NEW YORK • Making the most of the fractured political and media landscape, 20th Century Fox created a group of fake news sites as part of a viral marketing campaign for its new film, A Cure For Wellness. The sites displayed advertisements for the movie and slipped references to its plot alongside made-up stories about divisive topics, such as abortion, vaccines and United States President Donald Trump.
Fox used at least five fake news sites designed to look like local news media - The Sacramento Dispatch, Salt Lake City Guardian, Houston Leader, NY Morning Post and Indianapolis Gazette - to stir online outrage and drum up interest in the movie, which was produced by New Regency Productions and will come out this week.
It used other fake sites to promote the film as well, including one designed to resemble HealthCare.Gov and another for a fake bottled water company. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox acknowledged their role in the fake news operation on Tuesday.
"A Cure For Wellness is a movie about a 'fake' cure that makes people sicker," they said in a statement. "As part of this campaign, a 'fake' wellness site, healthandwellness.co, was created and we partnered with a fake news creator to publish fake news."
A Fox spokesman declined to answer follow-up questions, including whether the companies were using any other fake news sites to promote their film or whether they had used similar methods to promote movies in the past. The company is owned by Fox Entertainment Group, which also owns Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.
A Cure For Wellness was directed by Gore Verbinski and stars Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs. The film opens in the United States today and has received mostly negative reviews. (It is in cinemas in Singapore.)
One critic, Mr Joe Dziemianowicz of The Daily News, described its plot as "preposterous gothic nonsense".
The five sites known to be part of the fake news campaign were taken down after the story was reported by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. Users who entered their URLs were redirected to the film's official website, but archived versions of some of their articles remained available online.
Some of the stories were shared thousands of times on social media by users who appeared to believe that they were factual, and others were reposted by partisan websites such as Red State Watcher.
A partial list of headlines published by the movie studio's campaign:
•Utah Senator Introduces Bill To Jail, Publicly Shame Women Who Receive Abortions;
•BOMBSHELL: Trump And Putin Spotted At Swiss Resort Prior to Election;
•LEAKED: Lady Gaga Halftime Performance To Feature Muslim Tribute;
•Trump Refuses To Provide California Federal Support In Midst Of Natural Disaster, Cites Sanctuary Cities;
•California Legislature To Consider Tax Rebates For Women Who Get Abortions.
Ms Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in an e-mail that corporations had a responsibility to engage in "the ethical and responsible sharing of information, no matter the intent or purpose".
"But if someone or a company is publishing incorrect information and trying to make it pass as actual news, we think that content should be properly labelled and very explicit that it is not true and does not contain actual facts."
Those are guidelines that 20th Century Fox and New Regency Productions did not follow.
"This absolutely crosses the line," added Ms Bonnie Patten, executive director of the consumer watchdog TruthinAdvertising.org.
"Using a fake news site to lure consumers into buying movie tickets is basically a form of deceptive marketing."
Some of the film's fake marketing websites remained active on Tuesday night.The Fox spokesman declined to explain why they had not been disabled.