In a new initiative against "fake news" sites, the Federal Trade Commission has filed eight lawsuits against online marketers that allegedly posted fictional testimonials touting acai berry dietary supplements.
The marketers created sites with names like BreakingNewsAt6.com, where they posted pieces that appeared to be true stories about people's experiences with acai berry, the FTC alleges. Many of the sites also included the names or logos of major TV and cable networks like ABC, CNN and MSNBC, in an apparent effort to convey the impression that the online posts were broadcast on television.
For instance, the site new6reports.com carried a lengthy testimonial by "Jane Clark," who boasted that she "lost an unbelievable 25 lbs" in four weeks using Acai Berry products. That site also includes comments, apparently from readers, that claimed to be favorably impressed with Acai Berry.
The FTC alleges in its court papers that the testimonials and reader comments are phony. "Reporters or commentators pictured on the sites are fictional and never conducted the tests or experienced the results described in the reports," the FTC says.
While the fine print on the marketing site says its material is "based loosely off a true story," and "not to be taken literally or as a nonfiction story," the FTC says that those disclaimers are inadequate. The agency alleges that the site operators engaged in false advertising as well as deceptive acts.
The influx of cases signals that the FTC views phony Web content as a serious problem, says Jeffrey Greenbaum, an expert in advertising law and a partner in Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz.
He adds that the FTC has a long history of criticizing deceptive formats in traditional media -- such as infomercials that appear to be real news programs. A series of enforcement actions around 20 years ago resulted in consent decrees that require infomercials to include disclosures stating that they are paid ads.
"It's even easier to create fake content online," Greenbaum says, "and even harder for consumers to distinguish it."
The defendants sued last week include Coulomb Media, Charles Dunlevy, Tanner Garrett Vaughn, Ambervine Marketing, Beony International, IMM Interactive, Ricardo Jose Labra, and Thou Lee. The FTC is seeking orders prohibiting the site operators from engaging in false advertising or deceptive practices as well as monetary penalties.