REPORT

Mediamass: the Chinese prank that fooled the world

By James Cook

When a celebrity dies a sudden death in America, the ensuing Twitter storm knows no bounds. “BREAKING NEWS”, outpourings of grief, bad taste jokes, even Twitter users decrying the news as fake. There’s one website that is almost always linked to as “proof” that the person in question is still alive: Mediamass.

At first glance, Mediamass is yet another celebrity gossip site. There are news stories not dissimilar to the content you’d find on TMZ: baby rumours, celebrity pet stories and star profiles. The site looks legitimate, but it isn’t. Recently Mediamass has been used to claim that the deaths of Paul Walker, James Gandolfini and Lou Reed were all hoaxes.

Mediamass is a fake news site, designed to trick people into believing its articles and sharing them. Let’s look at, for example, the recent death of the actor Paul Walker. Minutes after TMZ broke the news that he had died, people began tweeting links to a Mediamass page that claimed it was all a hoax.

Tweets sent immediately after the news of Paul Walker's death broke online.

Tweets sent immediately after the news of Paul Walker’s death broke online.

So how did Mediamass manage to create a page decrying the news as a hoax so quickly? They didn’t. Mediamass’s People section works by creating hundreds of template posts for various celebrities.

The fake Mediamass page that was widely shared on Twitter after the news of Paul Walker's death broke.

The fake Mediamass page that was widely shared on Twitter after the news of Paul Walker’s death broke.

The death hoax templates seem to be the most popular. Changing the URL on any of these posts to the name of a different celebrity results in the same article, just with a different fake magazine cover and a different name used throughout.

Now it's Eminem who is the victim of a death hoax.

Now it’s Eminem who is the victim of a death hoax.

Mediamass manages to create confusion through a “This article appears to be false” warning in an article claiming that other news is false. Confused? They want you to be. Mediamass’s hoax news pages are appearing all over social media. It’s a safe bet that whenever there’s a celebrity death, thousands of Twitter and Facebook users will post Mediamass links.

Mediamass proudly maintains a “rogue’s gallery” of reputable news site citing fake Mediamass stories. The Guardian, The Huffington Post and International Business Times have all been caught out. Without the high profile of The Onion, Mediamass is able to trick people into believing that its content is real.

It appears as though the site’s strategy is working. Links from reputable news sources and the Twitter frenzies that inevitably follow celebrity deaths mean that Mediamass has seen its traffic skyrocket during 2013.

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So why does the site exist? There seems to be several different reasons. Firstly: money. Mediamass features adverts on its hoax news pages.

The full view of the Mediamass page for Paul Walker's death hoax. featuring a banner advert across the top and another advert on the right side of the page.

The full view of the Mediamass page for Paul Walker’s death hoax, with emphasis added in orange around adverts.

But the site’s creators seem to have a far different motive. Mediamass is an elaborate project designed to poke fun at mass media. The About page goes into detail regarding the aims of the site’s anonymous creators.

“The project’s name is an ironic reversal of portmanteau “mass-media” (media for the masses) in “media-mass” which here means “media en masse” as mass production and therefore mass consumption are the object of our criticism.”

“The website mediamass.net is the medium of our satire to expose with humour, exaggeration and ridicule the contemporary mass production and mass consumption that we observe”

“Sensationalism, lack of verification of information, ethics and standards issues are only symptoms of the actual social and economic order. This is particularly obvious when observing the role of social networking sites in spreading rumours.”

“We won’t change the world, but at least we’ll laugh trying.”

Chinese origins

According to Mediamass, the hoax news site is run by an international collective based in China. Could the site that keeps fooling Americans really be run from a nation with a notoriously fraught relationship with journalists and online bloggers? There is evidence to suggest that it is.

Chinese-tools.com is a dated yet active website offering information on China and the Chinese language. The site’s footer lists Mediamass as the copyright holder, along with “Celebrity Post“. Celebrity Post appears to be a re-skinned version of Mediamass.

The “Who We Are” page of chinese-tools.com demonstrates a telling similarity to the tone used by the people behind Mediamass.

Who is behind chinese-tools.com? Instead of indulging ourselves, we prefer to let the chinese press speak for itself.

hongfan-photo

The above newspaper clipping is prominently displayed on chinese-tools.com; apparently it is intended to introduce the man behind the site. It talks of a French schoolteacher named Lifu who lives in Guilin province. When he’s not teaching French, he plays guitar and sings in a bar. All signs point to Lifu being the man behind Mediamass.

The Kernel contacted Aviv Eliezer, an Israeli web entrepreneur who is listed as a contact on the WHOIS record for chinese-tools.com. He told us that he has “no relations” with Mediamass, but did inform us that he forwarded our email to the people behind the site.

After publishing this story, we received an email from “Olive” who claimed to be “in charge” of Mediamass. He answered our request for an interview with the following line.

The website is not to be taken seriously.

The Mediamass Facebook Page provides more evidence of the site being run by an international collective. Posts are written in multiple languages, with French and Mandarin being the most regular. The Chinese newspaper clipping seen above identifies French and Mandarin as two languages fluently spoken by Lifu.

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Whether or not Mediamass is some kind of Chinese performance art project, there’s no denying that the site has had phenomenal success. It’s not Mediamass itself that is the artwork, but our reaction to the content. Every time a link to Mediamass is tweeted, every time that a news organisation uses Mediamass as proof, the people behind Mediamass demonstrate just how fickle the world of journalism is.