Last year, Canadian teen Yaman Abuibaid, 17, told Buzzfeed News that it was Kim Kardashian who woke him to the possibilities of fake news. It began, he told the site, when his friends were spreading a piece of gossip about her at school: “I said, ‘That’s definitely fake—why would you ever believe that?’” he recounted. “And they said, 'It’s online, it’s true.' And you realize that people believe a lot of things online.”
Abuibaid and his friend Daré Adebanjo turned that knowledge into Hot Global News, a take-off on Canada’s mainstream Global News site. They mostly peddled completely false news stories about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The site’s “About” page labeled it satire, but those passing around its stories didn’t always see the disclaimer. Enough people shared and clicked on its headlines that the teens made tens of thousands of dollars selling advertising on the site.
Such windfalls are rarely a surprise. Just as in yellow journalism days, profits are the prime motivator of fake news. Google allows websites to make money by hosting ads, and the more clicks the sites get, the more their owners make. Hoaxers do everything they can—from carefully crafting headlines that shock you to using bots that mess with Facebook algorithms—to make their stories go viral, which helps them rake in serious dough.
Case in point: One 23-year-old whose fake news stories spread wildly during last year’s election estimated that his most popular tall tale netted him over $5,000— for just 15 minutes of work.