Fewer than 2000 readers are on his website when Paris Wade, 26, awakens from a nap, reaches for his laptop and thinks he needs to, as he puts it, "feed" his audience. "Man, no one is covering this TPP thing," he says after seeing an article suggesting that President Obama wants to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership before he leaves office. Wade, a modern-day digital opportunist, sees an opportunity. He begins typing a story.
"CAN'T TRUST OBAMA," he writes as the headline, then pauses. His audience hates Obama and loves President-elect Donald Trump, and he wants to capture that disgust and cast it as a drama between good and evil. He resumes typing: "Look At Sick Thing He Just Did To STAB Trump In The Back. . . ."
Ten minutes and nearly 200 words later, he is done with a story that is all opinion, innuendo and rumor. He types at the bottom, "Comment 'DOWN WITH THE GLOBALISTS!' below if you love this country," publishes the story to his website, LibertyWritersNews.com, and then pulls up the Facebook page he uses to promote the site, which in six months has collected 805,000 followers and brought in tens of millions of page views. "WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!" he writes, posting the article. "#SHARE this 1 million times, patriots!" Then he looks at a nearby monitor that shows the site's analytics, and watches as the readers pour in.
"Down with the globalists," writes a woman in Cape Girardeau, Mo., one of 3192 people now on the website, 1244 of whom are reading the story he just posted.
"Down with the globalists!" writes a man in Las Vegas.
Now 1855 are reading the story.
"DOWN WITH THE GLOBALISTS !!!" writes a woman in Helena, Mont.
At a time of continuing discussion over the role that hyperpartisan websites, fake news and social media play in the divided America of 2016, LibertyWritersNews illustrates how websites can use Facebook to tap into a surging ideology, quickly go from nothing to influencing millions of people and make big profits in the process. Six months ago, Wade and his business partner, Ben Goldman, were unemployed restaurant workers. Now they're at the helm of a website that gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone and say they are making so much money that they feel uncomfortable talking about it because they don't want people to start asking for loans.
Instead, Wade hums a hip-hop song and starts a new post as readers keep reading, sharing and sending in personal messages. One comes from a woman who frequently contacts his page. "YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH," is one of the things she has written, and Wade doesn't need to look at her Facebook profile to have a clear sense of who she is. White. Working class. Midwestern. "And the economy screwed her."
He writes another headline, "THE TRUTH IS OUT! The Media Doesn't Want You To See What Hillary Did After Losing... ."
"Nothing in this article is anti-media, but I've used this headline a thousand times," he says. "Violence and chaos and aggressive wording is what people are attracted to."
"Our audience does not trust the mainstream media," Goldman, 26, says a little later as Wade keeps typing. "It's definitely easier to hook them with that."
"There's not a ton of thought put into it," Wade says. "Other than it frames the story so it gets a click."
"True," Goldman says.
"We're the new yellow journalists," Wade will say after a day and night when the number of people following LibertyWritersNews on Facebook will swell by more than 20,000. "We're the people on the side of the street yelling that the world is about to end."
But for now, it's only 7pm, readers on both coasts are still awake, and there are several more stories that need posting.
An itinerant lifestyle
Everything about the lives of Wade and Goldman has the flimsy feel of something that can be taken apart in a matter of hours, boxed up and carted away, from the fake bylines they use - Wade is Paris Swade; Goldman is Danny Gold - right down to the rental they found on Airbnb. It is stripped of accoutrements, except for some clothes strewn across the bedroom floors, a pair of laptops and a PlayStation 4. They say they plan on spending two more months here and don't know where they'll be after that. Every evening, they write stories on the couch, watch them go viral, schedule more for morning, head off to bed, and now, on another morning, comes Goldman, creaking down the steps.
"My article got banned," Goldman says, explaining Facebook had removed a trending piece headlined: "Right After LOSING The Election, Hillary Clinton Just Humiliated Herself In Worst Way Ever!!"
"F--- Facebook," Wade says, knowing its algorithms sometimes assume that rapidly shared articles are spam and temporarily blocks them if posted by an alternative outlet. "They had a spam filter."
Wade calls their server technician in Texas. "I don't know what we have to do to get through these spam filters," Wade says into the phone. "But we've probably lost thousands of dollars because of them."
Goldman sits on the couch, logs onto an advertiser's website and looks up how much money they've nonetheless made.
"Super great election sales," he says. "All of the candidates put their super PAC money into it, so there were some days where we were getting $13, $14 per 1,000 views." Between June and August, they say, when they had fewer than 150,000 Facebook followers, they made between $10,000 and $40,000 every month running advertisements that, among other things, promised acne solutions, Viagra alternatives, ways to remove lip lines, cracked feet, "deep fat," and "the 13 sexiest and most naked celebrity selfies."
Then the political drama deepened, and their audience expanded fivefold, and now Goldman sometimes thinks that what he made in the last six months would have taken him 20 years waiting tables at his old job.
Wade and Goldman now have a lawyer and an accountant, employ other writers and are expanding so quickly that they're surprised to think the majority of their adult lives were spent scraping by.
They graduated from the University of Tennessee - Wade in 2012 with an advertising degree and Goldman in 2013 with a business degree - but could only find unpaid internships and ended up working at a Mexican restaurant. On weekends, they would sell water bottles at college football games, and Goldman scalped tickets. Neither thought much about politics. Raised in liberal homes, they both voted for Obama twice, but as they struggled to find better jobs, they began to doubt those votes, their college education and the progressive values with which they were raised.
They moved to California, first Wade, then Goldman, and started an advertising business that quickly failed. But it did attract one client who ran numerous alt-right Facebook pages. He needed more writers, and in 2015 Wade and Goldman started doing stories and getting paid based on how many clicks they got.
The first story Wade did aggregated a South Korean news report that claimed an anonymous source had said that a North Korean scientist had defected with data from human experiments. Wade knew he needed a picture to sell the story to readers. He searched online for an image of a human experiment that, as he describes it, would make people think, "What is that? I got to click." He found what he recalls was a "totally misleading" photograph of a fleshy mass and made it the featured image. He wrote the headline, "[PROOF] N. Korea Experiments on Humans," published the story and made $120 off 10 minutes of work. It was, he says, a revelation: "You have to trick people into reading the news."
Now settled into the career that has grown from that revelation, Wade turns the television to Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist with nearly 1.4 million followers on Facebook, who is the opportunist they would most like to become. Wade clicks on the LibertyWritersNews site, which says at the bottom, "You Can Count On Liberty Writers News," begins typing a new story, and looks up to watch Jones yell into the camera. But it isn't Jones's monologue that Wade notices. It's his setup. "We want to start filming in a studio like that," Wade says. "That stuff works on Facebook."
What works on Facebook and what doesn't work occupies many of the conversations between Wade and Goldman. Explicitly telling people to prove that they support Trump by sharing their stories works, so they do that. Neither of them is particularly religious, but their readers are, so in their writing they ask God to bless the president-elect, and that works, too. So does exaggeration: "OBAMA BIRTH SECRETS REVEALED! The Letters From His Dad Reveal Something Sinister... ."
And stoking fear: "Terrorists Have Infiltrated the US Government! Look Who They Want to ASSASSINATE!!" And inflaming racial and gender tension: "BREAKING: Michelle Obama holds Feminist Rally At HER SLAVE HOUSE!" And conspiracy theories: "BREAKING: Top Official Set to Testify Against Hillary Clinton Found DEAD!"
Wade now finishes a new post calling House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R.-Wis.) a traitor because "our audience hates Paul Ryan." He shares a story he wrote on their Facebook page claiming that former president Bill Clinton will soon go to jail, not because Clinton will soon go to jail, but because his audience wants to hear that Clinton is a criminal.
"All successful journalism has shock value," Goldman says as he and Wade sit at their computers later that day.
"There was once a lot more competition among newspapers," Wade says. "It was like a race to see who could write the craziest s---."
"And whoever wrote the craziest s--- won," Goldman says.
"There used to be a joke that every single day a new world war started," Wade says. "Because that's what sold papers."
Now Wade writes on their Facebook page that "THOUSANDS" of protesters are marching "with MEXICAN FLAGS," and meanwhile Goldman types his own article.
"What is it?" Wade asks.
"Megyn Kelly," Goldman says. "Going to do great."
"Yeah," Wade says. "People love Megyn Kelly."
Writing for audience
There are times when Wade wonders what it would be like to write an article he truly believes in. "In a perfect world," he says, it would have nuance and balance and long paragraphs and take longer than 10 minutes to compose. It would make people think. But he never writes it, he says, because no one would click on it, so what would be the point?
Instead, as 4,000 people are on the website one night, Wade and Goldman keep writing and feeding, writing and feeding.
Wade writes about a rumor he has seen on Fox News's website, which says "the new batch of anti-Trump protesters has been bankrolled by individuals like billionaire liberal activist George Soros and groups like Moveon.org."
"Dude," Wade says. "The left has been, like, manufacturing the protest."
Goldman, meanwhile, is typing a story - "It was a literal Hell Storm at DNC headquarters today" - and laughing at what he has written. "God, I just know everything about this statement is so wrong," he says, and adds, still laughing, "What is a hell storm?"
He finishes it as Wade is putting an old headline on his story about Soros, one that has nothing to do with what he has written but once brought in a lot of page views. He shares it on their Facebook page and watches as readers stream into the website - first a few hundred, then nearly 1000.
"Boom, dude, look at that," Wade says. "That one is doing super well."
Goldman scans through what Wade had written. "When are we going to go after this traitor!" it says. "It is time to take this traitor out! He should be pursued to the depths of hell and beyond." He looks up and smiles nervously.
"Maybe there's a less violent way to say that."
"I'm going to change that one, actually," Wade says, suddenly looking panicked as he grabs his laptop and moves to replace "take this traitor out" to "take this traitor down."
"Down is so much better sounding than out," Goldman says.
But the comments are already coming in fast. "Arrest and hang him for war crimes," one woman writes of Soros. "This man should go straight to F@#KING HELL," another woman posts. "I gladly volunteer to take this Traitor to America out," another says. "Jail is way too good for him."
Goldman and Wade often tell each other they aren't creating anything that's not already there, that they're simply fanning it, that readers know not to take their hyperbole and embellishments seriously. And even if the comments suggest otherwise, they try not to pay them too much attention. People will say anything on Facebook, they remind themselves. They tell one another they're only minor participants in a broader "meme war" between outlets such as The Other 98% on the left and Nation In Distress on the right, but then they see the protests in the streets, the divisions in America, and wonder if their work is making things worse. What if one of their readers actually does harm Soros? Would they be complicit? Is their website dangerous? Or is it savvy entrepreneurship? Their opportunity?
And if it is opportunity, how far can they go with it?
One afternoon, Goldman has an idea.
"It would be a perfect time to open up a small liberal newspaper right now," he says as he types a post with, "The Democratic party is finished! Just wait til you see what happened today... ."
"It would," Wade says. "There is so much animus on the left right now."
"You could get more traffic than we do now," Goldman says.
"It wouldn't be very hard to argue the other side for me," Wade says, as he types a post that says, "LIKE + SHARE IF YOU LOVE TRUMP! It's time to heal the nation. All the lies that we have been fed about him were wrong. He is not a Nazi, he is not a Xenophobe, he is not Deplorable, he is not racist and he is about to make America great again!"
Goldman keeps typing. So does Wade. There are 2268 readers on their website, and it's time to get more.