A husband and wife go to a fertility clinic. As part of the treatment process, the clinic takes DNA samples from both of them and discovers that they are, in fact, fraternal twins.
It's a story seemingly guaranteed to go viral, and it soon made its way onto websites around the world. The Daily Mail covered it, as did Lad Bible, Elite Daily, The Independent's Indy100, Huffington Post Germany, and even websites as far away as India, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Israel.
They all pointed back to the same source: an April 12 story in the Mississippi Herald. Some referred to the Herald as a newspaper, but there's no print publication by that name, and the MississippiHerald.com domain was only registered in November. The reality is the story is a complete fabrication, and the Herald is part of a network of fake local news sites that recently began pumping out hoaxes. But the site's utterly dubious origin didn't stop large, legitimate news sites from spreading its hoax to a global audience.
At a time when the media, governments, and other entities are supposed to be on alert for fake news, this example shows how a completely false story can still easily end up on major news websites. Many of the stories remain uncorrected as of this writing, though some sites that initially fell for it have updated their stories.
The fake Mississippi Herald is connected to at least three other dubious local news sites that also publish hoaxes. The day after the twins hoax was published, the Alabama Observer put out a hoax about a man discovering his new bride is his granddaughter. The day after that, the Florida Sun Post published a fake story about a man getting high on methamphetamine and feeding his testicles to an alligator. A fourth site, the Boston Leader, recently republished a hoax it first put up last fall about a man losing his testicles after trying to fill a scuba tank with weed smoke.
The sites have a similar collection of real local and international news stories on their homepages as a way to make them seem credible to the average visitor. They also have the same Google AdSense code in their source code. AdSense is a major ad network, and each publisher in the program is given a unique code to place on their website in order to be able to serve ads. BuzzFeed News did not see any AdSense ads on the sites when it visited. However, all three sites were showing ads from Content.ad, a network a recent BuzzFeed News review found was present on other sites that publish fake news.
That same AdSense code also appears in the source code of other sites that use similar design templates and logos. One is the Batty Post, a site that published similar too-good-to-check hoaxes that were often based in Asia. It appears to have stopped publishing in March of last year. Another connected site is the East Asia Tribune, which drew attention last year with a series of fake stories about North Korea and a viral hoax about a man in Singapore losing his virginity while his family watched. The Tribune has been offline since last year, but an archived version of the site accessible via the Internet Archive showed that it too had the same AdSense code. The Batty Post also last year announced in a now-deleted post that it had been acquired by the East Asia Tribune.
This evidence suggests the new fake local news sites are the latest effort from the anonymous hoaxsters who ran those sites. The subject matter is also similar, as many of the hoaxes on the new sites involve strange sexual acts. The earliest hoax published by one of the new sites appears to have gone online April 9 with the headline, "Casselberry woman charged after making cheating husband 'eat his own genitals."
BuzzFeed News contacted the email address listed in the domain ownership record for BattyPost.com but has not heard back. Meanwhile, people should also be on the lookout for five other news sites that have the same AdSense code: PressUnion.org, BorderHerald.com, WeekendHerald.com, DenverInquirer.com, and TelegraphSun.com. They don't appear to be publishing new stories or hoaxes as of now, but could do so at anytime.
Craig Silverman is Media Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Craig Silverman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.