Fake regional newspapers Houston Leader, Sacramento Dispatch, NY Morning Post, Indy Gazette and Salt Lake City Guardian have been the target of fake news debunkings a lot recently here at Lead Stories. At first we thought they were just run of the mill fake news websites designed to attract visitors with over-the-top headlines and spectacular 'news' hoping to make a quick buck from advertising by baiting people on social media with anti-republican or anti-Trump news.
In the past they posted false stories claiming Trump secretly met Putin during the election campaign, California women would get tax-rebates on abortions, Lady Gaga would perform a Muslim tribute at the Super Bowl, Trump refused to help with California disasters or that protesters would be stripped of their welfare benefits.
But then we started noticing some patterns:
- All these websites have ads on them for the movie "A Cure for Wellness" (and they don't come from a normal ad network like Google Adsense, they are images linking directly to the movie website.
- Several of the articles call upon readers to voice their opinion on social media using the hashtag #CureForWellness, even when this makes no sense in the context of the article.
- Several of the articles use phrases related to 'sickness within' or 'sickness inside', which is a tagline used on Facebook when a trailer for the movie was posted:
- One of the more recent articles directly uses character's names ("Volmer", "Lockhart") and the location of the movie (a swiss resort known as "Die Böhmische Therme" or "The Volmer Institute") in an unrelated fake news story.
- Compared to 'regular' fake news websites they have relatively few ads and no popups.
- The sites are professionally designed and it looks like a lot of effort has been put into making them real. Ordinary fake news websites usually use some shoddy Wordpress template and call it a day. These sites went so far as to make up a fake senator Bradley Kennedy (complete with fake campaign website and a twitter account) for one story.
So is this a new way of promoting a movie? Setting up fake 'fake news' websites? We've reached out to the producers of the movie to ask if they were behind the stunt. If it was them, it certainly raises serious ethical issues: what about all the people who actually believed the news about Trump or impending republican legislation?
And if it wasn't them, then who did all this? Why put in all this effort to promote a movie you aren't connected with? If you happen to know the people behind this campaign, we'd love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: Buzzfeed got confirmation from the producers of the film that they were behind it:
BuzzFeed News contacted Regency Enterprises, one of the film's producers with the information connecting the sites to the film. A spokesperson confirmed they are working with the fake sites and provided a statement.
I'm sure the last hasn't been said about this...