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How Does One Create A 'Fake News Masterpiece' And What Happens Next?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier in the program, we talked about the media and it's often fraught relationship with the Trump administration set off most recently by a confrontation about the size of the inaugural crowds. Now, Donald Trump has been accusing the media of distributing what he calls fake news for some time. In those instances, President Trump seems often to be referring to information that is accurate, but that he finds upsetting.

But The New York Times just published a piece about something that journalists, as well as others, find even more worrisome - the spreading of completely false information under the guise of news. New York Times reporter Scott Shane managed to track down a practitioner of this and convinced the man, Cameron Harris, to describe how and why he did it for a recent piece titled "From Headline To Photograph: A Fake News Masterpiece."

SCOTT SHANE: Cameron Harris is a 23-year-old recent graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina. He majored in politics and economics, and by his account - he's Republican, very active in politics, wants to be a political consultant. But he claims quite credibly that he did this really more for the money than for the politics.

MARTIN: Cameron Harris created several false stories for a defunct news domain christiantimesnewspaper.com which he'd picked up for $5. Many of the false stories were debunked almost immediately by the respected fact-checking website snopes.com. But one story of Harris' has stood out to Scott Shane. It read "Breaking: Tens Of Thousands Of Fraudulent Clinton Votes Found In Ohio Warehouse." I asked Scott Shane why Cameron Harris decided to write this particular story and why it had such a big impact.

SHANE: There was a point when Trump began to say that he feared the election would be rigged, and then he started repeatedly saying in every speech he gave, you know, they're rigging the election, the election's rigged. And so there was this feeling that on the part of his supporters that somehow something was going wrong and that Hillary Clinton was doing something, you know, illicit to rig the election. And so Cameron Harris decided he would try to tap into that by essentially providing the proof that this election was rigged. So he said he started with a headline, you know, "Tens Of Thousands Of Fraudulent Clinton Ballots Found In Ohio Warehouse" - made up out of whole cloth.

And he invented a guy, an electrician, who had wandered into a backroom at a warehouse and stumbled upon these boxes of ballots that were pre-marked for Clinton. He decided a picture would be good. And he went - and he did what any one of us does when we want to find a picture of something. He did a Google image search, and he found a picture in the Birmingham News in the U.K. And it was from an election, but an election, of course, completely unrelated to the presidential election in the U.S. But it showed a gentleman standing behind a big stack of ballot boxes, so he just took that picture from the Birmingham News and said that that was a picture of this man who discovered the fraudulent Clinton ballots in Ohio.

MARTIN: You say that even though Cameron Harris who made all this up is a Republican and is inclined to support Republicans, that his real motivation was money. He just wanted to make the money from the clicks. So do you have any sense of how much money he made from this fake story?

SHANE: I do. He actually shared with me his statement from Google that essentially gave the revenue for the life of the site, and it totaled $22,000, which is not a huge amount of money. But Cameron Harris estimated that he put a total of 20 hours into this project. So for the time that he put into it, it was, you know, more than a thousand dollars an hour. That particular story - his greatest hit so to speak, the one about the fake Clinton ballots - that one he estimated made about $5,000 by itself. He said it took him about 15 minutes to write the story.

MARTIN: When you confronted him, how did he feel about what he had done? Did he express any remorse?

SHANE: You know, to defend himself, he started kind of doing what, in fact, Donald Trump has done recently which is accuse the mainstream media of fake news. There's a difference between, you know, taking unverified information and trying to prove it or disprove it. And that's very different, in my mind, from sitting down to make something up out of whole cloth that you know from the beginning is false. He didn't fully seem to accept or grasp that distinction.

MARTIN: So was there any reaction to your story?

SHANE: Yes. Actually the Maryland delegate, the member of Maryland legislature that Cameron Harris worked for as a sort of legislative aide read the story and fired him immediately, saying he, you know, would not tolerate dishonesty. And the other thing that happened is that Cameron Harris' alma mater Davidson College in North Carolina, which prides itself on its honor code, actually put out a statement expressing, you know, essentially regret that one of its alums had gotten involved in something like this.

And then the president of the college sent a letter to all alumni, again, sort of expressing regret about this and saying they would use this fake news case study involving one of their graduates as a lesson for future students to teach them about, you know, the honor code and the difference between right and wrong.

MARTIN: That was reporter Scott Shane from The New York Times. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHANE: Very glad to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.