If you are like most NFL fans, you were surprised to learn on Facebook yesterday—or the day before that, or last week—that a NFL team was preparing to declare bankruptcy due to, uh, the entitled and ungrateful thugs and the kneeling during the national anthem and the veterans there’s so many and you really do more and more, and additionally of course the police. It’s complicated—it’s always complicated—and it doesn’t remotely add up, although that is mostly because it’s fake. It’s also all over Facebook, again.
Last week, the latest wave of Fake Sports News crashed fragrantly onto the battered shores of the internet’s garbage coast. The grim toxic tide of Fake Sports News, which was last observed earlier this NFL season when one of the most egregiously shitty photoshops in recent history helped get America’s most gullible web-victims upset about the Seattle Seahawks celebrating around a burning American flag, did not end so much as recede. Tides are cyclical, and also there is a lot of garbage swirling around out there offshore.
That initial turd-surge was successful, in its ridiculous and ghoulish and wall-eyed way. Links to wholly false stories built around an oafishly faked image of Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett celebrating with a burning American flag were shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook and elsewhere. These stories appeared on sites foreign and domestic, and once the fakery was exposed—noticed might be the more correct word—a series of less-successful gambits followed in a similar vein. Those sequels followed up on the initial Bennett image by reporting that the NFL had bravely moved to kick the Seahawks (and sometimes other teams) out of the NFL, but they were not shared as widely. An extremely blurry 13-second Youtube video purporting to show Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dak Prescott kicking the shit out of Old Glory in the Cowboys locker room convinced hardly anyone. This was low tide.
Last week, though, a number of extremely garbage websites, almost all of them registered in Kosovo and notionally unrelated to sports, yurped up another stunningly stupid, baldly racist, and totally false NFL story. The versions of this story that appeared on various sites starting around December 3 tend to be slightly different, but you can gather the contours of this particular garbage chunk from the version that appeared on America’s most trusted sports news site, mysterychristmasgifts.info on December 6:
The Jacksonville Jaguars are quietly maneuvering behind the scenes to file a Chapter 11 reorganization of debt bankruptcy in the 3rd District Court of Atlanta next week. The team, already in a market saturated with Dolphins, Bucs and Falcons fans, made the unfortunate mistake of drafting developing and hiring almost exclusively black players, leaving them vulnerable to the latest round of “we’ve been treated unfairly” protests from millionaires.
This particular protest, unfortunately, happened on national TV and pissed off every God-fearing, country-loving American who has either had the honor to serve or know someone who did. They might as well have wiped their proverbial asses with the American flag.
last week, 31 of the 42 men on the Jacksonville roster took a knee during the national anthem. The coaches just stopped paying attention and went on with their game planning while the few patriots who braved the picket lines to make sure someone was there to respect the flag and our veterans stood and sang the song with pride.
The story goes on to explain that the team will soon be moving to St. Louis, which is a nice little grace note. All told it is truly an amazing story, a shocking crystalline vision of our age, and yet not one mainstream sports media outlet was willing to pick it up, simply because it did not actually happen. That last bit, unsurprisingly, did not keep the story from being both widely covered and widely shared on Facebook. As far as I can tell, this story appears in versions ranging from identical to extremely similar, on 109 different websites. The presence of the extremely lost-in-translation sentence “Jacksonville is a dead stick” in the copy makes it very easy to find these stories on Google; that sentence appears to have made its English-language debut when these stories first started showing up in early December.
That Mystery Christmas Gifts Dot Info version was shared on Facebook just 597 times, which left it far behind the spin on the story at santachristmas.info, which was shared on Facebook 3,538 times, or the one that appeared at christmasdailygifts.info, which was shared nearly 2,500 times. These were the most seasonally appropriate toilet-sites sharing the story, but not nearly the most prolific. Versions shared by sites specializing in conservative fake news tended to see more pickup. The world-newss.com version of the story was shared nearly 17,000 times, a similar one from viralusa.org was shared more than 6,900 times, and another from americanprides.org was shared 2,230 times, which as it happened far outpaced the version shared from prideof-america.info. On the more overtly Blue Lives Matter side of the continuum, the policeus.info version was shared nearly 1,300 times, whereas the iterations from copsbest.com, todaypolice.com, and policetask.com were all in the mid-hundreds. The version at trumpfriends.info was only shared a few hundred times, although the fact that there is a website called trumpfriends.info seems worth mentioning. (Among the many other sites that shared the story, the version from usaupnews.blogspot.pe—the world-renowned Peruvian blogspot site that broke the extremely false news of Naughty By Nature DJ Kay Gee dissing Barack Obama in a recent interview with Rolling Stone—deserves special attention for being noticed and screengrabbed by ace internet explorer @eminemobama.)
These sites are registered in various different places, all of which are about where you’d expect them to be. Copsbest.com is registered to someone named Ermal Dumani, who set up the site from Kosovo. Bunjamin Grozda, who set up prideof-america.com as well as americanprides.com, also appears to live in Kosovo. Other Kosovo-based sites bravely telling the story of the Jaguars Hiring Too Many Disrespectful Black Guys And Therefore Going Bankrupt include mysterychristmasgifts.info, which was set up out of the Kosovo municipality of Gllogoc, and santachristmas.info, which...was set up by the same person that set up mysterychristmasgifts.info. Policeus.info is registered out of Panama with no name given. Trumpfriends.info, if you were curious, was registered via a company called domainsbyproxy.com, whose website blares “your identity is nobody’s business but ours.” It looks like most of the other sites hosting these stories, which means it looks like this:
As with the previous iterations of Fake Sports News, this story is a luridly naked appeal to the most unappealing impulses in the culture; it’s a leering attempt at pandering so oafish that it reveals itself as a poisonous and revealing insult. It’s not just what it gets wrong or makes up, although there is of course a lot of that; in a story made up out of whole cloth to feed the bottomless appetite for divisive racist web-trash, it seems to miss the point to mention that NFL teams actually dress 46 players on game day or that the Jaguars are in fact having a pretty fantastic season.
As with earlier Fake Sports News stories, the fact that the story involves the NFL seems almost incidental, or at least to have more to do with the broader trends and targets of online outrage than anything to do with the sport, or sports. This fits squarely within a specific subgenre of partisan garbage content in which various enemies are named and shamed and punished for their disloyalty. Donald Trump himself is not mentioned in any of these stories, but they are awash in the goonish conflations that define the discourse around him—the collapsing metonyms and symbology and associations aimed at making this towering wad synonymous with America, and making any offense against him an offense against the national interest and national idea.
There is a lot of this stuff out there, and the fact that these particular web-turds were extruded in Kosovo doesn’t change the fact that a great deal of this viral web garbage is manufactured domestically. This Fake News, as with all the other garbage content you’d expect from sites with obscure news-adjacent names or ones that align with various partisan pettinesses—or even ones that seem like they might somehow have something to do with Christmas—works like fishing. A line is cast into the murky depths of Facebook, and the bait on it is either intriguing enough to inspire a reflexive response or it isn’t. The gamble, here as elsewhere, is that people on Facebook might be hungry enough for a specific sense of outrage to click and share and comment despite the obvious fakery of it all. It’s not about consuming or sharing edifying information so much as it is about affirming and reflecting a series of signals. Fake News is not the only thing that works this way; a large and growing percentage of our politics and broader culture seems to work like that, too.
If there’s anything that marks these latest bits of corroded deep-sea detritus as foreign-made, it’s the way that they botch the coded language in which these things are ordinarily expressed. The idea of all this is clear—NFL athletes protesting police murder and impunity are disloyal and selfish and ungrateful, and they should suffer for it. This is an argument that you can find literally anywhere—you can find it in the fart bogs of the reactionary internet, but you can also find it in the comment sections and actual articles at mainstream publications; on right-wing radio and on sports-talk radio.
Making up a fantastical reckoning for these players is where these stories screw up, and not just because it’s provably false. All of these stories mention that “salaries won’t be covered in the bankruptcy. After this season as many as 24 players will be on their own;” a few, but not all, end with the words “Karma. It’s a wonderful thing.” This seems like a mistake not just because it’s not fucking true, although that’s obviously worth mentioning, but because it misreads the appetite of the audience. Obviously thousands of people are willing to believe and amplify something that is untrue because of how much they want it to be true, but Fake Sports News that purports to be about retribution or reckoning misunderstands the need being served. It’s not about an ending, or the illusion of an ending. It’s about staying offended, staying on-guard, staying angry, forever. The Jaguars and their Despicable Ungrateful Kneeling Thugs can’t ever go bankrupt. There are too many angry people, and too many desperate cynics, who need them too much.