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.