Yaman Abuibaid was sitting in a 10th-grade classroom when the teacher started talking about Justin Trudeau's plan to legalize marijuana in Canada. He realized that would be a perfect story for the news website he and a friend had created a year earlier.
He pulled out his phone, started writing, photoshopped a feature image, and published the post under the headline “Justin Trudeau To Build Marijuana Stores In Every City Across Canada."
"And the next day [I had] $900 in my AdSense account," Abuibaid, 16, said.
That October 2015 article has since been viewed more than 170,000 times and received more than 20,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook. It's earned Abuibaid and his partner Daré Adebanjo, 19, thousands of dollars thanks to the Google AdSense ads on their website.
It's also completely fake. (The prime minister has not announced plans for government marijuana stores.)
Their site, HotGlobalNews.com, looks like a real news website but is completely filled with hoax articles written by two Canadian teenagers.
Abuibaid watched the explosion in traffic for the story and saw a spike in new likes on the site's Facebook page. He realized they'd struck fake news gold.
"This is where it’s at: Justin Trudeau," he told BuzzFeed News.
Since then, Hot Global News has published roughly 40 fake news articles about Trudeau. The hoaxes include Trudeau banning Uber in Canada, Trudeau naming a kitten "Kush," Trudeau and Obama accidentally kissing at a State Dinner at theWhite House, Trudeau giving out marijuana at Halloween, Trudeau canceling his plan to legalize marijuana, and Trudeau declaring that he is "the next Nelson Mandela."
Prior to discovering the power of Trudeau hoaxes, Abuibaid said they were writing fake celebrity news — "Soulja Boy To Change Stage Name to 'Offisir Boy' And Tattooed It On His Face" — and making barely $500 a month from ads. Their earnings exploded in October thanks to the Canadian prime minister. Abuibaid provided a screenshot from Google AdSense that shows their total ad revenue that month was $10,734.40 in Canadian dollars.
They now consistently earn thousands per month and recently added two new fake news websites to their fledgling online hoax empire. (Abuibaid provided a screenshot that shows their June earnings were just under $3,000 Canadian.) Hot Global News has more than 90,000 fans on Facebook and the teenagers say they're working towards an ambitious target.
"We’re trying reach at least 1 million likes on Facebook, that’s our goal," Abuibaid said.
"Because a million sounds amazing."
Abuibaid spoke to BuzzFeed News via Skype from his local mosque in St. Catharines, Ontario. Eid al-Fitr had just begun and the sound of prayers spilled in from a nearby room. He was apologetic about the interview setting.
"Yeah, my mom forced me to go," he said.
Abuibaid is the kind of teenager who spends his spare time building websites. This year he won a medal in a national web design competition for secondary school students. Prior to getting into the fake news game, he tried to create social networking and community websites. None of them caught on.
His parents know about his fake news business. At first his father was concerned about the legality of making up stories about the prime minster.
"My dad has read the stories I’ve written and he said, 'These are really harsh articles,'" Abuibaid said. "And I said, 'Well, if on the website we say it’s satire then I’m pretty sure we’re good, because I’ve seen a lot of satire websites and they say it's a satire.'" (The site carries this disclaimer at the foot of every page: "HotGlobalNews.com is a satire website, articles/post [sic] on the website are all made-up stories and should not be taken seriously.")
Adebanjo, the older of the duo, recently completed his first year of a computer science degree at Carleton University in Ottawa. Aside from creating websites, he's trying to break into music as a rapper and has several music videos on YouTube. The two met three years ago when they were playing FIFA Online. They're two talented teenagers who share a passion for website development — and a drive to make money online.
Hot Global News in fact grew out of a failed venture by Adebanjo. Two years ago, he and some friends in high school bought Samsung phones with the plan of reselling them online at a profit. "They didn't end up selling for as much as we estimated," Adebanjo said in a Skype interview. "We ended up being like $600 short."
It had been his idea so he wanted to pay back his friends. He sent Abuibaid a message suggesting they team up.
"I know you're smart and I'm smart and we're really good with computers — what can we do to make that money back?" he said.
Abuibaid remembered the time he heard his friends talking about a Kim Kardashian story that turned out to be fake.
"I said, 'That’s definitely fake — why would you ever believe that?'" he said. "And they said, 'It’s online, it’s true.' And you realize that people believe a lot of things online. So we use that to our advantage."
Abuibaid told Adebanjo he had the perfect moneymaking idea: a fake news website.
Hot Global News launched in November 2014. Through trial and error, the two teens say they've learned that the secret to creating a viral hoax is to tell people things they want to hear.
Adebanjo said real news stories tend to be too boring and filled with facts — "useless information," as Abuibaid puts it.
"Anytime we write we always try to start off with a lot of facts, but then we make it really interesting," Adebanjo said. "We try to give a little sense of wonder."
That story has been viewed almost 800,000 times and received over 225,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook. It gets clicks because it manages to cater to Trudeau and Trump supporters at the same time — albeit by setting them off against each other.
You could be impressed with the strategy, except that the story is a total fake that fools people because it accentuates partisanship and polarization. It manufactures conflict and plays up divisions. And it shows how easy it is to make people click on and share false information, so long as it confirms our biases and beliefs.
"People are prone to uncritically accepting information they want to believe is true and to share it with others," said Brendan Nyhan, an associate professor of political science at Dartmouth who has conducted several studies about political misinformation. "It feels good to have our preconceptions validated. That’s why we as human beings are often not skeptical enough of claims that are consistent with our prior beliefs."
It's one reason why the number of fake news websites continue to grow. (I started tracking them in 2014 as part of a research project, and continue to see new players crop up on a regular basis.)
Fake news sites have names such as National Report, Associated Media Coverage, The Valley Report, Huzlers, and World News Daily Report. Many publish the kind of political hoaxes that work for Hot Global News. They also produce hoaxes about highly partisan issues. After North Carolina passed its anti-trans bathroom law, fake news websites began churning out hoaxes about trans people being assaulted or killed in bathrooms.
Others, such as TMZ World News, trade in outrageous crime stories or claims about celebrities. All of the sites are quick to put a fake news twist on topics and people that are trending on real news websites. For example, the popularity of Pokémon Go resulted in a tsunami of hoaxes about people being killed or robbed as a result of the game. The founder of a site that pumped out viral Pokémon Go hoaxes told Vice he does it because real news is already full of "bullshit."
"I'm a person that believes news lies a lot," said Pablo Reyes, a 26-year-old who lives in Dallas.
Fake news is a big enough problem that in early 2015 Facebook announced it would enable people to flag a post in their News Feed as a hoax or "purposely fake or deceitful news." That caused an initial decline in Facebook engagement, and traffic, for many of the larger fake news sites. But BuzzFeed News found the decline was short-lived. Fake news remains resilient and profitable.
Abuibaid and Adebanjo show that it's incredibly easy to launch a basic website, plug in Google AdSense, and start earning money by fooling people. And as far as the teenagers are concerned, their hoaxes don't harm anyone.
"We write about things that don’t bring harm but get people talking," Adebanjo said.
They have a rule against doing celebrity deaths.
"We wouldn't post something... for example, 'Trudeau Kills Someone,'" Abuibaid said. "We post things that are realistic and have to do with things that Trudeau says. People believe our articles about marijuana because Trudeau does talk about it."
Many of the pair's Trudeau hoaxes may seem flattering, amusing, or in line with things he might do or say. But there are also others where he's accused of a crime or violence. They have written stories about Trudeau being investigated by the CIA for supporting ISIS, and Trudeau being arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana. Perhaps their most damaging Trudeau hoax was a story headlined, "Justin Trudeau’s Wife Speaks Out About Abusive Husband." It included fake quotes from Sophie Grégoire Trudeau stating she had been abused by him.
Abuibaid admitted that story went further than others.
At first Abuibaid said he thinks people who read their articles and like their Facebook pages know the stories are fake. Then he changed his mind.
"Actually now that I think about it, they think it’s real," he said. "The name Hot Global News doesn't tell you it's satire — it sounds like a legit news source." (Their new sites also have legitimate-sounding names: The National Sun and The Global Sun.)
One of the site's non-Trudeau hits is an alarming hoax from February claiming that a member of ISIS came into Canada disguised as a Syrian refugee. (Their story used the photo of a Canadian man named Ahmad Waseem who joined ISIS. He was not a Syrian refugee and was reportedly killed months before the government began accepting large numbers of refugees.)
Canada has accepted more than 25,000 Syrian refugees since late 2015, and critics of the plan have warned of the security risks in accepting so many refugees so quickly. The hoax article went right to that point, saying, "This discovery may put many doubts into the minds of Canadian citizens on the eligibility to allow [sic] some many refugees into the country." The story has received over 30,000 likes, shares, and comments on Facebook.
I asked Abuibaid if he worries that the fake ISIS refugee hoax could increase anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment.
"A lot of people think that [it's] ... xenophobia, that I’m against Muslims," he said. "And the thing is, I am Muslim so I wouldn't be against Muslims."
As for the ISIS-as-refugee story, he said, "It’s not biased or anything."
The pair say they get lots of hate mail from people who criticize them for creating hoaxes. They also hear from those who read the articles and accuse them of running a right-wing website.
"Actually a lot of [people] think that we hate liberals and we’re conservative fans, but the truth is we're not anything," he said.
For them, it's just business. Adebanjo is setting aside some of his fake news earnings so he can bring rappers Desiigner and O.T. Genasis to the Niagara Falls area for a concert.
Abuibaid likes that idea too. But when I asked what he spends his money on, he said, "Nothing really, just making more websites."
After he graduates high school in two years, he plans to join Adebanjo at Carleton to study computer science. They plan to share a house as roommates. For now, though, their focus is on growing their fake news business by giving people what they want.
"We’re gonna keep writing Trudeau articles," he said. "Marijuana and Trudeau."