The man who helps the internet make fake news

Jonathan Cresswell. Courtesy photo.

Ahead of the 2020 election, Americans may have an understandable fear that Russia will continue to hijack social media in an attempt to undermine the democratic process. Facebook and Twitter will most likely be under a microscope, with reporters and United States intelligences agencies looking for false news stories and political memes. But not much attention has been paid to Jonathan Cresswell, a London-based web designer and developer, who is personally responsible for spreading misinformation across the internet.

Cresswell, who is 27, has made some interesting websites. One tells you when Justin Bieber is playing on a UK radio station. Another is a party game in which players improvise arguments in support of bad opinions generated by an algorithm. His most popular site, however, allows anyone on the internet to easily create shareable fake news stories. On BreakYourOwnNews.com, as it’s called, users can upload real television news stills and insert the phony headlines and tickers of their choice.

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Cresswell came up with the idea while at work, at Aiir, a company that helps radio stations build websites; he’s a lead designer. On a summer day in 2014, a colleague sent out a staff email about a lack of tea bags in the kitchen with the subject line, “Breaking News: Tea Union on Strike.” “We’re incredibly British,” Cresswell explains. He replied with a Photoshopped image of a news story on the “strike.” Then it occurred to him: What if he built a site for that?

It took a couple of days to build, and launched that September. Using it takes mere minutes. Every “Break Your Own News” image has both a watermark that includes the web address and a black box in the lower left corner with a timestamp. Cresswell says that this design feature serves to both advertise the site and show that the “news” is fake. In the first years, the site yielded a few popular social media posts, but it didn’t really start to pick up steam until February 2016, when the US election season wound up.

In particular, it got traction with Donald Trump supporters, many of them on Reddit. Cresswell noticed that some of the images created with his site were “for comedy,” but he also realized that some people were using his site to create false news stories that others believed. It was during this period he started to wonder, Is this fine, or no? Although the images include elements meant to tip people off that what they’re seeing is fake, it is still possible to be deceived. Snopes notes that, amid coverage of major hurricanes, for instance, fake stories about sharks invading the storm systems—made on BreakYourOwnNews.com—were shared on widely on social media. Upon reflection, however, Cresswell figures he didn’t create anything that wouldn’t have been otherwise available. “There is nothing in that image you cannot recreate in a minute in Photoshop,” he says. “Now, not everyone has access to those tools, but they’re becoming easier in many mobile apps.”

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Small news websites and individuals have asked him to allow users to pay for a version without the watermark. He hasn’t developed one because he doesn’t want to be in the position of deciding who has good intentions and who doesn’t, and he thinks people might be more inclined to believe the parodies if there are ones out there without the watermark.

Beyond politics, the site, which averages 80,000 hits a month, has been used in unexpected ways. For instance, Cresswell says teachers have told him that they ask their students to create headlines based on historical events to supplement homework assignments.

It appears that Denny’s used it to create a promotion of its expansion into the UK. (Although the watermark isn’t in the video, the timestamp in the bottom left corner is a dead giveaway.)

 

And there have been other hits:

Cresswell has come to understand that he is responsible for some misinformation on the internet, but he doesn’t see his site as being a particularly abhorrent instrument. “The way I tend to square it is that if you could make something that’s misleading dangerously so with this, you are more than capable of doing that on any number of tools,” he says. “I don’t think there’s something unique about this that makes it more malicious.”

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.