It was only a matter of time before brands figured out how to use fake news to their advantage.
Twentieth Century Fox went so far as to create its own string of fake news sites, complete with made-up stories about US president Donald Trump and charged topics like abortion and vaccines, as part of a viral marketing campaign for an upcoming psychological horror film.
The movie studio—owned by Fox Entertainment Group, the same company that owns actual cable-news outlets Fox News Channel and Fox Business News—reportedly launched the fake news sites to promote A Cure for Wellness, a movie about a phony cure that makes patients sicker. It ran ads for the movie, due out in US theaters on Feb. 17, on the sites and inserted references to the plot into the outrageous hoaxes. One headline read: “Psychological thriller screening leaves Salt Lake City man in catatonic state.” The psychological thriller in question was A Cure for Wellness.
Fox reportedly created the promotional campaign with Regency Enterprises, which produced the film through its New Regency Productions.
The companies built at least five sites designed to look like local news media—as most fake news sites do—including The Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian, Houston Leader, NY Morning Post, and Indianapolis Gazette, according to BuzzFeed, which first reported the stunt. The sites have since been taken down. And their URLs now redirect to the film’s promotional site.
Snapshots of the The Sacramento Dispatch and Salt Lake City Guardian, taken by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine between Feb 10. and 13, showed that the following stories, among others, were published on the sites:
- “BOMBSHELL: Trump and Putin spotted at Swiss resort prior to election”
- “Trump orders CDC to remove all vaccination related information from website“
- “Texas doctor charged with numerous accounts of human experimentation”
- “California legislature to consider tax rebates for women who get abortions”
- “Thirty year study finds vegans at increased risk for mental health issues”
- “‘Trump Depression Disorder’ classified as disease by the American Medical Association”
- “Trump refuses to provide California federal support in midst of natural disaster, cites sanctuary cities“
The most popular of these fake stories falsely alleged that Lady Gaga planned to include a tribute to Muslims during her Super Bowl performance, BuzzFeed reported. That phony story, and others, were reportedly shared as real news on Facebook. And at least one news sites, the right-wing Red State Watcher, seemed to write up the Gaga hoax as though it was truth.
Fox and Regency also reportedly created a fake health-and-wellness site, as part of the campaign, which resembled the real-life healthcare.gov. They had this to say for themselves, according to a statement sent to the New York Times (paywall): “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 companies did not immediately return Quartz’s request for comment.