Washington Post, Ars Technica, BuzzFeed ensnared by April Fools’ hoax linked to Kanye West

A fake website claiming to be linked to Kanye West’s new company DONDA went up this week and managed to fool The Washington Post, Ars Technica, and BuzzFeed.

The hoax website is called Whodat.biz and it describes itself as “The Facebook of Websites.” That in itself is pretty suspect, since, well, Facebook is in fact a website. But, hey, Kanye West is kind of crazy sometimes! And the site description is in ALL CAPS just like Kanye’s tweets! Let’s write about it!

Even more silly: all Whodat.biz does is run a whois domain search. This offers you the basic registration information of any web domain. The whois search has been around for a very long time, is free to use, and widely available.

For example, if you do a whois lookup on the folks at Whodat.biz (using their site, of course) you discover that the domain was registered just a few days go, on March 26. That’s a pretty short span of time between registration and launch.

It’s almost as if someone just decided to throw this thing up on a whim, or in time for April Fools’ Day.

Apart from that, the registration information says the folks at Donda Media — note that Kanye’s company is just called DONDA — are based at the Empire State Building. No street address, no suite number, no other details. Suspicious.

The whole thing screams hoax, yet the Washington Post in particular dedicated a fairly long blog post to testing out the site. It later added this “update and retraction”:

April Fool’s Day came early; [turns] out the whole Whodat.biz venture and the Donda Web site was an Internet hoax. Gizmodo, which also wrote an initial post about Whodat.biz, confirmed the fact that both were created as a joke .

The ridiculousness of both sites made me skeptical as I was writing this post. But I failed to double check the information before publishing. I sincerely regret the error. I should have been smarter, and I should have assumed that Kanye West would be, too.

Prior to offering a full debunking, Gizmodo actually published a first post that suggested the site could be real.

BuzzFeed was only slightly skeptical, adding this at the end of its post:

WhoData.biz isn’t exactly what we’d expect to be the first tech offering from someone as visionary as Kanye West. In fact, this is so bad that we aren’t completely sure the site isn’t a hoax. But if it’s real, he shouldn’t quit his day job just yet.

Ars Technica also put a bit of skepticism at the end of its piece:

Given that the Twitter and Tumblr accounts are just a few days old, we’re going to take the existence of WhoDat with a grain of salt.

But that kind of hedging is pointless when the article includes statements such as this much higher up:

Today, Mr. West unveiled WhoDat.biz, which is—well, it’s a WHOIS information service. Billed as “the Facebook of websites,” you can use WhoDat to look up information on the people—the “crew,” if you will—behind a given website’s domain.

In related reading, the Huffington Post has a story up about the hoax. They cite a tweet from Kanye West’s creative director, Virgil Abloh, that suggests the site is fake. HuffPost also quotes a “source close to West” who says it’s a fake.

Nothing like an anonymous source with vague ties to a celebrity to help provide clarity to a hoax story!

In related news, Carl Lavin has a helpful post up on his blog reminding journalists they need to be on their toes this time of year. I’ll also point you to the B.S. Detection for Digital Journalists workshop that Mandy Jenkins and I gave at the 2011 ONA Conference. It provides step-by-step guidance for avoiding web hoaxes, as well as other verification tips.

Remember: it’s not even April 1 yet. This is not over.

Correction to correction: The original version of this post correctly spelled Ars Technica. Unfortunately, in a fit of stupidity, I changed it to “Arts Technica” in the headline and lead paragraph, and added a correction to note my imaginary mistake. So this is a correction to the correction. Thanks to David July for alerting me to my foolishness. The original, incorrect correction is below.

Correction: Due to a typo, the original version of this post misspelled Arts Technica as “Ars Technica” in the headline and lead paragraph.

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  • Anonymous

     If you mean the link in the reprinted tweet, that’s not working.

  • Anonymous

     I hear what you’re saying.  I’ll check out those slides.

    This just came out about the PR group behind the site:
    http://www.betabeat.com/2012/03/28/meet-okfocus-the-pr-stuntmen-behind-whodat-biz/

  • http://www.CraigSilverman.ca CraigSilverman

    I agree the examples aren’t conclusive, but the key to verifying something like this is to gather a bunch of data points and triangulate from there. If you put together the whois data with the fact that the company name is different, and that there had been no official word from Kanye, then it’s pretty clear to any journalist that this is not a story you should be writing in that moment.

    It’s a matter of collecting data and showing restraint. That didn’t happen here. 

    If you take a look at the workshop I linked to near the bottom of my post, you’ll see some slides that go through a bunch of the things you can use to see if a piece of online content is trustworthy. 

    In the end, of course, it comes down to a judgement call.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate the roundup but I’m not sure your opening examples of how to debunk the site are particularly conclusive.  Given that at least one service has launched to provide FourSquare style check-ins for websites, a Facebook for Websites sounds like the kind of oddball pitch VC’s hear on a regular basis.

    The fact that it’s “silly” ties in to perceptions of Kanye West and the oddball way he announced DONDA in a twitter rampage with no news since.  Lots of hype followed by the intro of an overhyped service that already exists.  That is bait for people looking to attack Kanye but he’s given so much bait over the years that it’s what we expect.

    Quick launch?  So what?  Different name?  That’s not out of the ordinary, especially from a company we haven’t heard from since the twitter rampage.

    Oddball registration info?  If you’d covered the hip hop publishing space over the years or any sector with fly by night practices, that would not tell you anything except that either an intern registered the domain or somebody was trying to fake something.  And I’ve seen much weirder things happen in more reputable hip hop organizations.

    Not to attack so much as share my perceptions having covered this space for much of the last decade and having exited, in part, due to such nonsense being status quo!

    Honestly, it seems everybody’s really smart and insightful about this hoax after the fact.  If it was so obvious, why didn’t people catch it immediately?  I’d be curious to see how hip hop blogs covered it but I don’t follow them anymore.