A Hollywood thriller opening this weekend is using a network of fake news websites and a fake water brand to generate interest and publicity, according to information uncovered by BuzzFeed News.
A Cure for Wellness is a psychological thriller opening Feb .17 from 20th Century Fox and director Gore Verbinski. It tells the story of a young man who follows his CEO to a wellness retreat in Switzerland and discovers that the treatments being offered are not what they seem. The film is getting a big publicity push, including a Super Bowl ad. But it is also benefiting from a more covert campaign involving fake news stories and at least one made-up company.
At the core of the campaign is a network of five fake local news sites that are inserting promotional references to the film into hoaxes. The sites also host ads for the film and for a fake water brand that in at least one case directs people to a website directly linked to the film.
The fake local news sites mostly publish hoaxes about topics unrelated to the film, and in some cases their fake stories — such as one about Donald Trump implementing a temporary ban on vaccinations — have been picked up by real websites and generated significant engagement on Facebook thanks to people being fooled. Their biggest hit so far is a fake story about Lady Gaga planning to include a tribute to Muslims during he Super bowl performance. It generated more than 50,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
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.
"A Cure for Wellness is a movie about a ‘fake’ cure that makes people sicker," it said. "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 company did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about which fake news publisher they were working with, if revenue is being generated by the websites, and if the filmmakers are concerned about spreading misinformation as part of a marketing campaign.
The five sites pumping out fake news and promotion for the film are Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian, Houston Leader, NY Morning Post, and Indianapolis Gazette. They use similar designs, and also all have the same Google analytics ID embedded in their source code. Many of the sites' domain names were registered on the same day: The Sacramento and Salt Lake City sites were registered on Jan. 14, and the Indianapolis and Houston sites were both registered back on Sept. 27.
The sites also run many of the same fake stories. For example, a false story, "'Trump Depression Disorder' Classified As A Disease By The American Medical Association" appears on all of the sites. Notably, the story ends with a call to action for the public "to tweet #cureforwellness to raise awareness of the growing epidemic." That's the hashtag for the film.
As reported by Lead Stories, ads for the film have also run on some of the sites. But the connections run even deeper. The stories about the made-up Trump depression disorder link to a site called HealthCureGov.com that is registered to 20th Century Fox and exists to promote the film. The story also links to a site called HealthAndWellness.co, which the film's production company later acknowledged is theirs, and which uses the same Google Analytics ID as the fake local news properties. That same ID is also present in the source code of the website for a water company, Vita Acqua, that has ads on several of the fake sites.
Vita Acqua's website says its water comes from "the remote Swiss village of Bernthur." There is no such place, though Switzerland is the setting for A Cure for Wellness. Most of the ads for Vita Acqua on the fake sites link to its website, with one exception: The ad on this story links to HealthCureGov.com, a promotional site for the film.
The most overt connection between the film and the sites is this recent fake story about a man being left in a "catatonic state" after watching, yes, A Cure for Wellness. That story even embedded the film's trailer at the end.
There are many connections between the film and the fake sites, but the average reader seems unlikely to notice. Many people on Facebook have been sharing the hoaxes as real. Anti-vaccine parents seized upon the hoax about Trump issuing a temporary ban on vaccinations.
In addition to going viral on Facebook, the hoax about Lady Gaga performing a tribute to Muslims at the Super Bowl was also picked up by hyperpartisan conservative sites. Red State Watcher got more than 50,000 engagements for its write-up, and 100PercentFedUp.com earned more than 10,000 for its story.
The sites are also willing to capitalize on potentially deadly natural disasters and political polarization to generate traffic and engagement. A story from today falsely claimed Trump denied California federal funds to help with the situation in Oroville, where over 180,000 people have been evacuated due to the potential breach of the Oroville Dam. The story has already generated over 20,000 Facebook engagements and is generating a lot of anger towards Trump from people on Facebook.
"130,000 people being evacuated in the wake of the impending dam breach....and SCROTUS turns down California's pleas for help," wrote one person who shared the hoax. "To hell with impeachment lets [sic] just hang him."
After this story was published, the domains belonging to most of the fake news sites were redirected to the film's official website.
The NY Morning Post website is still active. This story incorrectly said its URL had been redirected to the film's website.
Craig Silverman is Media Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
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