Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.
The only light in the house came from the glow of three computer monitors, and Christopher Blair, 46, sat down at a keyboard and started to type. His wife had left for work and his children were on their way to school, but waiting online was his other community, an unreality where nothing was exactly as it seemed. He logged onto his website and began to invent his first news story of the day.
"BREAKING," he wrote, pecking out each letter with his index fingers as he considered the possibilities. Maybe he would announce that Hillary Clinton had died during a secret overseas mission to smuggle more refugees into America. Maybe he would award President Donald Trump the Nobel Peace Prize for his courage in denying climate change.
Blair had launched his website on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign as a practical joke among friends — a political satire site started by Blair and a few other liberal bloggers who wanted to make fun of what they considered to be extremist ideas spreading throughout the far right. In the past two years on his page, America's Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former President Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former President Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9.
"Nothing on this page is real," read one of the 14 disclaimers on Blair's site, and yet in the America of 2018 his stories had become real, amassing an audience of as many as six million visitors each month who thought his posts were factual. What Blair had first conceived of as an elaborate joke was beginning to reveal something darker.
Blair's own reality was out beyond the shuttered curtains of his office: a three-bedroom home in the forest outside North Waterboro, Maine, where the paved road turned to gravel; not his house but a rental; not on the lake but near it. Over the past decade his family had moved around the country a half-dozen times as he looked for steady work, bouncing between construction and restaurant jobs while sometimes living on food stamps. During the economic crash of 2008, his wife had taken a job at Wendy's to help pay down their credit-card debt, and Blair, a lifelong Democrat, had begun venting his political frustration online, arguing with strangers in an internet forum called Brawl Hall. He had created more than a dozen online profiles over the last years, sometimes disguising himself in accompanying photographs as a Southern blond woman or as a bandana-wearing conservative named Flagg Eagleton, baiting people into making racist or sexist comments and then publicly eviscerating them for it.
Now he hunched over a desk wedged between an overturned treadmill and two turtle tanks, scanning through conservative forums on Facebook for something that might inspire his next post. He was 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, and he typed several thousand words each day in all capital letters. He noticed a photo online of Trump standing at attention for the national anthem during a White House ceremony. Behind the president were several dozen dignitaries, including a white woman standing next to a black woman, and Blair copied the picture, circled the two women in red, and wrote the first thing that came into his mind.
"President Trump extended an olive branch and invited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton," Blair wrote. "They thanked him by giving him 'the finger' during the national anthem. Lock them up for treason!"
Blair finished typing and looked again at the picture. The white woman was not in fact Chelsea Clinton but former White House strategist Hope Hicks. The black woman was not Michelle Obama but former Trump aide Omarosa Newman. Neither Obama nor Clinton had been invited to the ceremony. Nobody had flipped off the president. The entire premise was utterly ridiculous, which was exactly Blair's point.
"We live in an Idiocracy," read a small note on Blair's desk, and he was taking full advantage. In a good month, the advertising revenue from his website earned him as much as $15,000, and it had also won him a loyal army of online fans. Hundreds of liberals now visited America's Last Line of Defense to humiliate conservatives who shared Blair's fake stories as fact.
"How could any thinking person believe this nonsense?" he said. He hit "publish" and watched as his lie began to spread.
It was barely dawn in Pahrump, Nevada, when Shirley Chapian, 76, logged onto Facebook for her morning computer game of Criminal Case. She believed in starting each day with a problem-solving challenge, a quick mental exercise to keep her brain sharp more than a decade into retirement. She spent an hour as a 1930s detective, interrogating witnesses and trying to parse their lies from the truth until finally she solved case No. 48 and clicked over to her Facebook news feed.
"Click LIKE if you believe we must stop Sharia Law from coming to America before it's too late," read the first item, and she clicked "like." "Share to help END the ongoing migrant invasion!" read another, and she clicked "share."
The house was empty and quiet except for the clicking of her computer mouse. She lived alone, and on many days her only personal interaction occurred here, on Facebook. Mixed into her morning news feed were photos and updates from some of her 300 friends, but most items came directly from political groups Chapian had chosen to follow: Free Speech Patriots, Taking Back America, Ban Islam, Trump 2020, and Rebel Life.
Outside Chapian's window was a dead-end road of identical beige-and-brown rock gardens surrounding double-wide trailers that looked similar to her own, many of them occupied by neighbors whom she'd never met. She'd spent almost a decade in Pahrump without really knowing why. She had no family in Nevada. She loved going to movies, and the town of 30,000 didn't have a theater. It seemed to her like a place in the business of luring people — into the air-conditioned casinos downtown, into the legal brothels on the edge of the desert, into the new developments of cheap housing available for no money down — and in some ways she'd become stuck, too.
Chapian had lived much of her life in cities throughout Europe and across the United States — places such as San Francisco, New York, and Miami. She'd gone to college for a few years and become an insurance adjuster, working as one of the few women in the field in the 1980s and '90s and joining the National Organization for Women to advocate for an equal wage before eventually moving to Rhode Island to work for a hospice and care for her aging parents.
After her mother died, Chapian decided to retire and move to Las Vegas to live with a friend, and when Las Vegas became too expensive a real estate agent told her about Pahrump. She bought a three-bedroom trailer for less than $100,000 and painted it purple. A few years after arriving, she bought a new computer monitor and signed up for Facebook in 2009, choosing as her profile image a photo of her cat. "Looking to connect with friends and other like-minded people," she wrote then.
For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. One far-right Facebook group eventually led her to the next with targeted advertising, and soon Chapian was following more than 2,500 conservative pages, an ideological echo chamber that often trafficked in skepticism. Climate change was a hoax. The mainstream media was censored or scripted. Political Washington was under control of a "deep state."
It had been months since she'd gone to a movie. It had been almost a year since she'd made the hour-long trip to Las Vegas. Her number of likes and shares on Facebook increased each year until she was sometimes awakening to check her news feed in the middle of the night, liking and commenting on dozens of posts each day.
Now another post arrived in her news feed, from a page called America's Last Line of Defense, which Chapian had been following for more than a year. It showed a picture of Trump standing at a White House ceremony. Circled in the background were two women, one black and one white.
"President Trump extended an olive branch and invited Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton," the post read. "They thanked him by giving him 'the finger' during the national anthem."
Chapian looked at the photo and nothing about it surprised her. Of course Trump had invited Clinton and Obama to the White House in a generous act of patriotism. Of course the Democrats — or "Demonrats," as Chapian sometimes called them — had acted badly and disrespected America.
"Well, they never did have any class," she wrote.
By the standards of America's Last Line of Defense, the item about Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton was only a moderate success. It included no advertisements, so it wouldn't earn Blair any money. It wasn't even the most popular of the 11 items he'd published that day. But, just an hour earlier, Blair had come up with an idea at his computer in Maine, and now hundreds or maybe thousands of people across the country believed Obama and Clinton had flipped off the president.
"Gross. Those women have no respect for themselves," wrote a woman in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. "They deserve to be publicly shunned," said a man in Gainesville, Florida. "Not surprising behavior from such ill bred trash." "Jail them now!!!"
Blair had fooled them. Now came his favorite part, the gotcha.
"OK, taters. Here's your reality check," he wrote on America's Last Line of Defense, placing his comment prominently alongside the original post. "That is Omarosa and Hope Hicks, not Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton. They wouldn't be caught dead posing for this pseudo-patriotic nationalistic garbage. ... Congratulations, stupid."
Blair didn't have time to confront each of the several hundred thousand conservatives who followed his Facebook page, so he'd built a community of more than 100 liberals to police the page with him. Together they patrolled the comments, venting their own political anger, shaming conservatives who had been fooled, taunting them, baiting them into making racist comments that could then be reported to Facebook. Blair said he and his followers had gotten hundreds of people banned from Facebook and several others fired or demoted in their jobs for offensive behavior online.
What Blair wasn't sure he had ever done was change a single person's mind. The people he fooled often came back to the page, and he continued to feed them the kind of viral content that boosted his readership and his bank account: invented stories about Colin Kaepernick, kneeling NFL players, imams, Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrants, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Michelle and Malia Obama.
"Well, they never did have any class," commented Shirley Chapian, from Pahrump, Nevada, and Blair watched his liberal mob respond.
"That's kind of an ironic comment coming from pure trailer trash, don't you think?" "You're a gullible moron who just fell for a fake story on a Liberal satire page." "Welcome to the internet. Critical thinking required."
Chapian saw the comments after her post and wondered as she often did when she was attacked: Who were these people? And what were they talking about? Of course Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton had flipped off the president. It was true to what she knew of their character. That was what mattered.
A Muslim woman with her burqa on fire: like. A policeman using a baton to beat a masked antifa protester: like. Hillary Clinton looking gaunt and pale: like. A military helicopter armed with machine guns and headed toward the caravan of immigrants: like.
Instead of responding directly to strangers on America's Last Line of Defense, Chapian wrote on her own Facebook page. "Nasty liberals," she said, and then she went back to her news feed, each day blending into the next.