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Sixth-form student revealed to be behind 'Woolworths reopening' fake news


The person who duped many of the UK’s leading news outlets into running stories wrongly claiming Woolworths was returning to the high street can be revealed as a 17-year-old sixth-form student from York.

On Tuesday dozens of mainstream British websites, including Mail Online and the Daily Mirror, ran prominent articles asserting that Woolworths was reopening based on nothing more than a typo-strewn Twitter account with fewer than 1,000 followers.

The story, which was quickly denied by the company that bought the Woolworths brand when it went bust in 2008, led to questions about the standard of factchecking at many online outlets and the pressures on journalists to publish stories quickly in order to to attract readers. BBC Two’s Newsnight programme even ran a segment asking how the public had been duped.

The sixth-former told the Guardian they had been practising skills learned while taking a course in digital marketing as part of their business A-level: “The experiment wasn’t meant to get that big … but thanks to the media and over 5,000 followers, the story got big and it spread further.”

They said that rather than being a textbook case of disinformation spread via social media, it was largely amplified by mainstream news outlets. “Fake news is so easy to spread, and it took Twitter over 12 hours to shut down the account. There was spelling mistakes and a lack of a website purposely injected into the account, and yet some of the media still took it as gospel. I feel bad for the reporters.”

The student asked to remain anonymous because they did not want to “receive hate” from disappointed Woolworths fans hoping for the return of pick ’n’ mix selections. They provided the Guardian with evidence that they had access to the email account that controlled the short-lived Twitter account, which they worked on with a small group of fellow students during half-term.

The individual, who was only five years old when Woolworths went bankrupt, has never been in one of their stores. Instead they chose the brand for an experiment testing the brand loyalty of the British public because of its nostalgic appeal and to capitalise on a pre-existing Twitter trend.

Regional newsrooms across the country owned by Daily Mirror publisher, Reach, were among those to write localised takes on the viral story.

“It looks like the Woolworths story we are running on a number of our sites might not be all it seems,” said one internal email to staff at regional publications owned by Reach. “The story is based on a tweet from an unverified account with just over 1,000 followers and links to a website which does not exist. A newsroom has been in touch to say they now think it is fake. The story needs looking at urgently and either verifying or changing.”



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