On Wednesday, a group of hoaxsters affiliated with the progressive nonprofit group the Yes Men circulated fake versions of The Washington Post, dated May 1, 2019, imagining a world in which President Trump has suddenly left office. Throughout the morning, the activists distributed print copies of the edition in front of the White House and debuted a website called My-WashingtonPost.com, which, despite looking like the real Post website, was splashed with the faux headline “UNPRESIDENTED: ENDING CRISIS, TRUMP HASTILY DEPARTS WHITE HOUSE.”
The stunt, which was promoted on Twitter by the left-leaning group MoveOn, was intended as a work of satire to “support impeachment,” according to Andy Bichlbaum, a cofounder of the Yes Men, who initially identified himself as “Andrew from The Washington Post” when WIRED called him Wednesday. “We’ve been around for about 20 years doing, I’d say, clowny sort of actions with a very serious impact,” Bichlbaum says.
But for some, the trick backfired, appearing to be just another example of fake news in an era already dominated by it. Charges of fake news have also been used by governments to undermine legitimate media outlets. President Trump himself has repeatedly referred to the Post, and other American news organizations, as fake news.
The Washington Post’s public relations department said on Twitter that it was aware of the fake papers and was looking into the matter.
This isn’t the first time the Yes Men have pulled off such a prank. In 2008 the group handed out phony versions of The New York Times bearing the headline “Iraq War Ends.” It, too, was accompanied by a mock website. But much has changed since then. The memory of fake news circulated by Russian and Macedonian actors in the run-up to the 2016 election is still fresh in people’s minds. Meanwhile, recent reports have surfaced of Democratic operatives using similarly misleading tactics and misrepresenting themselves during the Alabama senate race between Roy Moore and senator Doug Jones.
Bichlbaum says the group considered these concerns when it conceived of the campaign last August, along with writers L. A. Kauffman and Onnesha Roychoudhuri. (Roychoudhuri is a former fact-checker at WIRED.) But he says the creators felt confident that they were being fully transparent about the satirical nature of the “news.”