The headlines are tantalizing: “Obama is Losing It.” “Obama Battling Severe Depression.” “Serious White House Scandal.” These articles, the work of a blogger who calls himself Ulsterman, detail the correspondence between himself and an unnamed White House Insider. It’s difficult to tell how many people his columns have reached, but they are routinely shared by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. Comments accumulate rapidly and reactions are intense. “There is no doubt in my mind that Obama is a Muslim, communist plant with a Hitler like style of socialism and megalomania,” one commenter said. “Everything that I have been trying to tell others about [Obama] and his commies has finally become truth in writing,” said another.
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Ulsterman’s White House insider dishes dirt on Barack and Michelle – everything from marital problems to emotional meltdowns in front of foreign ambassadors to fighting off political opponents threatening to unleash a scandal of Watergate proportions. “I don’t mind using you to throw up some balloons, but I don’t want you getting hurt for it – and you’re stepping on some very large feet now with this stuff,” the insider says. “I don’t know if you fully appreciate that, or the dangers that come with it.”
There’s only one problem: the articles are entirely fabricated. From beginning to end, the dialogue reads like an elementary school version of a John Grisham novel and contains no concrete predictions other than what is being surmised elsewhere in the media (examples include Rahm Emanuel’s departure from the White House and Hillary Clinton’s name being mentioned as a possible replacement for Biden). The fact that thousands of people believe this tripe is not, in itself, newsworthy. After all, these are the same people who reject the extensive proof that Obama is an American citizen. No, the story here is not those who believe the lies, but rather the source perpetuating them – and what’s even more interesting is their motive.
The website publishing Ulsterman’s articles is the ironically named Newsflavor –Newsflavor is “journalism powered by journalists themselves,” according to their website. In other words, they’re not discerning when it comes to who writes for them. A logo in the bottom-right hand corner of the site states: powered by Triond. Similarly, looking at Ulsterman’s profile takes you to his Triond page. Realizing that anybody could write for Newsflavor, I came up with a plan: write an article discrediting Ulsterman and publish it on the site.
I am far from the first person to observe that the articles were suspect. One website, abovetopsecret.com, published an article questioning the reliability of the source. “He has provided zero evidence that any of this is true,” they wrote. Even Republican bloggers dismissed the stories. “Remember, anyone can write anything on the internet,” a conservative blogger wrote. Still, thousands of people choose to believe Ulsterman. In my mind, the only way people would accept the truth is if Newsflavor itself published an article debunking the insider. I was more than happy to facilitate the process of making that a reality.
My story was called “Ulsterman’s White House Insider Exposed.” It was concise, plainly written, and completely made up. I wrote that Ulsterman’s insider really did exist in flesh and blood, but that Ulsterman had skewed his words and created quotes out of thin air. It went on to claim that this source had contacted media sources and made them aware of the hoax, insisting that the events Ulsterman described never took place. “I felt bad for the kid,” I wrote, “but I told him that he had to stop publishing this nonsense.”
At first, Triond accepted the article and published it – in the entertainment section, oddly enough. Still, I was content and immediately put a link to my article in the comments section on Ulsterman’s most recent piece. However, a few minutes later, the comment had disappeared, along with the article itself. Somebody had deleted them. I visited Triond’s forum to ask for input from users regarding why my content was disappearing. “Bilderberg,” a contributor quipped, implying that an international secret society was protecting Ulsterman. Another user replied more harshly: “What did you expect – Triond thrives on bullshit article writers. You think they’re going to allow one of their favourite money earners to take a hit?”
The forum details what Triond writers think about Ulsterman: “typical idiot writing about runescape crap.” “Hey it gets views, that’s all I care about.” Another user says “He’s hit on a winning formula… I’ve seen people (probably him) posting links to these Obama crap articles on a couple of the forums I frequent, and people just eat it up. You can tell them it’s a bullshit story from an even more bullshit site and they call you a shill. It’s hopeless.”
Spending a few hours on Triond’s forums and exploring its network of websites, I begin to fully understand the mentality behind bloggers like Ulsterman. The idea is rooted in advertising revenue — when people click on their advertisements and make purchases, Triond gets part of the profits. A portion of these profits also go to the writer whose content is the medium through which the consumer was relayed to the advertiser’s product. The percentage is miniscule. The average writer at Triond makes a few cents or maybe a dollar per month. Many make less than that, and a very select few make more. One such writer calls himself Mnofdichotomy. His approach to Triond can be summed up in his article, “The Dark Side of Triond.”
“Triond is not a writing site,” he says. “Triond is a publishing site.” Translation: nobody cares how well you write. To succeed, you have to have to understand the rules of the game. “I will write about nearly anything. I will stretch the truth, and I will lie. I will say mean nasty things about celebrities and politicians. I couldn’t care less if I miss a capital letter or spell a word wrong.” In other words, he writes crap that will attract attention.
Sure enough, as I write this, one of his articles is the most read in all of Triond’s network. It’s a story about Auburn quarterback Cam Newton’s suspension. It’s an exclusive story, and for good reason – Newton wasn’t suspended. The story is completely made up. It’s also riddled with errors. Not that any of that would bother the writer. After all, the Newton story is far from his most offensive piece.
Recently, he wrote an article about a cure for AIDS. He asks, “is it real?” For the answer, he links to several other articles detailing the miracle cure, each of them written by Mnofdichotomy himself. In other words, he’s backing up a fake story by sourcing his other fake stories. He says of his methodology: “I am, sadly, the future of online publishing.” “If you want to make money at this, learn to do what I do.” Unfortunately, the qualities that he possesses which make him “successful” – his lack of integrity, narcissistic tendencies, and shameless choice of subject matter – are not skills. They are attributes, and these attributes are far from desirable.
This brings us back to Ulsterman, an individual who has taken the aforementioned advice and followed Mnofdichotomy’s lead. Simply put, Ulsterman may not even think Obama’s a bad president. He may or may not vote Democratic, and for all we know, he may not even live in the United States. He might even be the same person as Mnofdichotomy, or have another alter-ego who writes hit pieces about Republican politicians. The point is, the “White House Insider” stories are not politically motivated. Instead, they aim to appeal to the most gullible audience on the World Wide Web, an ever-changing demographic that currently centers on Glenn Beck diehards and members of the so-called “birther” movement. Ultimately, the question is: should we care about this dark and sleazy corner of the internet, and if so, should we do something about it?
Triond’s whole approach is giving themselves immunity by allowing their contributors to come up with the lies while they publish the content behind the guise of providing a forum for free speech. Under this approach, they attract the lowest of the low, writers who are happy to write a fake obituary for a few pennies. There are no limitations for these people. They spew the most vile and hate-filled rhetoric for no real reason. They are modern day Grendels, destroying Hrothgar’s castle because they have nothing better to do. And if you point this out to them, they seem to revel in it, as if they get off on seeing how low they can go. They have no integrity, no self-esteem, no standards.
It’s truly baffling that nothing has been done about this. But one could easily point the finger at the public rather than the writers or even Triond, who is simply proving a product that is in demand. Right wing conspiracy theorists want to read articles that confirm their suspicions, and Ulsterman is simply the waiter bringing their order to the table. Thus, the problem will continue to get worse and worse as major media outlets lose customers to digital sources whose content is at best unreliable, and at worst complete bullshit. The reliable content is becoming less desirable to consumers than the complete bullshit.
While it is my hope that Triond and their writers are, in some way, held accountable for their actions, they need to be made irrelevant, and you can help make that happen. When you come across a news article, checks its references, look for objectivity, and don’t assume anything is true until you can be sure of it. “In an era where the internet is ruled far more by rumor and speculation than by truth or fact, it can be difficult to determine what is real and what isn’t,” Mnofdichotomy writes. He’s only got one thing wrong: it’s really not that hard. You just need to try.