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.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:08am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:24am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 4:30pm

        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..

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Thad, 30 Apr 2018 @ 10:42am

        Re: tl;dr

        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.

        "He was never a real Republican. Did you know he used to be a Democrat?" - Trump supporters, a few years from now

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Roger Strong (profile), 30 Apr 2018 @ 1:41pm

          Re: Re: tl;dr

          Republicans didn't even wait until Bush II was out of office before claiming that he "wasn't really a Republican."

          Four years later, traditional Republicans were being tarred and feathered as RINOs by Tea Party candidates.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:29am

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

      Maybe you should call Fox and Friends.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Baron von Robber, 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:32am

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

        President Spanky Bonespurs calls Fox & Friends for his daily intel briefing.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2018 @ 4:57am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      The_Jerk, 27 Apr 2018 @ 11:58am

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

      REEEEEE! REEEEE! HOW DARE YOU BESMIRCH THE GOOD NAME OF OUR GOD-EMPEROR PRESIDENT!

      REEEEEEEEEEEEE!

      ...I'm so fucking sick of reading astroturf defending a reality show businessman. Gonna start routinely flagging yer comments now, 'kay?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Agammamon, 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:34am

    "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 . . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:42am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Christenson, 27 Apr 2018 @ 12:09pm

        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!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Roger Strong (profile), 27 Apr 2018 @ 12:27pm

        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?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 12:40pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Tell him to get a live Linux distro, and use that to copy his data off. Then use ClamAV to check out those files. Yes it runs under Linux, and Yes it scans for Windows viruses.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Roger Strong (profile), 27 Apr 2018 @ 4:01pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Thanks!

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 11:03pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Knoppix is good for this. It usually comes with ClamAV and a bunch of other useful tools. If you are new to live CDs, it's probably best to do a little online reading first.

              No doubt there will be folk here who can advise if need be.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 27 Apr 2018 @ 10:38am

    To reiterate

    Don't trust
    Always verify
    All else is gossip

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 30 Apr 2018 @ 5:41am

      Re: To reiterate

      ^This. However, people who already know this aren't the problem, it's the people who either don't or don't care.

      The NYT piece isn't merely moral panicking; it's latching on to an essential truth in all forms of media: [if it bleeds, it leads](http://on-t-internet.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/how-internet-can-help-or-hinder-hate.html).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 27 Apr 2018 @ 11:53am

    Newbies. Prenda would like to introduce you Alan Cooper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Apr 2018 @ 1:46pm

    Shout out to people at missle command

    Hey could one of you patriotic souls please please aim a few bombs up into the ionosphere a good strong EMP will fix all of these problems

    /Sigh

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Apr 2018 @ 4:54am

    What would be FREAKING hilarious is if someone CALLED Drew Cloud had sued the loan company for stealing his website and other data.

    Then the DOJ could have held 35years in prison over their heads for accessing a computer system without authorization!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.