John Egan knows a thing or two about fake news.
The Vancouver man is the founder of the Burrard Street Journal, a website that publishes satirical Onion-style stories that aim to use humour to poke fun at the news of the day. Over the last few months, Egan has battled fake news sites that have taken his absurdly-false news stories and tried to pawn them off as fact.
“I’ve spent the last six months pulling out my hair trying to shut down these websites,” Egan said. “Firstly, they were stealing traffic and revenue from me and also they were misrepresenting everything I’d written as if it was fact.
“It’s been driving me crazy.”
Much has been made about the recent explosion of fake news websites that churn out fabricated stories and spread them on social media. Some have gone as far as to suggest the spread of fake news may have helped put Donald Trump in the White House. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken out against the rise of fake news. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had been rather sanguine about the controversy, but recently said the company is mapping out a strategy to combat fake news.
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Many of the Burrard Street Journal’s early stories focused on local news. Early headlines include Vancouver Steam Clock Voted World’s Worst Tourist Attraction For Record 10th Year and Lucky Renter Finds Bargain Downtown Vancouver Bathtub For Only $600 Monthly.
Egan later broadened his scope to include world events, namely U.S. politics and the rise of Trump.
“Trump is easy to write for because he’s capable of saying anything,” Egan said.
He saw a spike in traffic after publishing an article — Obama Declares His Family Will Move To Canada If Trump Is Elected —that stated the 44th U.S. president would move north of the border if Trump were to take the White House, although he wouldn’t settle in the Lower Mainland because he couldn’t “afford to buy a place in Vancouver on a former U.S. president’s salary.”
Although the article was clearly satire, it started to take on a different life.
“For whatever reason, a ton of these blogs, these conservative blogs that I now realize were being set up in Europe, they just copied my article,” Egan said. “Most of them copied it word for word on their own website and some people used it as if it was an actual news article and quoted it.”
The fake articles about Obama moving to Canada swirled on social media and eventually caught the attention of the Daily Mail and Fox News host and talk radio personality Sean Hannity.
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Not happy with having his work stolen and taken out of context, Egan decided to fight back, sending copyright infringement notices to the companies that hosted the sites and contacting webmasters by social media. He said he has sent copyright infringement notices to more than 100 websites, but has had little success, adding that many of the sites “purposely pick hosting companies that won’t listen to these notices.”
He has had a measure of vindication, however.
A recent New York Times story about a fake news content factory in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi quoted a webmaster who said one of his sites was briefly shut down following one of the Egan’s take-down notices. The site eventually went back online but Egan said he was glad that some of his work paid off.
“Most of the time I’m firing off emails into the dark and I never hear from them,” he said. “It was nice to hear that I was able to stop someone from doing it, at least for a little while anyway.”
Like a lot of people, Egan is concerned about the rise of fake news. He casually mentions that he gets “the occasional death threat” from people who think he is trying to deceive people even though his site clearly states that “articles are satirical and entirely fabricated.”
He does wonder how some people could possibly believe stories that are so clearly false. He points to another popular story he wrote, President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse To Leave Office If Trump Is Elected, that stated Obama “suggested he will barricade himself and his family inside the White House if it means stopping the Trump family from taking up residency there” and Vice-President Joe Biden “has already expressed his willingness to die multiple times in order to keep them out of here.”
“I really have to question how people would read that and think it is fact,” Egan said.
As for the future of the Burrard Street Journal, Egan said he’s decided to turn his satirical eye to current events north of the 49th parallel.
“I’m kind of burned out from the Trump stuff.”