Everyone Loves a Troll: How Christwire Fooled Rachel Maddow, Howard Stern, 3 Million Coachella Heads and Counting
Update, from the trenches: "LA Weekly Tries to Challenge ChristWire to a Gay Fight." We couldn't make this stuff up.
Christwire.org is a joke. IT'S NOT REAL. Not a genuine bone in its blogroll. (Except for when they also fool their Christian freelancers.)
Every day, the two dudes who run Christwire read hundreds of your angry comments and emails, both as entertainment and motivation. And they profit -- to the extent that running a fake ultra-conservative website is now their sole source of income, with a book deal and a movie on the way. All 100 percent in-character.
We're far from the first to find out. The Atlantic Wire, the New York Magazine, Business Insider -- even the New York Times -- have been privy to their shtick since summer 2010. (Cracked, however, as the supreme ruler of Internet comedy, has held off in good humor, not one to hinder a comment-board clusterfuck.) We'd hold off ourselves, but Christwire co-founder Bryan Butvidas, a resident of Palm Springs, tells us it's no use:
Butvidas revealed himself as Christwire to the New York Times last summer
The more he and associate Kirwin Watson are "outed," the more traffic they get, and the more hordes they fool.
Butvidas says that in September, when the Times story ran, reporter Mark Oppenheimer asked him: Aren't you afraid that, once I publish your true identities, the fun will be over?
When Butvidas assured him it would make no difference, he says Oppenheimer "kind of laughed" (as if once something hits the Times, it can't help but become absolute truth, and all will again be right in the universe).
But the blogger was right. Since September, Christwire's traffic has reached epic new heights, its inbox overflowing with more dead-serious scoldings than ever.
Nevermind that the fourth entry down in a Google search for the site is a Wikipedia entry identifying it, crystal clear, as "a satirical website." Every day, hundreds of outraged "liberal homogays," as Christwire would call them, continue to buy into hysterical posts such as, most popularly, April 15's "Coachella is a Festival of Disease and Sin. Your Children Most Likely Will Die."
The piece was a viral sensation, racking up over 28,000 Facebook shares (15,000 within the first hour) and 3 million views, Butvidas tells the Weekly. (Though that doesn't begin to approach "Is My Husband GAY?", which has been viewed almost 15 million times to date and even fooled the Huffington Post into reprinting it, though HuffPo has since allegedly altered the copy to appear as if they were in on the joke from the beginning.)
A video supplement to the Coachella story, narrated by Butvidas:
And some sample comments -- even after many other commenters, exasperated, tried to warn the thread that Christwire is satire:
"I'm 13 and I fucking went to Coachella with my cousin who's 18 this year , i didn't get fucked! And my cousin didn't either!! Of course people drink beer, that's normal in a festival,mabye they are drugs but if there ask you all you have to say is no!"
"Alright okay so just because those people are screaching and standing around a car they must be selling drugs? Or the two guys on the bicycle have to be gay and going to sodomize each other? What? If these things are going on then show it! Be a journalist and document it. Your story has no legs. If you came to me at a news agency and gave me this drive by media footage, I would spike the story."
"I know for a FACT you made up more than 98% of these facts and statistics. For gods sake, you even used the phrase "milk sacks" as if saying breasts was forbidden. You people make me SICK! At times I think freedom of the press goes to far, and it usually is pushed beyond the point of normalcy and sanity by jack pricks like you!"
"For real though, before you start posting this nonsensical bilge, learn some grammar... May be and maybe are two DIFFERENT things. God obviously didn't bless you with the the skills to manipulate the english language."
Note that last one, regarding Christwire's (intentionally) crappy blogging skills. "We can write something so racist and vile, and the majority of the comments will criticize our grammar," says Butvidas.
These predictable reactions are what make the Christwire machine run. It's basically become the Net's fattest troll -- a game to which Butvidas and Watson, who cyber-met on Shoutwire in 2007, are clearly addicted. Especially now that it pays their bills.
"Our whole theory is just to prove how stupid people are," says Butvidas. "No matter what your beliefs are, there are idiots on all sides."
We must say: They've perfected the baseless, inflammatory rightblogger style. But to anyone reading closely, it's too good to be real. Hilarious misspellings, cultural critiques thinly veiled as ignorance and over-the-top adjective clusters suggest at least a Bachelor of Arts.
So how do they continue to successfully troll the masses?
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.
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.
"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."