“BOMBSHELL,” the headline howled in bold, all-capital letters, before continuing, “Trump and Putin Spotted at Swiss Resort Prior to Election.”
A cursory glance around the Sacramento Dispatch’s website revealed it to be like any other local newspaper. On the right: a graphic displaying the current weather (44.8 degrees with clear skies). Above the story, the standard labels — News, Business, Sports, Entertainment.
So you read on.
“Amidst controversy that President Trump had ties with the Russian government prior to the 2016 presidential election, a shocking, yet currently unsubstantiated report comes from sources within the Alpine region of Switzerland,” it read.
The story was fake, and so was the news organization. The Sacramento Dispatch does not exist. Neither do its sister “news outlets,” such as the Houston Leader, the Salt Lake Guardian, the New York Morning Post or the Indianapolis Gazette.
These websites — and the fake news they peddled — were part of a marketing campaign for 20th Century Fox’s new horror-tinged mystery film “A Cure for Wellness,” directed by Gore Verbinski of “The Ring” fame. All of the sites now redirect to the film’s website.
Most of the stories made outlandish claims about President Trump. One, which can be viewed in archive mode, claimed that Trump, citing “sanctuary cities,” “refuses to provide California federal support” when 188,000 citizens were evacuated as the state’s massive Oroville Dam was expected to flood.
This story, in particular, spread throughout social media like wildfire, tricking lay person and celebrity alike.
The websites simply confused others.
This might be FAKE NEWS. Sacramento Dispatch not showing up as real newspaper, other stories on site r suspicious https://t.co/vIOntvIueR
— A Once Great Nation (@USARedOrchestra) February 13, 2017
Eventually, many Twitter users began to seriously question the claims of these “newspapers.”
“I mean I have literally never heard of the Sacramento Dispatch and I went to school up there so … yeah,” Joanna Robinson, senior writer for Vanity Fair, tweeted.
For all of you who warned me off the Sacramento Dispatch fake news, thanks. I also clarified it last night, deleted the tweet.
— Karoli (@Karoli) February 13, 2017
Indiana Gazette. Sacramento Dispatch. Salt Lake City Guardian. Houston Leader…. and more. All FAKE NEWS SITES.
— Leesa Brown (@ReasonVsFear) February 13, 2017
Snopes, the popular myth-debunking website, got in on the action, declaring the stories “false.”
It required such digging because the websites didn’t contain any disclaimers or any other indication that they weren’t, in fact, actual publications. Scattered throughout some stories were prompts for readers to share their thoughts on social media using #acureforwellness.
For this to mean anything to readers, they would have had to know either the title of a then-unreleased film or search the hashtag on Twitter. As most news consumers offer roughly 15 seconds of their attention to a story, according to Tony Haile, the founding chief executive of Chartbeat, it’s unlikely many took these steps to verify their sources.
When asked by BuzzFeed News about the strategy, a spokesperson for Regency Enterprises, a production company involved with the film, said in a statement, “‘A Cure for Wellness’ is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker. As part of this campaign, a ‘fake’ wellness site healthandwellness.co was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news.”
The identity of this “fake news creator” remains unclear. But there are people who do this for a living.
On Thursday, 20th Century Fox released a lengthy statement apologizing for the websites, calling them “inappropriate on every level.”
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.
One marketing expert, speaking to Variety on the condition of anonymity, called the plan “monumentally stupid.”
“On a moral level, I give it an F. On an execution level, I give it an F,” the expert said. “We don’t need more fake news stories. We don’t need more lies right now. There is already plenty of that out on the Web. It’s already hard enough for people.”
“Fake news,” of course, is no longer news. It has become one of President Trump’s favorite talking points. He repeatedly brought the term up during Thursday’s news conference, and his Twitter feed is littered with the phrase. From Jan. 20 to the time of this writing, he has tweeted the phrase 20 times, according to an advanced Twitter search.
In this instance, he wouldn’t be wrong. Which is what makes it even more shocking that the websites were born of a major media company (albeit one that no longer contains a news operation).
This barrage of fake news is far from an amusing quirk of the digital age. As residents of Washington, D.C. know all too well, it can have real-world consequences. In December, a North Carolina man was arrested for taking an assault rifle, which he fired, into Comet Ping Pong, a family-friendly pizzeria. He did it because he believed a fake news story that gained massive popularity linking the pizzeria to a child sex-trafficking ring and Hillary Clinton. You likely know the terrifying episode better as Pizzagate.
The climate of fake news has grown so rapidly that in early January, The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote a column titled, “It’s time to retire the tainted term ‘fake news.’ ”
Perhaps, though, it will prove useful in selling movies, despite any moral or ethical costs associated with it.
We’ll soon know — the movie opens Friday.