Student Loan Lenders Created A Fake Person Whose Points Were Uncritically Repeated By Numerous News Outlets

from the disinformation-nation dept

If you hadn’t noticed, the United States has a bit of a disinformation problem, leaving it immeasurably susceptible to bullshit. It’s a flaw that’s easily exploitable by any company, individual, or nation willing to put in a little elbow grease. Whether it’s Russian troll factories inflaming already deep U.S. partisan and racial tensions, the ongoing problem with fake reviews, the use of astroturf to foster dissent on things we even agree upon (like net neutrality), or the spread of nonsensical and often hateful prattle on social media, we’re only just now coming to terms with the world we’ve been building.

And however info-savvy we like to pretend we are as information consumers and creators, the reality is we’re simply… not. We’re being manipulated on an industrial scale almost constantly thanks to our cultural apathy toward critical thinking, lagging educational standards, napping regulators and unskeptical journalism. Case in point: this week a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education detailed how a student-loan refinancing company had some incredible success in getting media outlets to parrot its positions on the debt merchant industry. How? They simply created an entirely fake journalist out of whole cloth.

The report discovered that a journalist by the name of “Drew Cloud” was created by a loan refinancing company by the name of LoanEDU. Cloud, his website and his various hot takes were routinely hoovered up by a large number of media outlets that were willing to parrot them entirely without question:

“Drew Cloud is everywhere. The self-described journalist who specializes in student-loan debt has been quoted in major news outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and CNBC, and is a fixture in the smaller, specialized blogosphere of student debt…Cloud had corresponded at length with many journalists, pitching them stories and offering email interviews, many of which were published. When The Chronicle attempted to contact him through the address last week, Cloud said he was traveling and had limited access to his account. He didn?t respond to additional inquiries.”

The character of Drew Cloud ran a “independent, authoritative news outlet” named the The Student Loan Report, which was created after Cloud purportedly “had difficulty finding the most recent student loan news and information all in one place.” How nice. But like so many things in 2018 Cloud wasn’t real, something only confirmed with the company that created him after The Chronicle spent more than a week trying to verify Cloud?s existence.

Once the story broke, LoadEDU CEO Nate Matherson and his team went through and changed all of Cloud’s bylines on the website to “SLR Editor.” And in a piece now posted to the site in question, the creators decided to double down on the “we were only trying to help” justification:

“As we prepared to launch The Student Loan Report, we debated who should author it, and felt that it was really a blend of our personal experiences and perspectives that would create the best source material, so we created a pen name of ?Drew Cloud,? and conceived a background that we felt personified a lot of the perseverance we hoped to inspire with The Student Loan Report. When we pictured what Drew Cloud looked like, we pictured a friend of ours from college, so we used his photo (with his permission) to round out the pen name.”

That’s some odoriferous nonsense. The company effectively created an entirely fake reporter to hoodwink journalists into parroting positions of the debt merchant sector. And when initially pressed by the real journalists who discovered it, the company’s first impulse was to lie and claim that the fake construct was traveling and couldn’t respond to e-mail. That’s unethical however you spell it, and the company likely will be enjoying some very real legal festivities in the very near future.

The question then shifts back to how we address the nation’s bullshit problems without concocting solutions that infringe on speech or make matters worse. And despite a flood of hot takes on this subject over the last few years, it’s a question we still haven’t clearly answered.

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Companies: loadedu

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Comments on “Student Loan Lenders Created A Fake Person Whose Points Were Uncritically Repeated By Numerous News Outlets”

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23 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

So you'll enforce Truth HERE? Strictly factual and on topic?

No. You’ll switch back to "fake is free speech" whenever next suits. And fanboys will still be let run wild.

Just leading off with the alleged "Russian trolling" of the election — 0.004 OF A PERCENT! — is more of your own fake news. You are portraying Techdirt as Fount Of Truth, when in fact, Techdirt put out totally baseless NYTimes / WashPo FAKED "Trump-Russia collusion" pieces for months because (still) suits your bias.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: So you'll enforce Truth HERE? Strictly factual and on topic?

Same old claim, same old response:

Wikipedia: Links between Trump associates and Russian officials

131 citations.

Wikipedia: Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections

441 citations.

And well worth a scan:

Wikipedia: Timeline of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections

1113 citations.

An election or two from now you’ll be here denying that Trump ever existed, or that links between Trump and the Republican Party ever existed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So you'll enforce Truth HERE? Strictly factual and on topic?

We have been dealing with TONS of this stuff for years…
From the Politics Hiring another Firm to advert False news, old news, personal data..
To Blatant Lies…
Insted of using SHARED TIME(a Legal TV thing) the 2 major groups PAY FOR ADVERTS, at EXTRA HIGH prices, so no one Else can do the same, and Afford it..

I mentioned to someone the$300 tax refund that DID NOTHING, and he blamed A diff president…and I said NOPE it was Bush..and he denied it.

WE STILL NEED A LIE DETECTOR AND FACT CHECKER… I think I have a job for Watson..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So you'll enforce Truth HERE? Strictly factual and on topic?

Fox has friends?

I mean other than Rupert Murdoch’s friendship with Beelzebub (which explains why the evil racist sexist homophobic old fuck won’t just die already).

I just wish he’d get it over with, because I want to see if he’s raped anyone, forced anyone into sexual situations, murdered people etc.

All the crap will come out once his bitter twisted black heart finally stops beating.

Agammamon says:

"The question then shifts back to how we address the nation’s bullshit problems without concocting solutions that infringe on speech or make matters worse. And despite a flood of hot takes on this subject over the last few years, it’s a question we still haven’t clearly answered."

This entire article focuses on the conduct of the company (with an added assumption that, because it was a ‘fake news’ site that of course all the information posted must have been lies) while basically giving a pass to the ‘journalists’ that uncritically copied the press releases.

Then you ask ‘how can we fix this’ – when the article shows how its already been fixed.

A couple of journalists actually went out and did their jobs and exposed this. Bam. Done. Now, if the rest were to do this sort of thing . . .

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Then you ask ‘how can we fix this’ – when the article shows how its already been fixed.

When you catch a robber, remove a computer virus or put out a fire, you’ve only fixed the immediate part of the problem. A proper fix involves investigating how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

Christenson says:

Re: Re: This is just *one* example....

Roger:
The problem is larger than just “fake news”. There’s a morally panicked New York Times article about how facebook promotes outrage that transmogrifies into real-world violence.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/21/world/asia/facebook-sri-lanka-riots.html

But, as Techdirt has said, there’s nothing really unique about facebook here. I add that Attention Whoring (TM) is an age-old problem; the question is how it should be controlled. It used to be the advertisers controlling the newspapers into “respectability”, but these days, well, who can I trust? Why? Even Out of The Blue makes it onto nice sites like Techdirt!

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

When you catch a robber, remove a computer virus or put out a fire,

Or all three combined. I’ve just received a call from a CEO who occasionally calls me for IT help. While doing his taxes online he got a pop-up warning him of a virus. "Microsoft" then convinced him to let them log into his computer remotely to fix it.

A proper fix involves investigating how it happened

No, really, HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?

and how to prevent it from happening again

I had him immediately unplug the computer from the network. "Microsoft" was also still on the other line.

Would I be overreacting to tell him to get his data off with a USB drive, and not plug the PC back into the company network until it’s been wiped and reloaded?

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