April 10, 2019

It took one week and less than $1,000 for Mekki Leeper to convince people that buying used tissues could strengthen their immune systems.

In the debut episode of his Comedy Central special “Control Room,” a social experiment show that aired March 29, Leeper detailed how he created a fraudulent company that claimed to sell used tissues “that get you sick now so you don’t get sick later.” The goal was to see how gullible Americans are when it comes to dubious alternative health products sold by companies like Goop or Live Water.

At $80 per used tissue, there was a good chance no one would fall for the comedian’s bogus company, which he named “Vaev” — the Danish word for “tissue.” But it worked.

“You can manipulate the international media if you have 900 bucks and take, like, one Photoshop class,” Leeper said during the episode.

With help from his friends, Leeper designed a sleek logo for Vaev, shot a commercial and even used Craigslist to hire a staff and conduct focus groups. He created a Squarespace website, social media profiles and bought followers on Instagram and Twitter. At a promotional event in Venice, California, the “Vaev Squad” got a bunch of people to express interest in the product.

Then came the press attention.

After Leeper’s team sent press kits to a bunch of different media outlets (he just Googled their addresses), Time reporter Mandy Oaklander reached out. She interviewed Leeper, who posed as a fictional Danish CEO named Oliver Niessen, on the phone several times. Then, she published an in-depth story in mid-January.

The piece raised several problems with Vaev. Scientists told Oaklander that used tissues wouldn’t actually work to improve someone’s immune system. Niessen didn’t seem to have any presence on the internet. And was Vaev even a real company?

But then other media outlets around the country started to aggregate the story, reporting it as if it were true.

“People share it on social, other outlets pick it up, they email me asking for an interview, I decline,” Leeper said in a phone interview. “They feel the pressure because more articles are coming out and then they just publish their article because clicks are just on the table and you don’t want them to be grabbed up by somebody else.”

Poynter called Leeper to learn more about his Comedy Central special, how he created the fake alternative medicine company and what the entire debacle shows about the state of journalism and information online. This Q-and-A has been shortened for clarity.

You start off your special by saying Viacom really didn’t like this project. And this was the first episode of your new show, right? How did you even get it off the ground?

I used to do this show where I would do marketing campaigns for huge companies that didn’t ask me. So I would do Werther’s Originals and I would try to target teens and millennials and do, like, a marketing campaign that had Werther’s flavored vape juice or whatever. I would just make a bunch of stuff and bother a company until they issued a cease and desist or Twitter deleted my stuff.

That’s how they discovered me doing this. And then I pitched them this idea, and it took a long time to develop because doing something like this is very delicate.

I want to be transparent with everybody. There were definitely some roadblocks in making it, so I figured it might be fun to just talk about them.

What were some of the biggest roadblocks? I know you talked about not mentioning Goop and that kind of stuff — but you did talk about Goop, so clearly you got over a few of them.

It’s just deciding how you want to talk about stuff like that. I have no desire to go on stage and be mean for no reason about anybody, really. You know what I mean? I’m not here to be mean to Gwyneth Paltrow or be mean about raw water. I do think that there are things that more people should know about companies like that.

That was a big roadblock, and also creating a company where you don’t sell any products and getting people to think that you are is definitely a roadblock. I never wanted to sell it because I didn’t want to take 80 bucks from a regular person, that wasn’t the point of the project, so that was another big roadblock too.

Where did you even get the idea for used tissues? I feel like it’s one of those things that could have failed because it’s so ludicrous.

That was a long conversation, too. If I do this, is it too crazy for people to write about it? That was kind of what a lot of people thought, and it was a real argument of how ridiculous do you make it. It can’t be too realistic because then you’re not making a statement at all. It has to be stupid enough that it’s funny that someone would even give it the time of day.

I think that raw water was the big inspiration for me because it was difficult to pin down the actual size and success of that company. But about a year and a half ago, it got so much press — like an unbelievable amount of press. And I was like, instead of doing a doc piece and try to expose raw water and get into some scientific things that I don’t understand, I was like, let me just do the thing that is annoying me to demonstrate how simple that can be and how little is required to seem like a legit operation.

I want to get to the media stuff because that seems like the most interesting thing, but first of all: People actually liked this product. What do you think was behind that?

On some level, if you’re half listening and someone says this idea to you really fast and confidently, I mean, it’s just barely believable enough that you’re kind of like, “OK, well maybe someone figured that out.” The other thing is that I don’t pretend to be smarter than this at all. If I were on the outside of this, I definitely might have fell for it.

If you are decent at Photoshop and you get some matching shirts, you get to decide what science is a little bit. I guess that’s what I learned in the most abstract way possible. People just believe something like that because I think the subconscious thing is like, who would go to all of this effort to be telling a bizarre lie?

I think a lot of this stuff is presentation; slick marketing, just a lot of noise out there, people being confident. I think those are the big things that I took away from it.

And the amplification of hype, right? You used social media to make it seem like the product was selling out. How did you get from there to the media coverage?

I mean literally what happened is we just built a digital footprint for the project very lazily and not in a super informed way. I’m not a social SEO expert or anything.

I came up with a silly backstory for the company that sounded barely realistic enough, and then created these accounts that looked kind of slick in the way that a company like this probably would and then bought followers, which is very cheap by the way. You can buy thousands of followers for 50 bucks or less — and they stick, usually. That’s really it.

The big ace that we had with these units that look kind of legit even though it’s a mishmash of cheap things. I put those in the mail and I sent those to publications with a little postcard … I just Googled the address of Time magazine and I Googled a reporter. I just went through all the raw water articles and I found the reporter who reported on it and I was like, “If they wrote about that, maybe they’ll write a piece about this.” And I just sent it to the publication with their name on it and I guess it got to their desk.

Then a Time reporter checked it out, poked around on the website, kind of followed the trail of breadcrumbs we left out and then I got an email. I just went back and forth over email maybe three times with Mandy Oaklander at Time, and then we got on the phone and we did like three phone interviews over a long period of time.

I think what happened, really, is that Mandy did a really good job digging in super hard, getting all the information and just laid the information out for everybody. Everything in the article is true — I did say that stuff, the website is online and whatever. And she mentioned that you can’t confirm that the company or I exist.

The problem is, in my opinion, she did such a good job with such an exciting, weird, sensational story that was designed to be sensational that this seven-page article comes out and it’s, like, too much to absorb the nuance. She’s telling me there’s real reason to believe this is not legit, you know? But you read an article like that and all that you walk away with is: “There’s a company that sells used tissues for $80?” And then boom.

From your point, that was obviously a success. But all those outlets copying the story as if it were true, what did that show you about how the media covers this kind of thing?

I think it shows that journalists are still doing great work, but it feels to me like there’s a systemic cultural pressure to release entertaining stories really quickly. That’s always been the case; I think that people forever have talked about journalism versus entertainment: Where’s the line?

But now, because everything is so immediate, there’s no time for people to fact-check if they want to get a story like this out there. There’s no time for people to be like super critical of something that’s on the fence like this, or something that’s an opinion presented as fact or whatever.

This story is optimized for clicks because that’s what we want. When I’m browsing the news, that’s what I want; I want entertaining stuff to click on. It’s really fun to see an outlandish story where I look at it and I feel like, “Oh, I’m smart — and this person in this story or this company or this movie or whatever the story is about is dumb. And I feel better now.”

A lot of stuff is becoming that and I don’t think there’s anything reporters can do about it because people are just going to take the sensational parts of even the most detailed reporting and run with it.

You don’t think there’s anything they can do? Could they do more fact-checking? Since you’re on this side of it, you might have some interesting tips or things reporters could do to make sure they’re not amplifying hoaxes.

I don’t know. Like I said, I think Mandy did a great job. To me, it feels like a thing where, if I’m Mandy, I’m going to do exactly what she did. Best case scenario: I ask all these questions, I put all these details in there.

From a business standpoint, if I see a story like this, I don’t care about accuracy or whatever. I care that this is a really interesting story that I can run ads on. So I don’t think it’s in journalists’ control to address stuff like this. I think it’s partly in the hand of people that are in charge or running or not running articles … and also us, the consumers, to be a little bit extra wary.

It’s just an interesting landscape where there’s so much information traveling at such a speed that it’s extremely difficult to be super vigilant when there’s a pressure to make money from people clicking on your story. It’s like an extremely unfair economy, I think.

Does this project make you more cynical about all that? You spent less than $1,000 and a week to create this fake company, and with anti-vaccine conspiracies, health misinformation is becoming a big problem.

I don’t know that I’m more cynical. I guess what I wanted to point out here is that, like, if I can do this with not much of anything, imagine what people with power and money and influence can probably do.

To me, the most dangerous thing about this project is me — not journalists or things like that. I’m scared of the real-life version that’s actually intending to exact really negative change. I’m afraid of somebody who really wants to manipulate the media to, like, really gain something from it.

I definitely think I’m more wary of those people and their power and influence seems larger than I realized.

This is quite a first episode for the show. Will every one be like this?

(laughs) No, certainly not every episode will have to do with the media. If there’s a reason to address that again, I will. But the next few episodes of this are very different.

It will still be a social experiment thing; that’s what I’m interested in doing. I kind of said what I wanted to say about the way that these types of companies interact with the media. So I’m not going to be bothering any for a little while I don’t think.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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