In the digital world, the line between professional journalism, advertising and other types of content are getting blurred. But there are still some lines that can’t be crossed. The Federal Trade Commission has filed lawsuits against five operators of fake news websites that were being used to hawk acai berry diet products and “colon cleansers.”
The FTC filed charges on Wednesday in federal courts in Chicago and Seattle. Today, some of those courts issued temporary restraining orders barring the companies and individuals running the acai berry schemes from moving their assets or destroying any records while the lawsuits proceed. The TROs also order websites to be taken down, or to prominently display a statement explaining they have been sued by the FTC. (Most of the websites in the court documents appear to have been taken down.)
The news sites claimed to feature “objective investigative reports,” but the FTC states in its lawsuits that the reporters were “fictional” and never did any tests with acai berry products at all.
The sites had names like consumernewspicks.com and Channel9NewsReport.com, and featured attractive news “reporters” like the one pictured at left, claiming they had tested the products themselves. But everything about the sites-the news reports, the reporters giving them, even the comments-is bogus, according to FTC court documents.
Most of the news sites appear to be down, but one of the accused operators still has a very similar “news” site up with an “investigative report” about penny auctions. The site features the same fictional female reporter who hawked the acai berry products. (Is she the Katie Couric of fake news?)
Update: A commenter notes that the fake news sites appear to be using pictures of an actual French journalist, Melissa Theuriau.
Some operators also set up fake blogs, purportedly from people who lost weight using acai berry products. The blogs had names like kristingotskinny.com and rachaels-blog.com, and featured headings like “Rachael’s (me) Weightloss story Blog, How I Lost Weight Using a ‘Wonder Berry’ Pill.” Those sites claimed to be “ordinary, independent consumer blogs describing personal experiences using the featured products and the positive results achieved,” FTC lawyers wrote. But the “blogs” were actually engaged in marketing schemes, and that’s an illegal deceptive practice.
Oh, and one other thing little thing: the acai berry products don’t work. The sites falsely claimed the products could cause “rapid and substantial weight loss,” as much as 25 pounds in four weeks.
The FTC has been concerned about blogs that don’t disclose commercial relationships for a couple years now. Back in 2009, the agency published guidelines about what bloggers should disclose if they are getting compensated for hawking particular products. “Advertorial” content has been common for some time-just think of advertising sections of magazines or newspapers that are formatted to look like news content. (Reputable news organizations, of course, will always have some fine print marking it as advertising.) This new action shows the FTC is concerned that in the online world, some advertorial-style content has gone way too far and is dangerous to consumers.
The agency has more details in its release, and will be holding a press conference about the operation on Tuesday in its Chicago office.
The five lawsuits are listed and linked below. Except for the Vaughn suit, all were filed in Chicago federal court.
» FTC v. Ricardo Jose Labra. [PDF] The defendant is accused of running fake news sites like consumernewspick.com and theconsumerweeklydigest.com, which ran fake news reports and used the logos of major broadcast and TV networks. Labra is also accused of promoting products through fake blogs like kristingotskinny.com
» FTC v. Ambervine Marketing et al. [PDF] This lawsuit says that Ambervine and another company, Encastle, were run out of Minnesota by Zachary S. Graham, who ran fake news sites including usahealthnewstoday.com and usahealthreportstoday.com, which he called USA Health News.
» FTC v. Beony International LLC et al. [PDF] FTC lawyers state that Beony was run out of San Diego by Mario Milanovic, who ran sites like channel6reports.com, healthnews10.com, and consumertipsdaily6.com.
» FTC v. IMM Interactive, Inc. [PDF] IMM is located in Woodbury, New York, and hosted fake sites including channel2local.com, channel9healthbeat.com and news4daily.com. The sites used the logos of major TV networks and had names like “News 4 Daily.”
» FTC v. Tanner Garrett Vaughn [PDF] Filed in Seattle. Vaughn ran websites including BreakingNewsAt6.com and Channel9NewsReports.com.