The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The guy who made a fake Ammon Bundy account says it was easy to trick the Internet

Ammon Bundy is seen in an office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Jan. 9. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The man who convinced dozens of media outlets that he was the occupying rancher Ammon Bundy with nothing more than a parody Twitter account is a 35-year old West Texan man who earns a living, at least in part, by raising chickens and goats. “I got goats in the background,” he told The Post in a Friday morning phone interview, speaking in a Southern drawl. Soon after, as if on cue, the interview was interrupted by a loud bleating noise.

@Ammon_Bundy is not the real Ammon Bundy, who says he does not have a Twitter account. But the account was quoted and mentioned for days in news articles and cable broadcasts about the armed occupation of a portion of federal land in Oregon.

“The Saint” registered the parody account in the earliest hours of  Jan. 3, when he began tweeting a couple of real quotes that Bundy had given media. Within hours, his friends told him that they saw the account appear during a CNN broadcast — attributed to Bundy himself.

“I was like ‘woah.’ I didn’t really expect anything to happen like that. That was not my intention,” he said. Soon after, reporters began reaching out to the parody account, expecting to reach Bundy through it.  It was at that point that he decided to see how far he could go until someone caught on that the account was fake — that happened Wednesday morning.

@Ammon_Bundy didn’t really blow up, however, until 1 a.m. Jan. 6, when he tweeted a comment that compared Bundy to Rosa Parks. Dozens of outlets, including The Washington Post, picked it up.

“They’re gonna be all over this,” he said he thought at the time. And yes, they were. “They took the bait.”

[A short history of, the Internet’s best troll

For “The Saint,” a shortened version of his handle @TheSaintNegro29, the Ammon parody account was just another thing to do for fun late on a Saturday night. A new account that might entertain some of his friends.

Although “The Saint” said he doesn’t agree with the Bundy’s armed occupation of a portion of federal land in Oregon, he’s sympathetic to the Hammond family, whom he believes were dealt a “bad hand” from the government.

“I think I made him actually look better than he actually is in real life,” “The Saint” said of Bundy. “Except for that Rosa Parks tweet.” (“Rosa Parks is a national hero. This guy is not,” he later added.)

“One of the things that I was happy about is that I did get people discussing the issue of land rights.” He also said his trick “exposed the media as jumping on anything without fact checking.” “The Saint’s” twitter bio now reads, “The man who exposed MSM,” meaning mainstream media.

As a journalist, interviewing a person who has made it a goal to fool the media uncovers a rabbit hole of second-guessing and skepticism, particularly when said person is known primarily for their online persona. So with that in mind, here’s what the man who made @Ammon_Bundy told The Post about himself in a 40-minute phone conversation Friday:

He would not like The Post to use his real name. He keeps that offline, not even on Facebook. His online life is lived entirely in a series of Twitter “character” accounts, but tweets mainly from @TheSaintNegro29 these days. The “29” is because he’s been suspended under that moniker 28 times. He makes a new account after each suspension.

The fictional character the he calls “The Saint Negro,” he said, is black, but he himself is white. His avatar is an image of a caricatured black face, which “The Saint” said he found while Googling around for “funny faces” on the Internet. When told that the image — which has made its way around the Internet over the years — appears to be an old racist Halloween mask, “The Saint” said he wasn’t previously aware of where the image came from. He countered that he doesn’t really believe its origin matters because “I’m not using it in a racist way at all.”

The Saint’s account is known among his friends for his image manipulations, which often involve placing the mask image over the bodies and faces of black people — including in contexts that reference racial stereotypes. Some of his images and captions make fun of activists in the “Black Lives Matter” movement — particularly activist Shaun King.

“The Saint” said that he believes some Black Lives Matter activists are fair game for his particular brand of mockery because they don’t want to have an “open discussion” on race and police brutality — and instead, he argued,  automatically label those who disagree with them as white supremacists.

When I suggested that a parody account with “Negro” in the handle and a picture of a caricatured black face as an avatar was perhaps not an effective way to start the sort of serious conversation he wants, he replied: “I do agree with that statement. It does come off the wrong way.” That’s why, he said, he changed his display name to “The Saint” on Thursday, dropping the “Negro” reference. But for now, the handle, the avatar and the Photoshops are staying put, because he believes that anyone who sees his account as racist hasn’t taken the time to understand his intentions.

He sees his main account as just a character who likes to “push buttons” and “make fun of everybody” — including journalists.

In fact, The Saint only kept the @Ammon_Bundy prank going because he was annoyed by the legions of reporters contacting him. He couldn’t believe that they weren’t fact checking something that he knew for sure to be false: In one DM conversation between “Bundy” and a reporter, The Saint “verifies” that he’s Bundy simply by saying he is — in a DM claiming he had to verify his identity with Twitter, even though the Bundy account never carried a “verified” check mark.

“I’m thinking, this is not right,” The Saint said. “And I just kept going to see how far it would go.”

[What was fake on the Internet this week: Why this is the final column]

None of this shocks Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and vice president of Academic Programs at Poynter Institute. Reporters encounter hoaxes all the time, and only rarely do they pick up on them. But when a troll does hoodwink the media, McBride says, there’s usually some underlying cause.

“In this case, it worked because it functioned like bait,” McBride said. “You had a bunch of people shopping around looking for something to latch onto. So some clever person threw it out, and somebody latched on.”

“A lot of times, hoaxes are in search of a victim,” she added. “In this case, the potential victims were all sitting there waiting.”

McBride points to an astonishing story that ran in Vanity Fair the same week “the Saint” tricked the media: In it, a successful Italian surgeon romances an NBC producer assigned to make a story about him. Only after the pair are engaged does the producer realize her new fiance has lied about more or less everything.

“It got me thinking, why do people get tricked? McBride said. “Part of it is, you’re in this environment, and there are signals of authenticity.”

The problem? Plausibility, as many were reminded this week, isn’t the same as verification, no matter how thin a gap exists between them in this case. With public trust in the media eroding, the last thing we need is the journalistic equivalent of an own goal.

Liked that? Try these: 

Here’s what you can no longer say on Twitter

This is what happens when you create an online community without any rules

The conclusive, expert guide to saving Twitter from its trolls