WATERBORO, Maine — Christopher Blair was sitting quietly in the corner of Dunkin’ Donuts, not far from his home on an unpaved road in rural Maine, looking at his phone.
People around him, absorbed in their own phones, paid no attention to the large man sitting alone among them. At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, with a long scraggly beard, he looks the part of a construction worker, which he was, in his former life.
Now he makes his living telling lies on the Internet.
Fact-checking organizations like Snopes and PolitiFact have labeled Blair one of the Web’s most notorious creators of fake news. Hidden behind his Internet persona, “Busta Troll,” he has for several years pumped out geysers of newsy-looking posts for an audience eager to believe them, with headlines like “College Prank Kills 2 — Malia Obama a ‘Prime Suspect’ ” and “Emma Gonzales attacks a 2nd Amendment supporter’s truck at a March for Our Lives rally.”
His headlines often pinball across the Internet, propelled by thousands of shares and “likes,” generating advertising revenue for Blair in the process — and bringing a chorus of critics who accuse him of fanning the flames of a divided country for personal gain.
He doesn’t deny that he intentionally fools people. But Blair says he does so for an unusual reason — because he’s a hard-core Democrat, a “liberal troll” with a mission of undercutting the far right. His work, he says, is satire, meant to expose what he views as the bigotry and hypocrisy of those willing to accept his inflammatory fictions as truth. And he claims that it is working, that he — with the aid of an army of about 100 other liberal trolls — has actually helped stanch the tide of fake news online.
It’s a claim that has invited more questions, but as Busta Troll gained online notoriety, Blair himself stayed out of sight, evading media organizations attempting to report on him. He convinced several, including BuzzFeed, that he was a fictitious character he invented, Christopher Lyman, “a veteran who lives in Orono, Maine.” Even after his real name emerged, Blair kept himself at a safe distance, answering questions only via e-mail and refusing to confirm his exact whereabouts.
The Globe, using public records and Blair’s Internet trail, tracked him to a small house at the end of a dirt driveway in North Waterboro. A young man who answered the door said Blair was on vacation. A few days later, Blair e-mailed to say he was willing to meet.
And there he was waiting in the back corner of Dunkin’ Donuts one recent day, when a reporter arrived. A huge man, but with an unexpectedly soft, low voice, he made his case, that “in all this fake news horror that’s going on, there is this one anomaly that does good.”
Tea Party triggered birth of Busta
Blair, 46, was born in Lowell and, in many ways, has an outwardly ordinary life. He has a wife and three children and about once a week in summer he umpires Little League games. His kids don’t play, but they show up anyway to root for Dad.
Blair says he was raised a Massachusetts Democrat. When the economy crashed in 2008, he lost work and struggled to support his family. He blamed it on President George W. Bush. Social media and online forums became welcome places to vent his anger. Busta Troll was born after the election of Barack Obama, and was triggered, Blair says, by the rise of the Tea Party movement that arose in opposition. Online, he found himself aligning with a small offshoot of people who live to goad and prank and maybe silence extreme conservatives.
In 2014, Blair, as Busta Troll, pulled off a prank that won him wide admiration in that community. The United States had just traded five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier captured in Afghanistan after deserting his post. The prisoner swap ignited anger in far-right groups, and a Facebook page dedicated to the issue quickly became a “dumping ground for bilious accusations against Bergdahl and anti-Obama chatter,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which wrote about it at the time.
Blair says he hung out in the comments section of the page, masquerading as one of the enraged, piling on along with them, eventually earning the trust of the people running the page. He asked to be made one of the administrators of the group, a request that was granted, essentially giving him the keys to the entire operation.
Blair then changed every image on the page to a photo of a goat.
It was considered a triumphant hoax in the liberal troll community — one of several similar “goatings” Blair had already orchestrated. The prank raised his profile and led him into a new line of work.
He said he left his construction job and wrote blog posts, first for Alan Colmes, the late liberal commentator for Fox News, and then for the Addicting Info Network, which calls itself “a resource to discredit all the lies and propaganda that the right-wing spreads.”
But Blair found himself missing something he had come to enjoy: masquerading as a man of the far right. So he created a fake news blog he called “The Resistance: The Last Line of Defense.”
It was mostly to entertain himself, he says, to see what he could get people to believe. But as Donald Trump’s candidacy built momentum, he says, the website took off because he bought Facebook ads targeting people who met three criteria: They were over the age of 55, and they “liked” Donald Trump and Sean Hannity. Very quickly, his Facebook headlines began generating thousands of online “shares.”
Blair soon built a fake news network, creating more blogs with names like “Freedum Junkshun,” “America — Love It or Leave It,” “Patriot Post,” and “Reagan Was Right.” By the thousands, credulous readers shared the fake headlines. Few clicked on the links to the stories under those headlines, where they would have found disclaimers that the stories were satire.
As his sites built up a huge following on Facebook, several of the stories went viral, and fact-checkers at Snopes.com wrote with growing annoyance at Blair’s output as they debunked one story after another, always placing his claims of satire in quotation marks while pointing out that his material is “regularly shared as ‘real news.’”
Facebook posts monitored
To come up with his material, Blair said, he starts each day prowling right-wing blogs and the comment sections on outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.com, hunting for the gossip and conspiracy theories that are gathering steam. Then he and a writer who works with him craft the material into made-up news items.
“A lot of people pretend we pull this stuff out of thin air, but we don’t,” Blair’s writer, who uses several pseudonyms online and says his name is John Prager, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s us holding up a mirror to actual stuff conservatives say on a daily basis.”
Once the fake stories are published on Blair’s websites and then shared on Facebook, Blair and his fellow liberal trolls monitor the Facebook posts and wait for people to leave a comment — or share the article with a comment — indicating that they believe the story is real. Then they pounce, lashing out at the person for believing the fake article. He says if the person’s comment includes racist, violent, or hate speech, they report the offender to Facebook in an attempt to get the account suspended or banned.
In short, he says, he is fighting fake news with fake news. “I’m injecting them with stupidity to cure their stupidity,” he says.
Another way he tries to accomplish this is by saturating a topic, producing so many fake stories on a hot issue that interest scatters and fades. For example, when he and his writer noticed a run of fake news about Malia Obama, he says, they produced a constant stream of ridiculous Malia Obama stories until people stopped clicking on them.
“You can tell a story is saturated when you get four shares and 400 comments calling it fake,” Blair said.
Blair says his biggest takedown, “the thing I am most proud of,” came after he discovered that his fake articles were being repackaged as “real news” and posted by overseas click-bait farms that had audiences of millions.
In March, BuzzFeed published a story illustrating how one fake article from Blair’s “Last Line of Defense” blog — about the FBI obtaining a warrant to arrest Barack Obama for wiretapping Trump — was immediately reposted by 19 websites that originated in Macedonia, the Republic of Georgia, and Kosovo.
For months, Blair said, he repeatedly reported the sites to Facebook for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, until one day last June, 40 fake news websites and 22 Facebook pages he had reported suddenly disappeared. Blair said he can’t prove it was because of him, but he points out that the fact-checking website leadstories.com, which has been highly critical of Blair’s work, gave him credit in a story titled “Fake News Apocalypse: How a Liberal Troll Took Down Several Major Fake News Websites Using Copyright Law.”
A fake story that went too far
Sitting in the Dunkin’ Donuts in Maine, unmasked for the first time, Blair has not come for contrition. He does not back down from his work. He paints a picture of himself as a missionary, not an opportunist.
Of course, there is also a profit motive. This is how he makes his living. He does not divulge how much money he has made spreading fake news, but he claims that his critics wildly overstate his reach and how much he has cashed in on it. A hit story, he says, “might be enough to buy a new couch.” His small brown house is certainly not fancy. It would be a stretch to even call it nice.
The one area where he squirms is on the question of the potential harm he inflicts on those fooled by his creations, and those he lies about.
“I can’t claim we do no harm,” Blair says, the one point in the interview where his long torso slumps in his chair. “What we do is what we do, and it’s been very successful.”
Still, there have been times when Blair knows he’s gone too far, most notably with a story that landed at #1 on Vice’s list of “The 10 Most Toxic Pieces of Fake News in 2017.”
On Oct. 26, an article on Blair’s Freedum Junkshun carried the headline “BREAKING: Black Soldier Killed in Niger Was a Deserter.”
The story falsely said that Sergeant La David Johnson — one of four soldiers killed in Niger after being attacked by Islamic State militants — had been missing for days before the attack and that the ambush occurred while three other members of his unit were out searching for him. The story used an invented quote from an unnamed soldier: “It seems suspicious that these terrorists were waiting for them.”
The fake story, which Blair says was written by his writer, came at a time when Johnson’s death was already at the center of a national controversy; President Trump was overheard telling the soldier’s widow in a consolation call that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
The uproar was so quick and angry that Blair removed the story and issued an apology on The Last Line of Defense’s Facebook page.
“That was bad,” Blair said, looking down quietly before raising his eyes again. “The story was taken directly from conservative comments about ‘three heroes and the black guy who was a deserter,’ but his name and image should never have been used. It’s the one time we let reality slip too close.”
Profits are disappearing
Blair doesn’t back down often, much less apologize. He thinks his influence is wildly overstated, and says he is flabbergasted at being characterized as some kind of kingpin of “clickbait fake news for cash.”
He shakes his head when asked about a story that ran last May on the website PolitiFact — a fact-checking initiative of the Tampa Bay Times and the Poynter Institute — which was the first to accurately report his name as Christopher Blair, and carried the headline “If you’re fooled by fake news, this man probably wrote it.”
“We’re not changing elections,” Blair argues. “We’re not pushing some 70-year-old who’s been sitting on a fence watching Fox News over to the dark side. We’re trolling conservative low-hanging fruit and having them removed from Facebook. You post nonsense, they respond, you and your friends make them look foolish.“
Blair says whatever cash there was in the game is disappearing. Saturation plus awareness plus a change in the Facebook news feed algorithm have made it more and more difficult to get fake news past people. He said his traffic has been diminishing since late summer and has slowed to a trickle, taking most of the advertising dollars he was making with it.
“We’ve known for a long time that this would turn into a labor of love, and we’ll gladly volunteer to keep doing it,” he says.
Already, he’s turned his attention to a new venture: “No Fake News Online,” a satirical site that fact-checks ridiculous news that he makes up. In one such item, he debunked his own invented claim that actor Gary Busey is the biological father of Eric Trump.
By the end of what he called his first-ever sit-down interview, Blair seemed to have let down his guard; he was relaxed, confident, OK with being out in the daylight after all the years in the shadows.
“This is important to me,” he says of his work. “This wasn’t just to make money, just to [expletive] people off. I understand that people hate it, but I ask they give it a little chance and wonder if the little bit of harm it may do isn’t worth it.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.