Article Thumbnail

Convincing the Internet That Elizabeth Warren Was #FeelingTheBern

Comedian Steven Phillips-Horst’s Clone Zone-crafted hoax was credible enough the New York Times invested in debunking it

I became familiar with the site Clone Zone after falling victim to one of its hoaxes just last year. The tool, originally created by a digital agency called 4Real, lets users easily duplicate the look of an article on any major media site, which is exactly what indie filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko did in October, to “announce” that his low-budget film would be remade with Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman — by creating a fake article for The Hollywood Reporter.

Here’s the trick: The site puts the words “Clone Zone” in any URL it generates, after the name of the actual publication. That’s how I immediately could tell that yesterday’s “New York Times” article announcing the presidential endorsement of Bernie Sanders by Elizabeth Warren was a fake.

Thousands of people, however, couldn’t.

The piece—blending in perfectly amidst the stream of suspicious political articles claiming Trump would definitely win unless Sanders was nominated or that Michael Bloomberg was for sure running as an independent—was written in near-perfect New York Times style, down to its headline: “Warren Endorses Sanders, Breaking With Colleagues.”

More importantly, the story told a lot of Sanders supporters exactly what they wanted to hear — they likely pressed “share” before they had even taken time to read the piece. Enough people bought in that, at a certain point, the real New York Times felt the need to weigh in, sending a cease-and-desist letter to Clone Zone and posting its own corrective article last night:

This morning, comedian Steven Phillips-Horst took credit for using Clone Zone to craft the post, as the story continued to spread throughout the internet — thanks to Gawker and other media outlets.

How did your Clone Zone work, exactly?
I took some Times article about Chris Christie and changed the date, changed the image, changed all the copy. I basically tried to make it as realistic as possible—doing everything the New York Times would do. There’s been a bunch of articles about why Warren hasn’t endorsed anyone yet—the New York Times is really obsessed with that angle. So I wrote this thing, and I was just trying to emulate the Times style of writing. There was a quote from Warren about how we’re taking on the big banks, and Americans have had enough—all the things you’d expect. It’s very convincing.

There’s stuff in there that clearly gives it away, aside from the URL. One of the Clinton surrogates quoted was Anthony Weiner. The Clinton campaign would never have Anthony Weiner talk to the press, cause they’ve silenced him. There was also a quote from Lena Dunham, which was a winky nod to the millenial-industrial complex.

What’d Fake Lena Dunham tell the fake New York Times?
[In my piece], Lena Dunham “tweeted”: “Women can support whomever they like. That’s what feminism is all about.” I wrote that the “missive was seemingly designed to blunt the sort of criticism that put the Clinton campaign in hot water just a few weeks ago, when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seemed to imply women should support Mrs. Clinton because of her gender.”

By the time the piece was taken down, Clone Zone said it had been viewed more than 50,000 times and shared more than 15,000 times on Facebook. How do you think it spread?
All I did was post it to my own Facebook page with the YOLO caption, “When it’s lit, it’s lit.” I didn’t say it was a hoax. I think some people knew it was fake but just based on my own Facebook network, there were enough people who were excited about it that they clicked “share,” not even giving it a second glance. I came back a few hours later and it was at, like, 60 shares. Then Slava Balasanov, whose agency 4Real created CloneZone, messaged me that this was blowing up. It was bigger than any story they had — at 13,000 views then 40,000 views.

I searched, and I could see all these people posting this article on Facebook and writing all these heartfelt things about why they were supporting Bernie. It had a super positive vibe.

Then, later in the night the Times started tweeting about it, and Jonathan Martin who is one of the fake writers of the piece, tweeted too:

Then they sent Clone Zone a letter to take it down. A Times reporter talked to Slava, and Slava told me to call the reporter.

What did the reporter say?
He was being like “So, you don’t feel any kind of remorse over this kind of thing?” to which I was like, I don’t think it’s particularly traumatic if you thought this for a few hours and then realized it wasn’t true. I was obviously proud to go viral, but if you’re not going to pay that close attention to something, you’re just asking to be duped in our crazy hall of mirrors which is the internet.

Why do you think this hoax took in so many people?
This was fan fiction: You have this character Bernie and you have this other character Warren, and this story fits super tidily into the narrative their supporters have about who they are and what they want to hear.

The funny thing is now it’s becoming this layered thing — after the New York Times published their takedown last night, all these comments on their Facebook page introduced new conspiracy theories, like “Bernie bros — they’re so desperate! Of course they’d do this.” Other people said this was classic Hillary and a plant by a Hillary intern. Gawker even pointed out that 4Real had previously done design work for the Clinton Global Initiative, as if this potentially was connected.

Why do you think the New York Times felt compelled to debunk this?
What I love about the Times publishing an article about a fake New York Times article is they are unknowingly satirizing themselves. It’s like, “This just in — fake story is fake!” As if the value and authority they offer doesn’t extend beyond the NYT logo and a tone of voice they obviously feel protective of. The fact that so many people believed it shows how amazing of a writer I am, but I think it also speaks to the fast and dirty shallowness of the media echo chamber, to which they are just as guilty of contributing.

Zak Stone is MEL’s executive editor. His last piece examined the rise of “orthorexia,” the eating disorder that takes ‘clean’ eating to its extreme.

More interviews on MEL: