The media that’s meant to report the must-knows and hold the splintering political sphere to account is reaching a stalemate with the fake news phenomenon. While Donald Trump continues to bleat ‘fake news’ at anything he doesn’t agree with, it’s actually getting harder and harder to cut through the bullshit from websites set up to ignite panic, encourage misplaced anger and confusion, and just really to fuck with us. While we push on against the tidal shitwave, a viral marketing campaign for the upcoming film A Cure For Wellness actually turned fake news to their favour.
Sites such as the Sacramento Dispatch, Houston Leader, Salt Lake City Guardian, the New York Morning Post and the Indianapolis Gazette were set up by 20th Century Fox, who made the film, to spread false stories that were picked up across social media, many about Donald Trump and the current administration, others about topics that get people talking, like abortion and vaccines. Interspersed with the stories were ads for A Cure For Wellness, and editorial call-outs for readers to engage with the stories on Twitter with the hashtag #acureforwellness. Basically, people were unknowingly contributing to a massive viral marketing campaign, while simultaneously adding to the fake news trash pile.
One story from the Sacramento Dispatch, according to the Washington Post, was titled: “BOMBSHELL. Trump and Putin Spotted at Swiss Resort Prior to Election”. Another story claimed that Trump was refusing to give California federal support following a dam flood because of its “sanctuary cities”, where people can’t be prosecuted for violating federal immigration laws, and people have access to all services regardless of immigration status. This story was particularly well publicised, though was indeed false.
Some other examples from the sites include, “LEAKED: Lady Gaga Halftime Performance to Feature Muslim Tribute” and “California Legislature to Consider Tax Rebates for Women Who Get Abortions”. Many of the stories were shared thousands of times, and shared by partisan sites such as the Red State Watcher.
Of the health-related articles, one falsely shared that a Trump-related form of anxiety and depression had been reported by the American Medical Association and that ‘Trump Depression Disorder’ was affecting one third of the U.S. Readers were asked “to tweet #cureforwellness to raise awareness of the growing epidemic”. Another on the Houston Leader claimed that Trump had overseen a 90-day ban on vaccines for the measles, rubella and the mumps, which was then debunked by fact-checkers at Snopes.
A Cure for Wellness is a film, out today, that sees a young executive travel to Switzerland to retrieve his company’s CEO from a health spa. He then finds himself pulled into the weird, sinister treatments. The stories published on the sites don’t recall anything that goes on in the film.
People on social media have been railing against the ‘deceptive’ marketing campaign. One said that it “sets a frightening precedent for Hollywood to manipulate,” with another tweeting “boycott #CureForWellness for highly irresponsible creation of fake news in today’s environment. Wait until it’s free or bootlegged.”
“This absolutely crosses the line,” Bonnie Patten, the executive director of the consumer watchdog TruthinAdvertising.org, told the New York Times. “Using a fake news site to lure consumers into buying movie tickets is basically a form of deceptive marketing.”
The promoters behind the film also created a site that looked like the legit HealthCare.gov and a fake bottled water company.
A statement from Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox said: “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.”
Following this admission, the sites now redirect to the Gore Verbinski-directed film’s official website. However, some of the websites’ content can still be viewed in archive mode.
20th Century Fox admitted the promotional campaign was “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 statement read. “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 apologise”.
An anonymous marketing expert explained to Variety: “On a moral level, I give it an F. On an execution level, I give it an F. 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’ as Donald Trump knows it has been weaponised to attack the free press when it calls him out: he’s tweeted the phrase dozens of times, and drew ridicule for calling Buzzfeed ‘fake news’ following their release of a dossier on the president. Using a genuinely concerning and harmful digital phenomenon to promote a psychological thriller seems dangerous, and ethically questionable at least given that consumers have been contributing to the dirty puddle of a press and promoting the film without having any knowledge of it.
Follow Anna Cafolla on Twitter here @annacafolla