As a general rule, when the internet’s baking outer shitlands send aspiring creators of fake news, it isn’t sending us its best. It’s sending Destroy Belly Fat With One Weird Click fraudwads, it’s sending Macedonian click-hustlers and pinwheel-eyed domestic weirdos whose minds have been corroded by partisan politics and bulk doses of online. When you consider that most of the internet’s fake news, of the sports and non-sport varieties, resolves to a pure lizard-brain response to a simple market incentive—for whatever reason, people really want to get upset and stay upset, online—it makes sense that most of the Fake Sports News that washes ashore on your timeline is so artless and ugly and dumb. It does not need to be artful, and being ugly and dumb is basically the point of its existence. The world in which we live is, as you have probably noticed, just unbelievably, pyrotechnically ugly and dumb every single day, and yet somehow it is neither ugly or dumb enough to serve the needs of a consumer base that wants even more ugliness and dumbassery than this odious world can provide. The purpose of most fake news is to fill that gap, and feed that killing need. That is, at bottom, the purpose of most fake news.
But not all. On Wednesday, a number of prominent Native American activists began tweeting a statement purporting to announce that Washington’s NFL team would, next season, be changing its name to the Washington RedHawks.
If you were scrolling through Twitter with your mind in energy-saver mode, which is really the only safe way to do it, this looked like more than just an attempt to hustle a hashtag. It looked for all the world like news, albeit of the unlikeliest kind. Not just in the sense that it was good news, although there’s obviously that, but in the sense that it was being covered everywhere.
Or, more accurately, it was being “covered” “everywhere.” There were what appeared to be links to what appeared to be stories from what appeared to be major sports publications—the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated—that reported, in a rough simulacrum of those venues’ house styles, various angles on the story. The team issued no such statement, and the stories were all fakes that appeared on rather shockingly artful spoofs of each of those publications’ pages. Each of the hoax pages had been registered last month, through the French web registrar Gandi SAS by a registrant named Mark Jones. There is a field for “registrant organization” on Gandi’s form, but Jones left it blank.
There were some things about these sites that, upon close examination, were tellingly off: the sites’ URLs were slightly altered into pidgin-internet weirdnesses like sportsillustrated.news and washpostsports.com and the articles carried a Staff Writer byline. But everything else about the sites looked the way it was supposed to look and worked the way it was supposed to work—all the usual sidebars and carousels were where they were supposed to be, and populated with stories from the websites’ real-world analogues as they would have been if they were the real thing. Hover over actual Washington Post sports headlines on the Washpostsports.com site, for instance, and you’ll see links to those stories; if you right-click them, they’ll open in a new tab. The only links on the page that will directly take you to another page if clicked are those that link to other stories in the spoof, and to WashingtonRedHawks.com.
The ghoulish bile-baiting tone of most Fake Sports News was nowhere to be found in these stories, each of which told the story of a team belatedly doing the right thing at the end of another lost season and of Native American activists belatedly seeing their advocacy turn into a hard-won reality. More than that, these stories told the story well, with quotes from all the appropriate corners. Native American activists and advocates who have worked against the name for years are all heard from, all sounding more or less as they would. As it happens, these were the same activists who first started promoting the story online.
Some of the quotes that appear in these stories, though, seem slightly stilted. The Bleacher Report-ish story quotes Jay Gruden as saying, “Football has always been about our loyal fans, who have rooted us on for 85 years. YOU are Washington football. This is still your team.” But the ways in which they seem stilted mostly have to do with how much more forthright and generous they are than the norm. As easy as it would be for someone who wanted a bit of good news re: one of the last and ugliest surviving slurs in sports on a Wednesday morning could be forgiven for seeing a Native American activist happily tweeting this news out, clicking through to read a hopeful story on a real-looking website, and doing the same.
Many people did. “I follow @xodanix3 on Twitter—she’s a Native American writer and activist in St. Paul, Minn.—and I saw her tweeting about it, very matter-of-factly, and retweeting others doing the same,” the basketball writer William Bohl told me. “So I clicked, and... I mean, it’s a very convincing fake, isn’t it? This probably sounds really, really stupid, but... I mean, it’s under the SI banner, it has the Peter King MMQB branding, and the freaking hyperlinks work!” When he realized that he’d been fooled, Bohl changed his Twitter avi to the Crying Michael Jordan image, and says that he will keep it until December 20.
It is so easy to admire the technical deftness and general craftsmanship behind the RedHawks hoax that it’s worth taking a moment to consider how slashing the satirical intent is, here. It emerges gradually as you click across the various spoof sites, as the realization builds that all this decency and equanimity just sounds wrong coming from the people it’s coming from. There is no more devastating assessment of how Daniel Snyder has handled his team’s shameful name than imagining him saying, as he’s “quoted” in the Sports Illustrated spoof: “[The RedHawks] is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect—the same values we know guide Native Americans and which are embedded throughout their rich history as the original Americans.” It’s all the more so when you realize that this is an exact quote from an actual statement that Snyder made in 2013, in defense of continuing to call his team the Redskins.
The quotes celebrating long-deferred recognition that the Redskins name is an insult to the Native American experience are celebrating something that hasn’t happened yet. Here, for instance, is how Dr. Gabrielle Tayac was quoted in the Washington Post-y story.
“Football is such a key symbol of civic pride. I feel a sense of relief and faith in my neighbors that now we don’t have to dehumanize people to celebrate our city. Piscataway people and our allied tribes were nearly exterminated on this landscape and we remain almost entirely invisible. To caricature the extreme violence we have survived was so entirely wrong.”
This is, by any standard, not too terribly much to ask. That acknowledgment is also, at this moment, exactly as real as these websites. For now, in the absence of any other information on this campaign, we can assume that’s the point. On Wednesday afternoon the team issued a statement made sure that no one would miss it:
UPDATE: The activists behind the RedHawks campaign issued a statement shortly after this post went up in which they explained what they hoped to accomplish with the hoax.