We’re all familiar with the parodic news press. News so outrageous it is clearly published to make people laugh. Now for the next stage: totally fake news that looks like the real thing.

Le Gorafi [a French equivalent of The Onion] is already a thing of the past, that golden era of satirical news websites. The Web is such a monster of cynicism that it has already gone to the next level: writing false but credible satire-free news stories, with the sole aim of attracting a large audience and raking in page view advertising.

The alarm was raised by a fake story that was so convincing that a chief editor of Les Inrocks [a French cultural and news magazine] rallied to deny it: The street artist Banksy had been identified and arrested by the London police. The news created a buzz in the morning and was refuted in the afternoon. That’s the way of the Internet — it quickly moves on to something else.

As a result, nobody asked themselves about the mysterious source behind this fake scoop, the National Report. The site describes itself as being “America’s #1 independent news source,” which is somewhat surprising for a site nobody has heard of. On its home page is a series of completely false but incredibly believable articles, most often without even the slightest hint of humor:

- Dallas Cancels Halloween Amid Ebola Concerns

- 2014 Federal Tax Refunds To Be Delayed Until October 2015

- Kanye West Says “Disabled don’t just deserve respect”

- Vince Gilligan Announces Breaking Bad Season 6

For the uninitiated reader (and even for a journalist, as the Banksy example proves), it is impossible to tell that it is a fake news site. Launched in 2013, the National Report at first contained a discreet disclaimer, which has since disappeared. Its sleek design, inspired by The Huffington Post, simply serves to reinforce its credibility.

A Public Service Mission

The site’s editor, who calls himself Allen Montgomery, defends his approach in all seriousness: “We like to think we are doing a public service by introducing readers to misinformation. As hard as it is to believe, National Report is often the first place people actually realize how easily they themselves are manipulated, and we hope that makes them better consumers of content.”

Why bother writing real news when you can attract a bigger audience by inventing your own? Vice pays: The Banksy article generated 227,000 social network shares, compared to only 50,000 for the 12 American news sources that denied it. The National Report is far from being the only one to have adopted this strategy: The Daily Currant, Big America News, Huzlers and Empire News have all subscribed to this public service mission, according to The Verge. The National Report is already the 178th most-visited site in the United States, according to Quantcast.

The Ebola Business

As The Verge remarks, these sites are currently hitting peak audiences … thanks to Ebola. The panic surrounding the epidemic fuels Facebook shares, and the National Report knows it. On its home page alone, there are 11 Ebola-related articles. The news of a small Texan town being placed into quarantine following the infection of five people was shared over a million times.

I can only share my dismay. This isn’t the Internet I signed up for.