Everyone Loves a Troll: How Christwire Fooled Rachel Maddow, Howard Stern, 3 Million Coachella Heads and Counting
Aside from the simple laziness of those who don't bother to Google the site, there's another force at play. We want them to be real. So badly. We want to get riled up -- to riff off the stupidity of the extremists for our own little scoffy Jon Stewart moments, our own "Seriously?" face and "Oh, America" sigh.
Stupid/outrageous people get the most hits, straight up. How many stoned college kids (and Stephen Colberts) would have cared about Rebecca Black's facepalm "Friday" video had it been an intentional parody? Certainly not 121 million.
Christwire Howard Stern gets 'shopped (and loves it)
And when we do find out we've been had, we're more likely to slink off crossly than give props where they're due. Howard Stern, who, despite his dickishness, can usually be counted on for a sense of humor, found nothing funny about being duped by Christwire in February. He practically jizzed his pants to their "Howard Stern Now Spreading Porn on Twitter":
"Me going on Twitter has generated a lot of press for some reason," he mused on air, super pleased with himself. "It wasn't a calculation on my part -- it just kind of has captured people's fancy." Stern and his radio co-hosts went on to giddily pick apart the god-fearing piece word-for-word.
But when news got out that Stern had been tricked and Christwire called him up for a response, his reps would only say: "No fucking comment."
Butthurt, much? Rachel Maddow, who hosts her own non-funny version of "The Daily Show" on MSNBC, was at least a tad more humbled after she was caught analyzing a Christwire piece on why Sarah Palin should push the U.S. to invade Egypt. The embarrassing moment:
But even Maddow avoided complete concession, saying:
"In a world where China taking over New Zealand is what passes for real analysis on the situation in Egypt [cue photo of Glenn Beck], how do we know that's not satire too?"
Wow. If a bigtime news anchor and her team of professional fact-checkers can't manage to sort the sincere from the ridiculous, we're scared to think how the rest of America goes about filtering its stumble-upons.
"People will believe anything you write on the Internet," says Butvidas. "It's terrifying."
He and Watson recently did a college tour that took them, in character, to CSU Fullerton during a three-day sit-in that protested state budget cuts. When they arrived, there was reportedly an anti-Christwire poster hanging in Langsdorf Hall (see right). Of course, they took the opportunity to falsely claim that the sit-in was a reaction to their presence on campus, but there was some truth to that.
Christwire Sit-in at CSU Fullerton
"We had to walk through [the sit-in]," says Butvidas. "People were looking at us like we were fucking assholes."
He adds that at least five students huffed out of their in-class presentation.
The pair launched Christwire in 2007 with the mentality: "Let me write a bullshit story and see what happens." When the website pulled in 100,000 pageviews in one month, Butvidas thought, "There's no way it could get any bigger than this."
Remember the Bonsai Kitten website? (Stick with us here.) It was the first major troll of the digital age, unleashed upon thousands of gullible AOL users back in the days of dial-up. No matter how many statements PETA still releases, reassuring horrified-and-loving-it activists that no cute baby animals were harmed in the obvious hoax, the angry letters don't stop.
Even here at the Weekly's news blog, it's the trend: Our best-read stories are almost always a chance to revel in others' bad decisions. Alexandra Wallace; the Kappa Sigma bro who screwed a sorority girl on a USC rooftop; the mayor; myself (after "blaming" Lara Logan for her rape in Egypt).
Because above all else, everybody loves a troll. That is, up until they know it's a troll (who, by definition, has the sole intention of riling people up; and what's the glee in watching a train wreck that you know has been staged?). Ironically, this means that the majority of our attention ends up focused on the insignificant minority, either kidding or crazed. Need we mention the Westboro Baptist Church?
In other words, Christwire's social experiment worked, and that's depressing. Now go enjoy your feast, pions: "God Casts Great Fires and Tornadoes Upon America to Let Everyone Know, No Obama in 2012." Or better yet: "How To Spot A Masturbator."