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Inside the CBD gummy industrial complex
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Facebook Is Obsessed With Katie Couric CBD Gummies
This week on my podcast, The Content Mines, my podcast co-host Luke Bailey and I took up a challenge sent our way by Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz: Why is Facebook full of so much weird spam about Katie Couric possibly dying? We’re still missing a few details, but we think we found the answer.
If you search “Katie Couric” on Facebook right now, you’ll actually find a bunch of users asking questions similar to Lorenz. And, even weirder, almost all of this content features a very strange and specific phrasing, referring to the TV personality’s “tragic ending”.
“Whatever did Katie Couric do to deserve all this ‘tragic ending’ clickbait nonsense,” one user I came across asked. “I got a good dozen of these idiotic things on my newsfeed this morning, even prompting me to do a google search to see if there was something to this.”
At first glance, there’s no real discernible pattern for what these spammy posts are actually trying to do. They all link to different domains, like merrilymerrilylife.com, which is appears to be an apparel store, or ICA.se, which appears to be a fairly large-sized retailer in Sweden. It wasn’t super clear they had anything in common. That is, until you realize, beyond just ominously alluding to some kind of personal tragedy for Couric, most of the Couric spam is actually all advertising the same thing: CBD gummies.
In fact, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Facebook pages advertising “Katie Couric CBD gummies,” and the majority of them were registered in the last few days. But the question is why? At first, we thought maybe Couric had some previous association with CBD products, but the only thing we could find linking her to the CBD industry was a podcast she did about it in 2019. We also couldn’t figure out why all these spammy posts were using the “tragic ending” phrase. Couric’s website has used the phrase in a recent article about the Gabby Petito murder case, but beyond a few news stories last year re-reporting bits from Couric’s recently published memoir, we really couldn’t figure out where this was all coming from.
That is, until we came across this post:
The article, and screenshots of it, are all over Facebook right now. At first glance it looks like it’s a shocking news story published by NBC News, but it’s not. It’s also hosted on a URL meant to look like a British newspaper, dailymailstore.uk.com. The article claims that “pharmaceutical companies” are suing Couric for “undercutting their prices” because she revealed live on air that she “wouldn't be here without CBD”:
US's beloved nightly news anchor and burgeoning business woman Katie Couric made headlines after revealing her new CBD line on Live TV last week. Pharmaceutical companies were outraged saying they will be filing a lawsuit against Katie Couric and CTV for violating their contract and undercutting their prices.
The post goes on to say that Couric was offering viewers huge CBD discounts. It’s all nonsense, of course, but the post links to a CBD gummy marketplace called gethuuman.com. We found lots of complaints from users about it and a bunch of associated domains. The site has a customer service line, which we called, but the woman on the other line had no idea what we were talking about when we asked to speak to a manager about Katie Couric-themed Facebook ads.
The top line in the fake NBC News article, which reads, “In a shocking 1-on-1 interview, US’s most popular news anchor reveals how she ‘wouldn't be here without CBD,’” is actually boilerplate that’s used in a lot of other fraudulent celebrity CBD endorsements. According to Snopes, a similar-looking fake NBC News article was created in December, as well, claiming that Oprah Winfrey was shilling CBD. And Snopes was able to trace that Facebook ad back to a content farm based in Pakistan and the Philippines. The content farm runs a small page called The Failures and they appear to be, at the very least, part of the network that distributes fake ads like this. We also found fake CBD ads for other celebrities like Shaq with similar language going back as far as 2020, using spoofed fake articles for outlets like People.
What’s weird, and notable, about this fake Couric story, though, is that it went super viral. Facebook analytics tool CrowdTangle doesn’t show what pages or groups were sharing it — the post seems to break their dashboard — but CrowdTangle does say that it’s been shared over 65,000 times since December 2021. And it was this explosion of attention around Couric and CBD that seems to have caused a snowball effect across Facebook.
SEO farms and automated Facebook pages are now churning out an unimaginable amount of Couric CBD spam, with hundreds of new pages and more fake ads being made by the hour. We found similar fake news stories about Couric and CBD also being submitted to promotional sections of legitimate publications like SF Weekly and The Jerusalem Post, as well.
Unfortunately, we can’t figure out if this fake NBC News article was shared genuinely or not. We can’t see which corners of Facebook helped spread it, so we don’t know if this was shared by real users being tricked by a misleading article or if it was seeded out by some kind of coordinated network.
But this whole thing has given us an incredible look at exactly how much junk is underneath the hood of Facebook at the moment. On Wednesday, I wrote that many of the platform’s most widely shared posts at the end of last year were created by pages that were taken down for violating the site’s standards and it seems like users are not just sharing viral content from scammy pages, but, also, in this instance, literally being inundated with so much genuine ad fraud they’re making posts complaining about it.
The End Of The Indie Band(camp)
A surprise announcement on Wednesday had the independent music side of Twitter reeling. Bandcamp, the stalwart sales platform best known for financial fairness to artists and empowering organic music discovery, had been acquired by Epic Games. Like probably a lot of Bandcamp users, I had to look up what exactly Epic Games was. Turns out they’re the company behind Fortnite and Unreal Engine, both of which I have heard of.
Reaction was immediate and immense, of course. Artists and journalists alike began to panic. After nearly two years of successful Bandcamp Fridays throughout the pandemic, with the company waiving their already-minimal 15% commission in order to support artists one day a month, and the continued rising of Bandcamp’s profile in correlation to Spotify’s sinking stock (financial and moral), an acquisition was not on anyone’s bingo card. The music industry is already insanely consolidated as it is. The Big Three label groups all contributed to Spotify’s launch (though Warner Music Group divested its entire stake in 2018), and Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent, which owns 40% of Epic, also has a stake in Spotify.
The Epic news is, by all accounts, far from the tolling of Bandcamp’s death knell, though. And according to some, might even be a good thing not just for Bandcamp listeners but for everyone who struggles with Apple’s arcane and restrictive App Store rules, which Epic has a history of taking legal action against. According to a massive VC primer on Epic’s strategy from two years ago, its CEO Tim Sweeney “is a harsh critic of all closed ecosystems and platforms,” which neatly lines up with the reasons stated by Bandcamp for its acquisition.
All the same, it begs the question: is it possible to have a sustainable career in music wholly, or at least mostly, outside the boundaries of the amoebic conglomeration of platform capitalism? Bandcamp’s acquisition portends the futility of attempting such a thing. Soon, if it isn’t already, it will be utterly inconceivable.
Maybe this is just my own personal mortal fear of TikTok talking, but I imagine there are lots of really good artists out there who don’t have the additional chops necessary, let alone the desire, to create viral Fountains of Wayne covers, or what have you, to get themselves noticed by audiences or A&Rs. Even the fizzy-lifting promise of coolness offered by upstarts like Friends With Benefits and Metalabel is linked inexorably to VC-backed blockchain/Web3 initiatives, which just as many creatives inherently distrust as support. Bandcamp has, for over a decade, been an essential supporter of musicians making a living solely and simply off their music and their merchandise, without frills or traps. Epic’s support in improving playlisting, discovery, and general app functionalities might be a massive boon for those artists, but In A World where acquisitions are known to not always end well for the acquired, it will take a concerted effort for Bandcamp to retain the goodwill of their users moving forward.
My internet culture collective, Digital Void, is throwing a live event in Washington, DC, on March 23! We’ve got some great guests like Jordan Uhl, podcaster Bridget Todd, reporter Ellie Hall, and The Intercept’s D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim.
A Good Tweet
This TV Station Is Not A Member Of BTS
KTHV is a CBS affiliated based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Their Twitter account is @THV11. Unfortunately for them, however, there is a member of K-Pop mega-band BTS whose name is Tae-Hyung, who also goes by “V”. You can see where this is going.
BTS’s V’s birthday is December 30th, which means the news station suddenly got a bunch of attention at the end of last year. But it seems like it KTHV is still getting a lot of mentions from passionated K-Pop stans because they had to remind people, again, this month that they are not Tae-Hyung.
Tumblr Loves The Gay Kiss Live Reaction Slug
Last week, Twitter user @PinkRangerLB tweeted about how in the movie Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker, after the first in-universe same sex kiss, it cuts to a big frowning slug monster. The tweet went viral and has had a huge second life on Tumblr, where it’s quickly become the most popular meme on the site at the moment.
Users are now photoshopping a screenshot of the slug into homoerotic pictures as a “live slug reaction”. They’re also just using it as an unspoken way to convey gay subtext. And they even found the slug’s wookiepedia page. His name is Klaud, apparently.
The r/volunteersforukraine Subreddit Is Kind Of A Mess
There’s a subreddit for people who want to go volunteer in Ukraine. It’s grown by 34,000 users since last week, but it’s also full of trolls and users are now accusing each other of being Russian chaos agents.
I think it’s an interesting example of an internet-led crowdsourcing project that feels like it should work slamming up against the terrifying reality and complicated logistics of war. Also, for all the handwringing about “internet radicalization” over the last decade, it’s really jarring to see this kind of thing happening just out in the open on mainstream social platforms.
And all of that is to say nothing about the just general surreality of the posts being shared in r/volunteersforukraine from users going off to fight, like this one posted yesterday, titled, “Still need a translator for my team will be landing in Warsaw tomorrow. If anyone closer to ukraine receives important news or anything please post on here or dm me trying to stay updated while flying. 3 man team so far still need a translator and someone that knows the land well”.
The top comment in the post currently is, “Poles speaks English. They'll guide you ppl.👍”
Exactly How Much Misery Does This Family Want To Inflict On The World?
Randi Zuckerberg is Mark Zuckerberg’s sister. Randi put out a music video about cryptocurrency this week. It is, without question, the worst thing I have ever seen. It contains so much cringe per second (CpS) that I became physically exhausted trying to watch the entire thing in one sitting. And, even after breaking up the two-and-a-half minute video into smaller, more manageable chunks to watch, I still haven’t been able to finish it.
Here’s my thing about this — and every other weird cryptocurrency tribute project like this — if this were a wildly embarrassing music video about, say, the dollar or the euro or the yen, it would still be weird. Also, if this were even a music video about different form of technology, like email or RSS feeds, that would also be completely nuts. So like I just really don’t get what the thought process is here. No one is making a music video to empower women to trade stocks. (If they are, please don’t tell me about it.) Anyways, I know I published a photoshop of a pregnant Shawn Mendes the other day, but I actually think this video is the most awful thing I’ve included in an email this year, if not ever.
How The Podcasting Sausage Gets Made
Yesterday, we finished moving my podcast The Content Mines off of Anchor and Patreon and over to Substack. It even has a brand new fancy URL.
If you don’t know anything about how the podcast sausage gets made, there are basically a bunch of platforms that create an RSS feed of a podcast and distribute it to the apps that listeners use to download the show. The free distribution apps for podcasting suck and clearly weren’t created by anyone who has ever tried to track the metrics of other kinds of digital content. For instance, Anchor’s main way of showing audience engagement over time is two-week intervals. Which makes no sense. Also, for any creators who have thought about Patreon, even though it’s the standard for monetizing projects, it doesn’t offer comps, discount codes, or any other lightweight ways to reward long-time subs. And don’t even get me STARTED on how Patreon’s CMS organizes content. (I try and spare you the many many many thoughts I have on CMS’s in general lol)
We’ve only put out one new episode, but, already, we’ve seen a huge difference, which I’m really hoping isn’t due to some kind of weird bug lol. But, most importantly, for Garbage Day readers, I know there are folks who have been supporting both projects for a while and now that both are in the Substack ecosystem, I’ve got some fun ideas on how to thank you all for that. So stay tuned! And thanks for listening!
This is a non-sponsored ad exchange. That’s a fancy way of saying that this week I’m trading promotions, old school web style, with Dirt, a daily dispatch about entertainment and digital culture. A tasteful guide to the metaverse for people that love their witch NFTs and their HBO logins. Sign up for the free newsletter and follow Dirt on Twitter.
Some Stray Links
P.S. here’s a really good webpage for a dog.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***