Would you believe that Chipotle was caught using dog and cat food in its meat products?
Or that NASA says Earth will experience six-straight days of total darkness?
Or that Coors beer was found to contain cocaine?
Reading them here, they seem patently absurd. But when shared on Facebook without any context, and only a small detail about who published the item, these grabby headlines have a tendency to take on lives of their own.
Each of the above stories, which racked up thousands of shares on Facebook, can be traced back to Huzlers.com. The site, which was founded in December 2013, now attracts about 387,000 unique visitors per month, according to Comscore. That makes it the No. 1 American site tracked by Comscore in a new genre that Huzler’s founder, Pablo Reyes, calls “fauxtire” — not quite The Onion, but not quite PBS.
“Some are satire, and some are just meant to be shocking and not funny at all,” Reyes told Fusion in an interview.
“I know that was the way the get the most amount of visits fast, the easiest way to grow,” Reyes said.
But the site’s stories began to get more plausible as its creators honed their formula. Reyes and the site’s main writer, David Martinez, 19, found that jumping on trending stories was a more reliable way to gain traffic.
Their most recent monster hit, however, wasn’t really tied to anything: Martinez created a fictional account of an entrepreneurial McDonald’s employee who was caught slipping mixtapes into meals. The fake story was soon being widely shared and aggregated on music and viral news site, most prominently Power 105.1, the most popular radio station in New York.
But it soon became clear that no one sharing the story had looked up Huzlers, let alone read the article. Perhaps surprisingly, this proved frustrating –– for Reyes and Martinez.
“A lot of our stories get ‘likes’ but don’t get views,” Martinez said.
Reyes claims the site’s biggest hits, like one about the Super Bowl being fixed, have driven monthly traffic into the low millions of pageviews. Although Reyes declined to say how much revenue the site brings in, Martinez said it’s in the mid-five figures.
Is that enough to justify what essentially amounts to tricking readers? Reyes admits this is problematic, but argues it’s on the reader to know what’s real.
“Most of [the stories], we keep in mind that [they’re] so shocking, we’re going to be shocked ourselves if they believed it,” he said. “We don’t try to trick people intentionally — but if they get tricked, they get tricked.”
The original tagline of the site, he says, was, “Because you love being lied to.” Eventually he was advised that they had to explicitly state that the site was satire to avoid liability.
The pair say have no plans to devote themselves full-time to the site. Reyes is starting to shift his free-time entrepreneurship to phone apps, while Martinez, who will be starting his freshman year at a community college in Chicago, is working on a clothing line. This summer he’s working as a lifeguard.
But Martinez said he wouldn’t mind if the site got bigger — and for the right reasons. Martinez says he is a huge admirer of the Onion, and he hopes the site does ultimately become known for its satire.
“I don’t like lying to people,” he said. “I just like making people laugh.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.