Being a part of the “fake news” revolution as an Irish 15-year-old

In May 2015, I set up a personal political blog. I honestly can’t remember why, perhaps I was just bored, looking for something to do and had a spare twenty quid to purchase hosting with. It was anonymous and virtually unread. The pieces were long-winded and inarticulate but I enjoyed writing them nonetheless as a self-challenging exercise, allowing me to critique my own political ideas once they were digitally published.

The blog covered issues I was deeply engaged with at the time: the harshness of the policies of austerity, the lack of ideological framework within Irish political parties and the flawed nature of the British electoral system, to name a few. While the view counts were low and engagements sparse, I cherished each meaningful discussion I had when I shared my posts to Twitter and somebody would call out my lack of knowledge.

Eventually, the blog moved away from esoteric analysis and towards coverage of current events. In line with my political views at the time, I wrote an article that was generally supportive of then US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Attempting to keep up the substantive nature of my previous articles, I titled the piece: “Bernie Sanders is Winning the Policy War”. In it, I went into detail about how Sanders’ policy ideals were more in-tune with those of the Democratic base than his rival’s, Hillary Clinton.

After sharing it to Reddit and Facebook, the piece went semi-viral. The response was astonishing. Within hours it had racked up thousands of views and hundreds of shares. In the comments, I wasn’t being treated like a 15-year-old searching for a political identity, but instead as an esteemed observer offering my valuable and noteworthy analysis. It was immediately clear to me that there was a significant number of people reading and enjoying the piece that were not looking to challenge me but instead wanted to uncritically praise my writing and share it with friends. They were ideologically motivated and moved in droves. Whenever the article began to die down in engagement, another 50 readers would comment and share it within minutes. Seeing it all unfold was thrilling to say the least.

I soon realised that the only way to receive such attention again was to write more about Sanders. Without hesitation, I produced a second article, this time about his campaign promise to offer tuition-free college based on a Wall Street speculation tax. Similar to the previous piece, the tuition article soared to the top of Reddit and was shared far and wide by Sanders supporters through their Facebook groups and Twitter pages. Due to a then relative lack of mainstream media coverage of Sanders’ campaign, I had become a major voice for the candidate’s supporters in the media. To them, I offered a positive yet objective representation of their candidate’s policy proposals and beliefs that was under-covered by journalists in mainstream outlets with their nasty degrees and qualifications and I was doing it in a way that appealed to their visceral emotions.

Unsurprisingly, the attention the site was garnering gave me a surreal sense of accomplishment and power. Thus began a cycle of dramatic growth, as I would write a positive article about Sanders or a Sanders-backed congressional candidate, see a surge in followers and online praise, feel accomplished, then write the next Sanders article. It was my own personal form of ‘if it bleeds it leads’.

The blog’s articles began to be featured in reputable outlets such as The Huffington Post and Ballotpedia. Readers thanked me each day for being the political site they had never had, and the pieces received attention from and retweets by people with real-world power and influence such as filmmaker Michael Moore and progressive icon Nina Turner, who many Sanders supporters were pushing as a potential running mate at the time.

One day I found myself with the Green Party’s presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein on the other end of a Skype call discussing the future of progressivism in the United States. She concluded the interview by telling me that young people with my enthusiasm were the future of American politics. In hindsight, I wonder if she knew that I was born and living in Ireland and had never stepped foot in the United States.

At its peak, after six months of rapid growth, 250,000 people read the site monthly. It was at this point that I started to make money from what amounted to a glorified blog – not a significant amount but enough to allow me to do other things in conjunction with the site. I started a podcast featuring interviews with authors, intellectuals, congressional candidates and more and purchased a camera so that I could do live video interviews with media outlets interested in the blog.

I slowly began to sense the artificiality of my pride surrounding the site’s success. I felt perplexed and guilty as to how we had gotten as far as we did.

Over time, I realised that going into the future, I couldn’t do it all alone. To keep up with audience demand for the latest Sanders pieces, and maintain the volume needed to keep my blog relevant, I needed help. I recruited an editor of a banking magazine, an American law student, an American academic living in the United Arab Emirates and an Irish college student. It appeared my plan to bring others on board to help cater for the demand had worked. Everything was going perfectly and growth was significant.

But it all felt very wrong.

I slowly began to sense the artificiality of my pride surrounding the site’s success. I felt perplexed and guilty as to how we had gotten as far as we did. The views and the clicks became a drug; watching your article soar up the rankings on Reddit and seeing the share-count tab rise was enthralling, without doubt. At some point, I think that I had decided that as much as I enjoyed discussing substantive issues and real ideas, it did not top the high associated with fulfilling the overwhelming demand for clickbait articles my audience desired.

I remember one night, thinking: “I’m just a young kid from Ireland and our other editors and contributors are nothing special either; why is this happening to us?”

The answer was simple. We had each sold a bit of our souls and it was not by accident. We had taken some very deliberate steps to viral success. In order to give people what they wanted, I wasn’t writing opinion pieces that matched my personal views but instead I was writing what I thought my zealous audience desired. I wasn’t popular because I was a talented writer, I was popular because I gave a highly mobilised, highly engaged online presence of progressivism exactly what they wanted, edited and censored to meet their acquired tastes.

I could just have easily created a right-wing equivalent of the site supporting Donald Trump and his counterparts. The digital tactics would remain the same, only the content would change. In fact, only days before the 2016 election, articles emerged detailing how Macedonian teenagers ran hundreds of pro-Trump “fake news” websites to appeal to the voracious demand for partisan news in the US. Those stories resulted in the popularisation of the phrase “fake news” across the world.

Good journalism succeeds in its capacity to influence others and portrays reality in such a way that the writer forces the reader to engage in deep, critical thought. My writing was the opposite. I, the “journalist”, was being influenced by the opinions and thoughts of my audience and what I felt they wanted to hear. I knew this in the midst of all the newfound success, influence and money. Lying to myself and my readers by committing myself to ideas and people that I didn’t believe in was becoming unbearable.

I decided as the Democratic primary was drawing to a close and it became clear that Clinton would be the nominee that The Political People Blog needed a revamp. It needed to become something much more substance-based and less Bernie Sanders-based. I utilised the contacts I had gathered and within a couple of days I had multiple additional professors of economics, history, and psychology on board as well as authors, radio hosts and students all willing to contribute and be a part of this new project along with the four writers previously involved.

I began raising the money required and had a brand new website built with a slick, classy design. Soon after, The Progressive Brief was launched. Sure, the new site wouldn’t retain all the 250,000 monthly readers of the previous blog now that every article wasn’t about Bernie Sanders or “Sanders Democrats” running for Congress, but I felt better thinking to myself that I could sleep well at night knowing I was contributing positively to the development of a constructive narrative that would pave a better path forward for America and the world.

We wrote our articles excitedly in nervous anticipation of the reaction to our new, objectively superior and factual standard of journalism. But something had changed: nobody cared. Nobody read, nobody shared, nobody commented. Once our articles were reacting to the recent economic statistics and discussing the intricacies of environmental policies, readership figures collapsed. They collapsed to the point where continuing the project had become a pointless expenditure of energy that accomplished nothing. The previous website did not have regular readers, it was entirely dependent on social media shares. Now, whenever I wrote anything referencing Hillary Clinton that was not overtly negative, commenters on the article would be angry and surprised that a “progressive” site like mine was not immediately demeaning her.

In a sense, I had come full circle. In the very beginning, I spent months writing about issues of substance and having virtually nobody listen. Then, in between, I resorted to writing the clickbait and false hope the people of the internet demanded and was rewarded for it. But, again, within a couple of months, I was back to where I had started – wanting to be substantive and true to myself but instead feeling abandoned by the online audience.

In hindsight, I had unknowingly become part of the “fake news” and clickbait media revolution, captured by my audience and an obsession with pleasing them for clicks and views. Although I never wrote factually false articles, my content spread rapidly for the same reason “fake news” spread. Regardless of how unscrupulous my writing may have been, it took me to places I never thought I would go and introduced me to people I never dreamed of meeting. Eventually, the powerful allure of clicks, views, attention and online praise was no substitute for a sense of self-satisfaction that is simply unattainable when you are willing to compromise who you are and what you believe in for the sake of making others clap.

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