The Propagandist

6/24/2019 - Monocle Journal

In November of 2016, just three days before the US presidential election, an article was published on the Denver Guardian website that read, “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide.” The story, insinuating that Hillary Clinton was somehow involved in the cover-up, went viral. At one point, the link was being shared up to 100 times a minute on Facebook, reaching over 15 million users. The problem is, despite this story being completely fabricated and the Denver Guardian not being a real news source, the story still influenced the thinking of millions of people and perhaps even had a small part to play in the outcome of the election.

So widely spread and believed was this fictitious article that a legitimate news outlet with a similar name, The Denver Post, was forced to come out with its own article stating that the Hillary Clinton story was entirely false and that they had no connection to the piece. Among one of the many red flags associated with the Denver Guardian, which has subsequently been shut down, was the fact that the location of the newsroom was a tree in the middle of an empty parking lot next to a vacated building in Denver, Colorado. The man behind the story, and thousands of other articles like it, was Jestin Coler – the self-proclaimed “King of Fake News”.

Since being tracked down for an interview by National Public Radio (NPR) for their Planet Money podcast at the end of 2016, Jestin Coler has become something of a celebrity. And while at first he attempted to avoid the notoriety, Coler has subsequently come clean about his fake news enterprise. Alongside the Denver Guardian, the “King of Fake News” ran at least a dozen other sites, with names like the National Report, all of which were grouped under an umbrella company, shamelessly named DisInfoMedia Inc. Since being exposed by NPR, Coler claims he has given up the phony news business, focusing instead on purely ironic commentary. But whether he has put that life behind him or not, the fake stories from his fake media company made him very real money.

At the height of the fake news gold rush, Coler says any one of his articles could reach over six million views in a day, equating to tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue generated through Google’s AdSense network. But the key to success, as is explained on his self-named website, is Facebook. What Coler and many aspiring fake news moguls had learned was that the social media platform was the perfect tool to spread super-partisan fake news stories. And while most viral content produced by DisInfoMedia was political, Coler suggests he had no interest in shaping the political landscape – for him, it was always about the money.

While the “King of Fake News”, with a very small team that never comprised more than ten contributors, may not have been seeking to sway a nation, his exploits certainly highlight the opportunities that are made possible by using social media platforms to disseminate disinformation. But the potential power of these platforms has continued to be largely underestimated. When The Economist in March of 2018 reported on Facebook’s massive data breach linked to data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, and the influence of this on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election, the magazine titled the piece “Epic fail”. And in trying to channel a humorous millennial spirit for its cover story, it may have grossly misrepresented the seriousness of the issue.

As the propaganda tool of choice, Facebook was used by Cambridge Analytica to enact fear-mongering and smear campaigns for their various clients, including pro-Brexit contingents and the Trump presidential campaign. Going forward, considering the ever-expanding nature of internet-based social networks, this type of psychological cyber-warfare may very well become commonplace in the arena of politics. Not unlike the sensory attacks experienced at Adolf Hitler’s mass rallies, the hypnosis of the masses has gone online, propagating many of the same feelings of nostalgia and nationalistic purism via phrases like “Make America Great Again”, playing on people’s deepest fears and reinforcing personal biases through sensationalist stories to validate their beliefs.

It is not surprising then that in this time of strange politics, George Orwell’s iconic 1984 jumped to number one bestseller on Amazon in 2017, with the book’s publisher announcing that it had experienced a massive spike in sales, prompting the need to print an extra 75  000 copies to keep up with demand. The event setting this revival in motion could directly be attributed to the comments made by the Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, defending remarks from the Trump office that stated that the newly-elected president’s inauguration ceremony was the best attended of all time. This was revealed to be a blatant untruth, but Conway maintained that the administration simply gave “alternative facts”.

The irony of such phrasing is almost comical in its relation to Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, depicting a futuristic totalitarian state that uses the concepts of “doublethink” and “newspeak” to deceive the public into believing the government’s message. Combine this with the fact that the book also had an earlier spike in sales in 2013, after Edward Snowden revealed the distressing truth that the NSA had been spying on any and all citizens in the name of national security, and it seems the cyber realm is becoming alarmingly Orwellian in nature, with the forces of mass information-harvesting and hyper-personalised propaganda campaigns colliding in something of a perfect storm.

Importantly then, in an era defined by its dependence and connectedness to the internet, those who wish to rise above politically divisive “newspeak” and the purposefully ambiguous nature of “alternative facts” must go into this new world with their eyes wide open. In a time where one can be drowned daily by a flood of digital information, it has become more important than ever for educated and well-informed individuals to bring forth their skills of critical thinking, in demystifying the dark cloud of misinformation and to return a semblance of clarity for the sake of those who come after them. For as the “King of Fake News” himself admits, it is only when a story can trigger an irrational emotional response from a reader, allowing it to effectively bypass all common-sense filters in their information absorption process and reinforce their previously held beliefs, that a lie can be believed.


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