‘If you’re an idiot on the internet, and you say stupid shit, you’re going to make a lot of money.”
This is Ernest. No, that’s not his real name. Ernest is a journalist from Zimbabwe and he wants to protect his professional reputation. He runs a small news outfit that offers incisive political analysis and the occasional investigation. I know his work; it’s generally respected and reliable.
Ernest writes real news, but he also creates fake news. He runs three other websites that publish content that is highly, often inaccurately, sensationalised; or stories that are completely made up. The largest, the SA Morning Post, boasts more than 770 000 unique visitors a month — the Mail & Guardian has seen the analytics — putting it on a par with some established news outlets. This week’s top headline: “3 men arrested for selling Zuma-branded underwear to off-duty policeman”.
Like a would-be Robin Hood for the digital age, Ernest uses the fake news to pay for the real news.
“Journalism is a passion for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I can’t self-fund my talent,” he says.
Advertising can’t fund his journalism either. His real news site attracts just a fraction of the audience of his fake news sites and, therefore, a fraction of the income. “There aren’t that many people interested in politics. I can earn a few hundred dollars a month from my news site, it performs so badly. But stuff about gay baboons, stuff about pastors saying they went to heaven, that goes viral,” he says.
On average, Ernest earns about $5 000 (roughly R66 000) a month from his fake news sites, but individual stories that go viral can bring in a lot more. One story, about a pastor demanding and then receiving oral sex from his congregation, earned more than $15 000 (about R200 000).
The money comes mostly from Google AdSense, which pays to put ads on his pages, and Content.Ad, a “native-sponsored content platform” that displays click bait-type headlines at the bottom of his stories. Each click-through is worth a few cents to Ernest.
The world of fake news is surprisingly varied and technical. Ernest identifies three broad categories.
First, and most insidious, is the propaganda — fake stories designed to drive a particular political or economic agenda. “For reasons of personal principle, I don’t do propaganda,” said Ernest, even though it can be lucrative, as Bell Pottinger executives can confirm.
Second is the sensational. These are not necessarily outright untruths, but may be true stories that are dressed up with a misleading headline.
This Ernest describes as the “Daily Sun model” of fake news, referring to the South African tabloid famous for front pages that scream “Tokolosh made me a sex slave” and “Tortoise speaks Zulu”.
Third, there is the outright fake news. On his sites, Ernest is careful to tag completely made-up stories as “satire”, although the label is barely noticeable. And some of it is genuinely satirical, like the story about South African Police Minister Fikile Mbalula paying private security guards to protect police stations at night.
Other stories, he says, are “hogwash”. Take this one, from April this year: “Gay baboon terrorises villagers, rapes 5 men”.
The story details the exploits of a large male baboon in North West “that likes to grope and bonk human males”. There is even an eyewitness account. “One victim, George Chiune, said he was coming from the local shebeen when the baboon attacked him and pinned him down. ‘I thought it wanted to kill me but realised it was after my bum,’ George said.”
There is no such baboon, of course, but that didn’t stop more than 120 000 people from clicking to read what is a work of pure fiction.
Although gay baboons are an exception to this rule, Ernest says it is usually important that the made-up stories could be real; that there is a kernel of something believable in there somewhere that makes the outlandish claims plausible.
“If I were to say that Thabo Mbeki still believes that beetroot cures HIV, people would believe it because of the history. There has to be an element of truth.”
It is also important, according to Ernest, to include enough genuine news stories on his fake sites to make the fake stories look more credible. Even then, however, the lifespan of a fake news site is short: between three and five months.
Eventually, Google’s algorithm starts recognising that the visitors to the site are of “very low quality”, meaning that they are unlikely to click through on adverts or to make online purchases. That’s when Google starts paying substantially less per click.
Ernest says his controversial business model was inspired by South African company Media24, owned by Naspers, which houses respectable titles such as City Press and News24 in the same stable as the Daily Sun. The Daily Sun, however, is the major money-spinner.
Like Ernest, Media24 stretches the bounds of fact-based journalism in one publication to help pay for the credible reporting in others. “It’s the same principle on a much grander scale.”
Further blurring the lines between fake news and real, Ernest’s fake stories are regularly picked up by other news outlets as fact, and this makes him feel guilty. He also feels guilty when his stories cause hurt or offence.
“I saw an article recently about how [rapper] Cassper Nyovest was angry about the claims that [musician] Penny Penny was his father and I felt really bad. I helped spread that story,” said Ernest.
Ernest says that in an ideal world, he would stop making fake news and concentrate only on his political reporting. But this is far from an ideal world, especially for journalists, and good journalism comes with financial and physical risks.
“My wife wants me to forget about real journalism. She says: ‘Why are we taking on dictators? Why are we risking our lives? You’ve got a sense of humour. Just keep writing your fake stories and make us some money.’ ”
But Ernest says that’s not an option. For him, journalism is a vocation and the fake news is simply a means to that end. And while he acknowledges the ethical contradictions inherent in what he is doing, he believes that it’s a trade-off worth making.
“The reality is, only a handful of people really make change. And the people that make the change are not the people reading the fake news. It is two completely different audiences.”
Besides, he adds, it’s not like fake news is going anywhere. Someone’s going to profit from the lies, no matter what. It may as well be someone intending to use that money to further the truth. Fake news in the service of real news, and not the other way round.