“It’s just painfully easy to pull one over on the layperson,” Bendix told me, “which is really, really frustrating given how much you put into your work as a journalist.”
Looked at another way, it’s Adbusters-style culture jamming perverted into an instrument of geopolitics. Scammers and spammers have always tried to surf on the legitimacy of real journalism outfits, but faking news articles can’t be much of a business when most news organizations can’t make money themselves. The entrance of state-aligned actors into the world of fake reporting has changed the nature of the threat posed by “information operations,” as Facebook security researchers noted after the 2016 election. “We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams,” they wrote, “to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.”
Read: What Facebook did to American democracy
But of course, this isn’t true only on Facebook. It’s easy to knock off the look of any page on the internet. Right now you can look at the source code for this webpage and download all its elements to make your own Atlantic look-alike pages.
Walking through the story, I can show you how someone who works at this publication would spot the fake. These tricks won’t work in every context; Endless Mayfly was not the most sophisticated effort. But they can at least draw your attention to the elements that are likely to give away an information-operations spoof.
Of course, to the experienced eye, some things about the fake article are immediately noticeable. The headline—“A shocking document shows the shameful acts of Saudis and Emiratis for hiding human rights abuses in Yemen”—was, by our publication’s standards, long and overwrought. But the real giveaway is simpler. It was written in what is called sentence case, which means only the first word is capitalized. TheAtlantic uses title case, in which every major word is capitalized.
Your next stop would probably be at the URL. Here it is:
You may or may not have noticed theatlatnic.com. Our brains are very good at unscrambling words nearly automatically. Some organizations buy URLs with common typos and redirect them to their own domains, so Googl.com will send you to Google.com. You can see when any domain was registered, and theatlatnic.com was registered on August 12, 2018, by a Chinese domain registrar.
The next sign of fakery: The author bio at the end of the story does not match the byline. So, while Bendix’s name was on top, the Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart’s author bio appeared on the bottom. (As you might imagine, journalists are extremely sensitive to this kind of mistake, and though it might happen because of a coding bug, it would be fixed nearly immediately.)