The Internet, as we resignedly recap every Friday, has no great regard for truth. But among the pranksters and hoaxers, the rumor-mongers and the thoughtless retweeters, the performance artists and the gullible olds, there’s one unusually insidious, inscrutable set of characters: the people who write fake Internet news not as a joke or stunt or meta social commentary … but as a running career, for profit and without qualms.
Many of these professional hoaxers are, for good reason, anonymous. (The shadowy figure behind News-Hound.org, genesis of the recent desert-island-rescue-by-Google story, said he wouldn’t speak to The Post “unless there is money involved.”) But last week, after I included Robert Winland’s totally made-up story about the death of professional wrestler the Undertaker in my weekly Internet debunk, Winland reached out to me on Twitter — eager, it would seem, to “get [his] name out there” in any way possible.
@caitlindewey Very willing. Anything to get my name out there.— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) April 18, 2014
Winland is, as you might imagine, a piece of work. A 24-year-old New Jersey native and college dropout, he has written 10 articles for the nascent Empire Sports since it launched in January. On four of those stories alone, he says, he got more than 8 million pageviews. (By comparison, this post will maybe — if I’m lucky! — do about 20,000 pageviews.) That means that, in this weird Internet clickonomy, Winland isn’t just some nameless blogger. He’s a voice that people listen to.
There’s only one problem with Winland’s wildly, unusually popular work: It’s 100 percent untrue. As in his recent story on the Undertaker dying. Or two other homophobia-tinged posts on fictional relationships between Tony Romo and Jason Witten, and Jeff Gordon and Stephen Rhodes.
Not that this bothers Winland — or, apparently, Aaron Smith, the Louisville-based wedding photographer to whom Empire Sports is registered.
“The original intent was a pure satire site with funny articles but it morphed quickly,” Smith wrote by e-mail. (Empire Sports does describe itself as “satire” — but only on a hard-to-find disclaimer page.) “After the success of a couple more ‘realistic’ articles the site started to shift towards a more ‘tabloid’ style with satire mixed in. Now it has become what I consider a social experiment. An experiment to see how far the stories can go, how crazy they can get and still get people to share them.”
An exercise, essentially, in misleading the Internet — for fun and profit! Smith says he and his cast of writers make money off of display ads.
Intrigued by the dubious ethics and motives of this strange and booming Internet industry, I chatted with Winland a bit by e-mail. The transcript of that interview has been lightly edited for language and to make it flow better, but Winland’s grammar and phrasing have not been changed.
So, first things first: Is Robert Winland your real name?
Yes Robert Winland is my real legal name. I am not afraid to put my name out there. The more people searching me and seeing it the better chances I have of being contacted for something big.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Well I recently turned 24 years old. I went to college a few years for Game Design but failed out. I was not ready and I can admit that. Im a die hard Dallas Cowboys fan and football in general. Also a giant wrestling fan. Which makes it off for my articles but at the same time makes sense. I work a real job 40 hours a week during the day. Im a Merchandiser for a big name retail company. Not a major big money job. I make as of now $8.75 an hour which will be going up in the coming weeks.
@Cody2488 Well not a full time writer. I do it in my free time. But when it comes to satire im one of the best.— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) March 26, 2014
My real life if very boring and basic. Im not a fan of people. People in general are just very gullible as you can see. They believe in the new “hot” thing to believe in or just believe because they cannot comprehend anything past what they are taught as a child. People live without questioning why or what is going on. Is there more to this? They just live and never wonder or think outside their perfect realm of simplistic views.
So your writing is … an attempt to challenge those simplistic views?
My reasoning for what I do it because people need to wake up and realize they are being lied to and being taught lessons in life that are useless. Your worlds arnt perfect and there is more than just work, bills and family.
I wanna challenge you on that. How does writing a post about a wrestler being dead when he isn’t challenge people’s fundamental worldviews or beliefs about “freedom”? Like, you frame this as some big political statement, but I honestly don’t see the connection.
Its not just about some wrestler being dead. The funny thing is alot of my writing has been about things or people I like. I love wrestling im a huge fan of it and watch it all the time. Im also a massive Dallas Cowboys fan but I have bashed Dallas countless times in my articles. The writing itself meant to be the message. Its the reactions. The reactions of the people that make them all very simple to me. It shows so many people have been raised to be so gullible or have been told to do this or that one way. Never question anything. They are told that if its a rule its made a rule for a reason and just accept it.
@Luvinmyboo1221 Its satire idiot. Gordon is my favorite driver. Just like cowboys are my fav NFL team. I wrote about them also in a bad way— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) March 25, 2014
Im looked at as horrible because I break their moral rules. I see past their rules and regulations that people made up on their own at some point in time. Someone gets others to believe in their beliefs and it spreads. Like religion you can say. One person starts it all and tells you this and that. One person believes and they tell the others also. Thats how things grow support. People dont think about alot of things are just do.
Do your family and friends know about your work for Empire Sports?
Everyone knows I do it. I am not afraid to hide it. My coworkers have seen them, my family, friends everyone. I share it to my Facebook and Twitter every time i write something new. I dont have a problem showing the world what I do. Thats my goal. I want to be known by everyone. I enjoy being a villain to people. Thats why I write. I will get the people to buy into my works just to rip their hearts out. No one can play that role better than me.
That seems like … a pretty antisocial attitude.
I wouldnt quite say im antisocial. I have a good amount of sides to me. I do tend to enjoy my peace and quite alone but at the same time I enjoy being around people who I can get along with. Yea I am uncomfortable in large crowds but in the right mentality I can be the head of a crowd. Im a living contradiction. I am the exact opposite of myself at different times. Not sure if that makes sense though. Hard to explain it.
I can be the quite loner but I can be the loud mouth of the group. I dont have limits and my potential in life is very high and writing has helped me wake up and see maybe I am smarter than I thought. Maybe I can do something with my life instead of working for nearly minimum wage. I may love my job but that wont get me to my dream to be wealthy enough to have a family and take care of them while also teaching my children the value of a dollar instead of being snobby ungrateful [expletive]. Maybe I do hold myself higher than everyone. But I can admit it. I may have an ego but thats the side I let the internet see. The side of me I can be when I need to get away from the problems in my life.
Personally I am the nicest and most genuine person you will ever meet. I love helping people and animals and I never give up on anyone. Ive spent 4 years trying to help an ex girlfriend get off drugs and get her life in order. Its nearly cost me my family because I made some mistakes and helped her in the wrong ways at times but I still busted my hump to really get her to wake up and see what she is doing with her life.
So your online persona, the one who writes fake news, isn’t necessarily your real persona.
My online persona is only a part of me. My writing is used to get views and hopefully get me exposed and maybe even get a real writing job for someone someday. I enjoy writing and I hope I can grow and improve and make a career out of it if the money is right because in the end money is the only thing that matters in todays society.
@RichardLangan2 I write what gives me views because views means money. Its not my fault idiots believe everything they are told or read.— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) April 14, 2014
Is the money how you come to terms with your writing? Because let’s be honest, most of what you do is lying. Most people would agree lying is wrong. How do you justify that?
How do I justify it? Who is to say it is wrong? The same people who have been told what is right or wrong since birth? There is no right or wrong on this planet. Most people cannot understand that so they just go their what they are told and have be to led like sheep. Everyone in this world does things “wrong”.
I wont get into my thoughts on wrong things but to give an example. Look at all the people who have been bashed and been forced out of their jobs because they are against gay marriage. How can anyone justify someones views and demanding their head because they dont believe its right?
So what would you say to people who are critical of your writing?
The tweets, facebook messages and all that makes me laugh. I find it hilarious at all the death threats I got for several of my writings. Ive gotten hate mail for everything ive written and I find it hilarious. How stupid are people to actually believe what I write?
I write because I know the sheep will look at it. I know how to exploit people. Thats how you get ahead in life. Its a cut throat world and you need to step on some people to do anything big. You get ahead by being aggressive not kissing up to people and being their lackey.
@YANKS727 I’ll take your opinion into consideration. But like I said. I have a job a d I can’t not do it. Unless you care to pay me my wages— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) April 16, 2014
The people who comment and insult me are just commical.. I love reading the comments because I know the people are offended and I enjoy it. Everyone is offended by everything now. You cant say hi to someone without them screaming or suing you for offending them. Thats why I love what I am doing. I want to wake this country up and make them see that they are so blind and unaware that its ruined what freedom is.
People can say my writing sucks and say I should be sued or I should be fired for my writing. The owner and I laugh at it. Our site is a satire site and is clearly labeled as such. It is not my fault if stupid people buy into it or get angry because they cant understand their beliefs are not universal.
@RichardLangan2 I never said it was funny. I am doing a job. I was pitched the idea. I wrote it. I don’t write I don’t make money.— Robert Winland (@iruleall15) April 16, 2014
But who is to say someones beliefs are right? Why is whoevers beliefs are in effect are right compared to lets say mine? Who is to say what im doing is so immoral and horrible? How can my writing be worth someone wish I die or I get hurt or sued? Because they got hurt by words? Thats why I dont like people. Everything upsets them. Everyone offends them and the second someone harms them they scream lawsuit. If I spill my coffee on myself from Dunkin Donuts should I be allowed to sue for millions because I am an idiot? No. Not at all.
But usually you’re not writing about “beliefs,” you’re writing news stories that appear to be true and aren’t. Do you worry about being sued for that at all?
Oh god no. I have not broken a law. I know what satire is and I know I am covered in what I do. Not to mention the site says all writing is satire. If someone wants to sue me let them. I am 24 and more intelligent than a good amount people in this country and I will destroy someone in a court room. Im not scared at all. If someone wanted to harm me or sue me what makes them any better than what most people would consider me? What happened to “sticks and stones”?
I mean, I don’t know if “sticks and stones” is a legal defense per se. I’m not sure satire is either, in this particular case. How are you defining satire, exactly?
My definition is on the humorous end. Maybe my definition is wrong but im not the one who came up with the idea. Im just writing and thats it.
… got it.