Of all the fake news stories that circulated before the election, one stands above the rest: The tall tale that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump was shared more than any other on social media. So how did it come to be? A BuzzFeed investigation traces it back to a network of fake news sites that seem to have their origins in the small city of Atascadero, Calif. The papal story originally appeared on a now-shuttered bogus site called WTOE 5 News. BuzzFeed figured out that WTOE was one of about 40 fake websites seemingly registered by the same person for the express purpose of getting clicks and generating ad revenue. (All the sites had the same Google AdSense ID, meaning all their money went to the same account.) Up until the pope story, however, these sister websites didn't dabble in politics.
Instead, they specialized in one particular type of celebrity story that was kind of ingenious as these things go. The stories would name a big-name celebrity (Johnny Depp, Kate Perry, etc.) and say that he or she was moving to a particular small town. Hundreds of these stories circulated with great success. (An investigator at myth-busting site Snopes even voices grudging admiration for the scheme.) Eventually, the pope story entered the mix in July—and kind of fizzled. But then an unrelated website called Ending the Fed published it in September with the same, fake headline, and it took off. BuzzFeed says a computer-savvy charter pilot in his 30s is the man behind the network of fake sites including WTOE, adding that he threatened to break their camera when they showed up on his porch in Atascadero. In an email, however, he has denied all. Click for the full investigative piece.