Student fools international newspapers with spoof story
Humor lovers from all over the world have taken note of a fake story written by an honors student.
10.20.2003

Michele DeCamp
News Editor

On the surface, it is hard to tell that the story labeled "Study: Fellatio may significantly decrease the risk of breast cancer in women," isn't real. The original Web version has the CNN.com banner along the top of the page, the stock CNN medical graphic along the right side of the article and credits N.C. State University with the study. But when readers scan the page, names like "Dr. BJ Sooner" and "Dr. Inserta Shafteer" start to stand out as unusual. However, nothing discredits it more than the fact that a junior in materials science, Brandon Williamson, is the one that wrote it. "I was sitting in the Wolves Den and [the idea for the story] just sparked in my mind as a joke. It didn't have anything to do with our conversation or anything, it was just something that popped in my head. I ran it by a couple of people, and they thought it would be pretty funny," Williamson said. He didn't realize that when he went to the honors lounge and wrote it later that day that his "joke" would become an international news story.

"I sent it to 10 people that I thought might find it funny. And a couple of days later I put a thread about it on the Wolf Web. That's all I did to tell anyone about it. I assumed that it was just going to be one of those things that would be left there and no one would ever see it," Williamson said.

And for a while, nothing did happen. Two weeks went by, and NCSU was preparing for fall break. However, on Oct. 9, Williamson found an unusually large amount of e-mails in his school e-mail account about the fellatio story, and he also started to receive some phone calls from the media.

"On Thursday evening I talked to a guy from Wired News, an online news site, and he just asked me some questions. There were other people who reprinted it as a real story. I got an e-mail that a Chilean newspaper had reprinted it, and I got another e-mail with an actual picture of a Croatian newspaper that had printed it up as a real article, saying that it was from CNN," Williamson said.

Williamson wonders if Croatian or Chilean readers will take the story seriously.

"The thing was that what gave the article away originally were the names that I chose. I figured that people who read that would be like 'ha--it's a joke,' and the fact that the URL wasn't a CNN URL. I think what happened was that they got e-mailed a copy of the article, and if it didn't have the URL with it or the names were lost in translation then they might not have picked up on it. I would hope that people would ask questions and not just accept what they read," Williamson said.

Once fall break was over, Williamson started to receive a different kind of e-mail from David Drooz, NCSU's associate general counsel.

"CNN went through David Drooz. They weren't happy, and they called it an intellectual properties infringement. And the way it works, they would pull up litigation on the school [since the article was on the NCSU Web space]. The Associated Press said the same thing," Williamson said.

Williamson then adapted the article based on the different complaints. He altered the CNN logo and eliminated all the references to the Associated Press. The original article was supposed to be an "AP story and it included the line 'Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved' at the bottom of the story. He had copied a CNN online Web page and just inserted his own article in the appropriate place, so his original spoof piece was authentic except for its content.

Now the article has been stripped of any connection to real media organizations, and he also was asked by Drooz to remove the NCSU references as well.

"N.C. State got mad that it said the research was done there. I kind of wanted to know who had a problem with it," Williamson said.

While the article is still circulating, the author's life is starting to become normal again.

"I think a lot of the hype has died down. I've gotten like 190 e-mails so far. I've only had really two that were negative. One was was that maybe you should think about how it would affect people who have had breast cancer during their lives. The rest of them were people telling me it was great, that it was really funny, that all their friends liked it. It was kind of neat," Williamson said. "I don't think it's going to be a problem anymore. People are still reading it, and I'm looking to do some more little articles. I've had people say that I've done them a service and all this stuff. It wasn't my intention to fool anyone, and it's not real, but guys still play it off like it is."

The article spread through e-mail forwards, and Williamson regularly receives e-mails and AOL IM messages from fans of the article. He even gets to see how far the story has gone.

One person messaged him and told him that a group of Hooters waitresses were discussing whether or not it was real in one of the restaurant's New York locations. Wired News also told him that ResNet had recorded 667,000 hits to his website on Thursday, Oct. 9, alone. Another person contacted him and told him that the article had become quite popular in many northern schools such as Boston College and New York University. While Williamson has enjoyed the unexpected fame, he also feels that he has learned a few lessons through his spoof experience.

"It really showed me how ugly money can be and how easy it is for big corporations to throw their weight around. It really disenchanted me because I didn't really have any visions of how this works. I did think they would be able to take a joke, and I was really surprised that they would go so far as to sue the school if I didn't take it down. It put CNN in a bad light in my book because I didn't think they would be as concerned about someone making a parody of a news story," Williamson said.

And for anyone that might be confused about the validity of the article, Williamson maintains his own naivete. "I have no proof whatsoever that the two [fellatio and breast cancer] have anything to do with each other."