Bayou City

How a Houston Newspaper Became the Victim of a Fake News Scheme

A recent issue of The Leader.
A recent issue of The Leader. Zach Despart
click to enlarge A recent issue of The Leader. - ZACH DESPART
A recent issue of The Leader.
Zach Despart
Jonathan McElvy's free weekly newspaper, The Leader, serves about 35,000 readers in the Heights — yet shortly after the Super Bowl, McElvy began receiving complaints from people across the country and the world.

It was all very unusual, as the complaints were all about the same false, offensive article. It was headlined, "Thirty Year Study of Vegans Finds Increased Rate of Mental Health Issues," and was published not by The Leader, but by another site with a strikingly similar name: the "Houston Leader."

"Some random dude posted it on our Facebook page, and all of a sudden I started getting calls from angry vegans across the world, wondering why we would dare report a study that said being a vegan leads to mental illness," McElvy said. "I got an email from a rabbi in Great Britain. I spent 45 minutes with a lady from New York, who did not believe that we were not the publishers."

McElvy began perusing the impostor site, finding an eclectic catalog of outrage-inducing click bait. He found an article about Donald Trump secretly giving the New England Patriots a performance-enhancing drug before the Super Bowl. About Lady Gaga planning a tribute to Muslims during the half-time show. About Trump signing an executive order banning childhood vaccinations for 90 days. The website  was elaborate. It had a "contact us" page with a list of 17 reporters and various editors, and even a "careers" page, with job openings for an editor and a sales associate. McElvy even inquired, just to see if someone from the website causing his newspaper so much strife might respond.

Finally he got some answers several days later, from someone at the University of Connecticut who had done some research on the site's domain. It appeared to be owned by Twentieth Century Fox.
See, beyond being completely fake, the articles all had one thing in common: They were promoting a movie, the psychological thriller A Cure for Wellness. "The President has asked the public to rally around his decision using the hashtag #cureforwellness,' a fake White House official says in the vaccination story. "It’s just simply not possible for vegans to get all of the nutrition they need. We encourage the community to raise awareness to this issue using the hashtag #cureforwellness," a fake doctor says in the vegan story. (Buzzfeed, which broke the story, has archived the pages.)

All of it was paid for by Twentieth Century Fox, which, after being called out by Buzzfeed and other outlets, has admitted to being behind six fake news websites across the country. Presumably, the goal was to generate buzz about the movie by spreading viral, damaging, made-up stories and planting these hashtags in people's heads, leading them to do a quick Google search and stumble upon the film's trailer. The multi-billion-dollar movie company, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has not revealed whose idea it was to do the fake-news promo, but it did apologize in a statement last week:

“In raising awareness for our films, we do our best to push the boundaries of traditional marketing in order to creatively express our message to consumers. In this case, we got it wrong. The digital campaign was inappropriate on every level, especially given the trust we work to build every day with our consumers. We have reviewed our internal approval process and made appropriate changes to ensure that every part of a campaign is elevated to and vetted by management in order to avoid this type of mistake in the future. We sincerely apologize.”
The fake news sites have since been dismantled, and all of the fake stories now go straight to the movie's website.

McElvy said he plans to write a letter to Twentieth Century Fox. He wonders: Instead of hijacking names of local papers, could the company simply have purchased ads inside them to support real journalism?

"If you're going to do that on the backs of real news organizations, that's a problem," he said. "I own this company. I have a balance sheet. It says what my assets are and my liabilities. I've got computers, I've got desks, and I've got my name. Goodwill is the only asset newspapers really have."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn