It was the kind of dream late-night headline that lets you drift off with a grin on your face: “El Chapo Threatens War With ISIS.” Perfect. The Sinaloa Cartel vs. the proverbial terrorists, a match made in hell. What tabloid wouldn’t want that to be true? But in the immortal words of Lt. Aldo Raine, when you hear a story too good to be true … it ain’t.
Take it from Steve Charnock. The 31-year-old writer scooped the world with that El Chapo vs. ISIS bombshell because he got the information the old-fashioned way: He made it up whole-cloth for a satirical website called Thug Life Videos in Reading, England. Then he watched in stupefied horror as the global media conflated his Onion-style fiction with Clash-of-Civilizations fact.
“Everyone was believing it and no one asked anyone anything to verify,” he tells me from England on a Skype call. “No one at all. No one went back one step before the post to that site. And the site that picked it up (Cartelblog.com), it’s a shit website — it looks like some man is running it out of his bedroom.”
Everyone on the internet has seen their share of bullshit (post this status or Mark Zuckerberg will get a dime of every dollar you ever earn, check out this girl with three boobs) but most of it isn’t supposedly vetted by people with an interest in giving you the truth. In this case, the lie reported by Fox News, Forbes, and even — yo, for real, our bad here — Inverse.
Charnock says the original story was one of an average of maybe 10 pieces a day he writes for a variety of humor and satire websites. The original post on Thug Life Videos went up November 30th. He had no special ambitions for it. “I spend maybe 30 minutes on a story,” Charnock says of his typical work schedule. “You just have to pump out the posts, don’t you?”
This post, “Drug Boss El Chapo Says ‘ISIS Are Rats — My Men Will Destroy Them,” was a spiritual sequel to an earlier lark about Bloods and Crips renting a cruise ship to go fight ISIS. Traffic had been decent, and Charnock and his boss brainstormed something a little more plausible. Charnock filed it, moved on to the next piece, and forgot about it.
The story claimed to have an exclusive encrypted email from fugitive drug cartel boss “El Chapo” to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi threatening retaliation for drug shipments destroyed by the Islamic State. Here’s an excerpt:
“You [ISIS] are not soldiers. You are nothing but lowly p*ssies. Your god cannot save you from the true terror that my men will levy at you if you continue to impact my operation.
“My men will destroy you. The world is not yours to dictate. I pity the next son of a wh*re that tries to interfere with the business of the Sinaloa Cartel. I will have their heart and tongue torn from them.”
The story found its way to Cartelblog.com, and from there, as far as Charnock can tell, The Mirror, where it was first legitimized in the mainstream press. After that it was just a matter of the media doing its best Human Centipede impression.
Charnock said he didn’t go out of his way to make the story any more legit than the rest of his jokes. But the world increasingly feels like a pastiches of true-life comic book supervillains, and as ISIS has been accused of destroying drugs before, the premise didn’t seem all that far-fetched. If anything, it was sort of like rooting for Godzilla to take out Mothra so the rest of us would be spared.
“I didn’t do a great deal of research at all,” Charnock says. “This is only one of several sites we run. There are a few posts there about drug gangs so I had some background knowledge, but that’s it.”
Charnock says it’s unlikely he would have noticed that the story was being repeated by professional journalists if his boss hasn’t called it to his attention.
“And nobody actually ever figured it out. I was speaking to my boss like, ‘This is funny but it’s gone too far now.’ So we said, we have all these major publications picking it up, let’s just draw a line here. I sent the Daily Mail a quick, one-line email telling them that I made it up. It’s been quite funny watching all the outlets calling it a hoax going ‘This guy tricked everyone,’ and not, ‘We didn’t bother to do any fact-checking.’”