How the “King of Fake News” built his empire
Jestin Coler is an unassuming guy. He lives on a quiet street in the Los Angeles suburbs with his wife and two kids. Every morning for the past 11 years, he’s put on a button-up shirt and driven a minivan to his desk job at a software company.
But until recently, Coler harbored a secret: he’d been running one of the largest fake news operations in the internet. So big, that he came to be known as the “King of Fake News.”
Over 3 years, he grew his little website, NationalReport.net, into a 100m-views-per-year fake news monolith, fueled by doctored headlines like “Colorado Pot Shop to Provide Free Marijuana to Syrian Refugees” and “City in Michigan First to Fully Implement Sharia Law.”
During the height of Coler’s success, has was raking in $30k per month, and affording a better life for his family.
The trade off: he had to sacrifice his morals, ethics and dignity — or at least, whatever he possessed to begin with.
So, where does a “Fake News King” begin?
Coler grew up in a small Northeastern Indiana town — a blue collar enclave, where respect was gained through hard-work and honesty. His pop worked for the city his whole life, and his mom was a paralegal.
Early on, Coler found work at the usual midwestern joints: McDonald’s, small diners, and factories. “There wasn’t a lot going on up there,” he says. “You take what you can get to make money.”
In college, he fell in love with political science — especially propaganda, and the way it was used to influence public opinion. He recalls studying how Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) used satire as a tool to change people’s minds.
For a few years, he bounced around between odd jobs — including an unlikely stint as the editor of International Yachtsman magazine — and eventually landed a role at a company that produces software for the publishing industry.
He got married, settled down in the suburbs, popped out out a few kids. And for nearly a decade, he lived an average American life.
“Then, I basically became a commercialized troll”
Around 2013, Coler began to notice that his Facebook feed was full of fake news articles that people were accepting as truthful, original sources.
“These sites would take a kernel of truth and twist it into a completely fake story to get people all worked up,” he says, “I got really interested in that, and spent time studying it… and I ultimately decided I wanted to be a part of it as well.”
At this point, Coler was not some maniacal troll: he was a respectable man, a father, and a registered Democrat with a distaste for “alt-right politics.”
Nonetheless, he registered the domain name “NationalReport.net” (“It sounded official,” he says), and threw together a website.
Then, along with a few buddies who he knew from an old satire forum, he started writing articles. He gave his writers complete autonomy, so long as they followed one core mission: Convince people of the most ridiculous, outlandish things possible.
The site had no advertising budget.
Coler would write up a story — say, “Muslim Bakery Refuses to Make American Flag Cake for Returning War Veteran” — then drop $10 or so on Facebook ads, and “spamming it around” to 50 social groups (like anti-immigrant fan clubs) where he thought it might strike a nerve. His hope was that the content could feed off of pre-existing beliefs and confirmation bias.
“The key is that nobody wants vegetables with their meal anymore,” he says. “Everyone just wants the red meat. Fake news is the red meat. You just give them what they want.”
It worked: traffic started climbing organically, and soon, advertisers were coming to him.
“This was not an honorable group of people”
“A few days in, I remember showing my wife Google Analytics and saying ‘Wow! Look, there’s 1 person on my site!’” he recalls. “Six months in, it was up to 400 or 500 concurrent visitors at any given time.”
As he expanded his writing staff, Coler enticed his employees with a tantalizing proposition.
Each story had five ads — a banner ad above the story, another below it, and 3 ads interspersed throughout the body of the text. Each new writer would create his own Google AdSense account, and would receive 100% of the revenue from the in-text ads. Coler would take the revenue on the other ads.
Of course, this incentivized writers to produce increasingly more outlandish stories. Things like:
- “City in Michigan First to Fully Implement Sharia Law”
- “Colorado Pot Shop to Provide Free Marijuana to Syrian Refugees”
- “Hillary Clinton Promises to Confiscate ‘Three Times As Many’ Guns as Obama Did”
- “Trump to Limit All Intelligence Briefings to 140 Character”
- “White House Plans To Recruit Illegals To Guard Nation’s Border!”
“This was not a very honorable group of people,” Coler says of his staff, which eventually grew to 25 writers.
A small disclaimer on the site — “All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news” — made Coler’s operation legal, though most people who clicked on stories never saw it, or realized what they were reading was fake.
By 2014, Coler had registered around 25 other fake news sites, and was dishing out content across all his channels, under the registered business name “DisInfoMedia, Inc.”
That year, National Report raked in nearly 100m views — and it proved to be a lucrative operation for everyone involved.
“We quickly realized this could be very profitable”
Though Coler didn’t give us specific figures, he says it wouldn’t be unreasonable to surmise he was pulling in “mid-6 figures” per year from his fake news business, or as much as $30k per month.
It wasn’t unusual for his writers — many of whom had respectable day jobs — to pull in over $100k per year from writing fake new stories. One of his “star” writers, Paul Horner, claims to have made $10k in one day after publishing a story claiming he was the street artist Banksy.
In 2015, Coler hit a roadblock: under mounting pressure over its inaction on fake news, Facebook implemented a new algorithm that slashed fake stories on the platform, and, for the first time, publicly marked stories from National Report as hoaxes.
So, Coler changed his game plan: “I had to trick Facebook into believing I was legitimate,” he says.
He registered the domain name “DenverGuardian.com” (a site that “could’ve easily been believable”) and loaded it up with real local news stories about sports teams and construction projects.
Then, he covertly began to sneak in major fake news stories with national appeal.
The story that broke the camel’s back
On November 5, 2016— two days before the election — Denver Guardian ran the following fake headline: “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE.”
When it hit Facebook, it spread like wildfire; at one point, it was generating 100 shares per minute. And for millions of readers, it played into a preexisting hatred of Hillary Clinton.
For the entirety of his run, he’d been operating under a veil of anonymity. On occasion, he’d spoken to members of the press under the pseudonym “Allen Montgomery,” claiming to be publisher and owner of National Report.
But reporters started digging, and a by the end of November, NPR managed to track down Coler in his Los Angeles home.
The end, my friend
After he was outed, Coler decided to shut down all of his sites, save for National Report, which he’s since pivoted into a “more traditional” satire site. Today, it boasts all-important posts like, “Chris Christie Elected to the Supreme Food Court.”
Once “America’s #1 independent news team,” his site’s slogan now reads, “America’s shittiest news source.”
In the aftermath, Coler says he became a “scapegoat for the entire outcome” of the election — an idea he discredits. “If a guy like me can actually influence the election from my couch,” he says, “then elections are fucked.”
When his name began dotting blogs and national websites, he received his comeuppance. “I had death threats. People showed up at my door, threatening me and my family. They literally wanted to kill me… people are crazy.” He’s since changed his phone number and moved to another house.
To this day, he still works his desk job at the software company. On the side, he gives talks about “restoring trust in media and all that bullshit.” He’s also working on a children’s book with his daughter.
“I have regrets,” he cedes, in the final minutes of our phone call, “but people do worse things for money. I didn’t do anything illegal. I just pissed off some liberals…Look, I live in a very affluent part of the country, and buying a house was always unattainable. Not anymore. It afforded a better life for me and my family.”
He seems to classify himself as more of an opportunist than a villain, and ultimately, he blames those who click the stories more than he blames his own sites.
Someone who gets duped by a fake news story, he argues, should be humbled into not getting duped a second time — but that’s never the case. “We’ve all picked our sides,” he says, “And we’re not even willing to listen to the other side. I can’t be held accountable for that; I just shined a light on a problem that already existed.”
And how does he respond to those who ask him how he sleeps at night?
“Fuck those people,” he says. “I sleep just fine.”