The Oklahoma City meteor phenomenon, which has been viewed millions of times online, started when a YouTube account called JamesWest posted a cell phone video of an object shooting across the sky over a local neighborhood.
Later that day, three other accounts posted clips of the same meteor over the same area. As people began to talk about the event on social media, news organizations began to take interest. Clips eventually made their way to regional news sites, the Mirror Online and The Weather Channel's website.
That's a pretty impressive reach, considering the meteor clips were all fake.
The November stunt was part of a campaign orchestrated by Digital-Tutors, an Oklahoma City-based online creative tutorial and training company. The company wanted to drum up attention for its video course on how to create meteor visual effects using After Effects, which it offered as a free preview of its other courses.
"Companies are always and should be looking for new ways to build exposure. It helped build awareness for Digital-Tutors," said Grant Boudon, the company's marketing and PR director. "[Also] it let us show, 'Hey look what came out of Oklahoma City!' Who thought you could do amazing creative things like that here?"
In a strange twist, the meteor project actually was delayed by two weeks because the night before it was going to launch, Red Bull had three sky divers jump at night with flares over Chicago. Whether the energy drink intended to or not, it tricked people into thinking there was a meteor shower.
The idea of using fake news as a promotional tool isn't unique to Digital-Tutors, of course.
Most recently, Bravo vandalized Porsches—spray painting them with words like "You Suck" or "Loser I'm Leaving You"—and had them towed around New York City. Some people thought it was vengeful exes who created the damage (and subsequently posted about it on social media), but it was actually a stunt to promote the show Girlfriend's Guide To Divorce.
Digital-Tutors got its idea from a GoPro clip posted by a man who jumped into Sydney Harbor and proceeded to come face-to-face with a great white shark. Many, including Good Morning America, debated the veracity of the video. However, it got the Digital-Tutor's team thinking that manufacturing a news event could be the perfect way to promote its course on how to produce visual effects capable of fooling the public.
For its meteor stunt, four members of the team shot the same area of the sky using different cameras including a cell phone, a GoPro and a dashboard camera. Then, after creating the meteor digitally, the team called on friends with social media accounts to help promote the clip on the day they decided to go live. In total, about 30 people agreed help on Nov. 19.
Soon, news organizations were offering them between $500 to $5,000 (along with a percentage of ad profits) to host the clip online. Because the goal was to create as much publicity as possible and not to make direct money from the project, the company allowed anyone who reached out to it to publish the video for free. (However, Boudon said many publications insisted on giving the content creators some financial compensation.)
Finally, the Mirror in the U.K. agreed to post it without paying them, which is when other sites began to scrape the video content and post it on their own channels. It eventually ended up on Break.com and as a GIF posted on Reddit, climbing to the second spot on the coveted homepage.
"It took a life of its own. We didn't own the message we created anymore," Boudon said.
After a few days, Digital-Tutors revealed that the videos were fake and linked to their free visual effects course. (And, with egg on their face, many of the news sites quietly removed their stories about the event.) It led to a 3 percent increase in site traffic on the days immediately following the reveal. The meteor VFX course has been viewed 2,271 times, and was one of the most popular courses posted at that time. As for the first fake meteor video, it's been viewed more than 191,000 times to date.
So far, no brand has contacted Digital-Tutors to help them create a fake viral event as advertising, but Boudon admits they haven't ruled out the possibility that it may try to fake the news again to build publicity for itself. And Boudon believes that this method of creating fake viral news will be used more and more by other companies as the technology continues to become more mainstream.
"It's not going to slow down," he said. "Get used to it."