach?
That was always part of the goal. We report racist remarks ourselves and always have. Conservatives still heavily share our stuff. They still look stupid in doing so. The biggest change to the plan is that this is still happening, and that's because our dedicated audience (the ones we respect anyway) made it happen.
How do you feel about people copying your stories and memes and posting them as "real" content?
I am supremely anti-plagiarism. The fact that they can automate it with an $80 Wordpress plugin is even more sickening.
Is there any line you wouldn't cross?
Of course. I've decided against numerous stories that fans have suggested to me or even some of my own ideas. I can't think of any specifics though.
In January 2018 John asked me if I could keep a secret and if so he would get me an invite into a hidden Facebook group. I can indeed keep a secret so I kept my mouth shut but now I've been granted permission by John, Chris and the group members to reveal some of what was going on there.
You'll be able to read all about that when part 2 of this article comes out...