In December 2014, some Internet users were passing along links to a story with a striking headline: "Newly Elected Republican Senators Sign Pledge to Eliminate Food Stamp Program in 2015."
One hundred percent of newly elected Republican Senators have agreed to vote to eliminate the food stamps program including;
Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).
"Small businesses and the American people cannot afford President Obama’s countless new regulations and tax increases. There is a right way and a wrong to improve our country’s welfare system, and the President’s policies just aren’t working. We need to put poor people first and lower costs," Senator Gardner said in a statement.
Senator Perdue stated on his campaign website that he was one of the millions of Americans who would support free market solutions to feeding the nation.
"The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an overreaching federal program that has actually worsened the nutritional standards in this nation and increased costs. I am one of the millions of Americans who wish this program would end. To make matters worse, SNAP benefits are discouraging full-time job creation. We need to repeal the SNAP program and replace it with more affordable free market solutions," Perdue said on his campaign page.
The Senators signed a pledge to approve any legislation in 2015 that would completely defund the $78 billion program.
In recent years, some conservatives have criticized the growing usage of the program, due largely to higher demand during the Great Recession. Still, suggesting it should be eliminated entirely would be a big deal. The food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has a budget of more than $80 billion.
So is the story accurate?
No, it’s not accurate. The Daily Leak is one of a growing number of websites that run "satire" -- or more accurately, as we’ve noted, fake news.
Sites such as the Daily Currant, the National Report, Empire News and others publish plausible-sounding -- but entirely fabricated -- news articles.
Buried on the Daily Leak’s hard-to-find FAQ page is a disclaimer: "The Daily Leak is a satirical, parody website. … The Daily Leak uses invented names in all its stories, except in cases where public figures are being satirized. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental."
Interestingly, the quote by Gardner turns out to be rooted in something real -- but the Daily Leak twisted the language from its original purpose. Gardner’s staff pointed us to a news release from when Gardner was serving in the House. It applauded a House vote to approve the Repeal of Obamacare Act, but the Daily Leak changed the news release’s focus from the health care legislation to food stamps by changing the phrase "health care" to "welfare" and "patient-centered care" to putting "poor people first."
The popular impact
What we’ve seen happen is that these posts go viral, free of any "satire" label, reaping Web traffic and advertising revenue for the site when people unwittingly share them on social media.
This certainly happened with the food stamp story. Through Jan. 6, 2015, when we were researching this fact-check, the Daily Leak story had been shared more than 115,000 times on Facebook alone. These posts likely reached many times that number of eyeballs as friends of these Facebook posters scrolled through their news feeds. And many who saw the story had no inkling it was fake.
For instance, the website of the Progressive Democrats of America, a coalition of "labor, peace, healthcare-for-all, and justice groups" founded in 2004, re-posted the story without any indication that it was fake. The story was also posted on other political sites, such as Coloradopols.com.
When one user at the popular liberal site Democratic Underground posted the Daily Leak item, some commenters warned that it was satire -- but other commenters, even after hearing that, seemed unfazed, saying the Republican Party’s rhetoric on food stamps made it plausible in their mind.
"I totally believe they'd do something like that," wrote one user in the Democratic Underground thread. Another wrote, "If it's satire, it sucked me in completely. I saw nothing that would stretch my credulity." A third added, "Even after knowing it's satire, I have a hard time believing it isn't true. These people work tirelessly to cut food stamps. Who is to say they won't try to gut the program?"
In late December, Dave Weigel, a political blogger for Bloomberg, expressed exasperation on his Facebook page with both the fake-news sites and the social-media users who are gullible enough to believe their posts -- or who are too lazy to give them the barest level of scrutiny.
"I first learned of the Daily Leak story when a very smart economist friend -- seriously, he's smart -- emailed it as a shocking story political reporters should have been on," Weigel told PolitiFact. "He didn't mean it as an insult, but increasingly I think reporters should take fake news that way. This story was bogus, but shared more than 100,000 times, while actual stories about Republicans and entitlements that took sourcing and reporting and the support of news organizations can get ignored."
The Daily Leak post, Weigel added, "was written to be shared by liberals who think conservatives are stupid. In sharing it, they said that they didn't really care whether the bad thing they heard about Republicans was true or not. It's incredible that in the age of Google, so many people decline to take the step of double-checking their sources -- or don't search for better articles."
More than 115,000 social media users passed along a story headlined, "Newly Elected Republican Senators Sign Pledge to Eliminate Food Stamp Program in 2015." But they failed to do due diligence and were snookered, since the story came from a publication that bills itself (quietly) as a "satirical, parody website." We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2015: After we published our fact-check, we received a response from Kevin Gallagher of the Daily Leak. We had asked him whether he considers the site’s articles to be political satire. Gallagher responded, "Yes, the site is full of satire, parody, and spoofs, mainly of politics and sports." When we asked why the site’s satire label is relatively inconspicuous, Gallagher said, "Are you familiar with The Onion? Let me know when you find their disclaimer. I'll give you a hint, it's hidden deep down in the FAQ. My site has a much more prominent disclaimer than The Onion, National Report, Daily Currant, or most other similar sites, for that matter." We also asked him his reaction to 110,000-plus people sharing their story on Facebook thinking it was real: "As a teacher, it would please me greatly to see more people fact-checking what they read on the Internet. Unfortunately, when it comes to politics in particular, people often have an emotional reaction to a headline before using any reason to deduce whether it could possibly be true."