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Chatbot Journalism: Fake Doctors, Fake Dogs, Fake EastEnders Storylines

Artificially generated nonsense is already filling the pages of Britain’s press

‘Tired Woman journalist in newsroom at computer with AI chatbot on screen’. Image generated by AI using Adobe Stock

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Have you ever wondered why your skin turns blue when you bruise? Apparently it’s because skin bruises tamper with the blood vessels. 

Except I have no idea if that’s true or not. 

The GP providing that advice – in an online article I am reading in The Sun, about six reasons I might turn blue and need to see a doctor – does not exist. 

The advice was shared by Doctor Charlotte Cremers. At present, health advice from Dr Cremers can also be found in publications such as Get Me Giddy (a sexual health platform offering advice on birth control), the Metro (discussing the health implications of too much sex) and perhaps most worryingly The Daily Express (providing advice on hearing loss and spotting leukaemia symptoms). 

The latter article has since been removed, after I reached out to them about it, but can still be found floating around the web by use of the wayback machine.

I first encountered Dr Cremers last year when I was looking for a personal trainer to help with a PR campaign I was working on. I wanted someone who could help me understand how athletes would be impacted by high temperatures. 

I put a request on Response Source, a popular platform used by both PRs and journalists. Response Source is a type of matchmaking service to help journalists find expert sources and for PRs to get their clients press coverage.

Dr Cremers was the first person to get in touch; she claimed to be a GP based in London.

The health information she provided me with looked plausible and seemed to be exactly what I needed. However she was rather overqualified and I was shocked that a GP would take the time out of general practice to help me out.

All she wanted in return for her contribution to the article was a link back to her website, Peaches and Screams. 

The website, as the name might suggest, isn’t a GP Surgery. Peaches and Screams is a drop shipping site which sells all manner of adult toys. It’s unusual, I guessed, but not impossible that a GP would have a side hustle selling sex toys online. However it pays to be careful, especially when sharing medical advice. 

So I typed her name into the General Medical Council’s medical register. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were no results. This online check took less than thirty seconds. 

After a bit of Googling, I found her name on the ‘About Us’ pages of multiple other drop shipping websites, selling everything from sex toys to vapes, to CBD gummies. 

It was clear by this point that Dr Cremers wasn’t a doctor, but I wanted to find out if she existed at all. I decided I would try to speak to someone who has spoken to her. 

I found Mason Quah, a young journalist who had quoted her in the Daily Express article about different leukaemia symptoms. Quah is now out of journalism and working in marketing, but I wanted to try and understand how he ended up quoting a fictional doctor in his time at the Express

He had found Charlotte the way she had found me, through Response Source.

“I was taught to go into Response Source and ask leading questions basically. ‘What’s a fad food that I can write about today’ or ‘what’s a reason people should eat more of X’

“I’m entirely unsurprised that an AI could fill out the responses since most of the time we knew what our story was going to be and just needed a rubber stamp from somebody who put ‘doctor’ before their name.”

It wasn’t that Quah had been badly trained, more that the time pressures of a busy newsroom weren’t giving him the chance to do the job he had been trained to do.

“During my NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course, I was told to always go for in-person or phone interview options with email as a last resort. The instant I was out of training this got rather quickly discarded because few newsrooms can afford the time to wait patiently for comments from reputable organisations.”

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In fact, the whole experience seemed to have soured his early experience of working in journalism. 

“It’s honestly work I’m disgusted at having done and probably wouldn’t have if I weren’t early in my career and didn’t know better than ‘I’m so lucky to have a job at a national publication’.”

While Quah undoubtedly knew the risks of taking quotes from GPs via a platform designed to connect professional sources with the press, he likely wouldn’t have known there is a whole industry behind tricking journalists like this. One that has now been supercharged by AI tools able to spit out ‘medical advice’ on demand.

Dr Charlotte Cremers was invented for one very specific reason, to help the e-commerce websites she appears in to gain links back to their website from the publications that write these stories. 

Those hyperlinks are like gold dust to website owners as the more links you have from legitimate publications, such as national newspapers, the higher authority Google places on your website, the higher up it will appear in online searches and consequently, the more money can be made from whatever it is they are selling. Not everyone needs a commercial incentive though. Sometimes it’s enough to have a strong opinion on a trending story, to know your way around some basic AI tools. Today it seems, anyone can feed a fake story to the media.

AI Tale Wags Dog

Last month Jerome Johnson made headlines across the British Press. The Evening Standard, The Independent and even The Telegraph ran the story of the young Londoner with muscular dystrophy and his beloved XL bully assistance dog, Jennie. 

You might have seen the widely shared image of Jerome in his wheelchair with Jennie sat obediently by his side. 

Jerome had responded to a tweet by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing the banning of the XL bully, with an angry tweet about the loyalty of his XL bully assistance dog Jennie. 

Seeing this tweet, a journalist working at newswire PA News, got in contact for a quick chat.

It was this chat that led to the AI image of Jerome and Jennie being shared around the world. 

The problem was, Jerome Johnson and Jennie the XL Bully assistance dog are the fictional creations of the man behind the satirical X/Twitter account @Jeromeh8sWoke.

It was a joke. The real Jerome, whoever he is, was actually pro the ban. 

When I reached out to him via X/Twitter, ‘Jerome’ didn’t want to speak about who he really was, other than the man behind a viral satirical tweet that three of the UK’s biggest papers didn’t fact-check.

“Okay so the funny bit is I am actually in a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy like I said in the article, and I am also from London. That part was true.” 

It was the only part that was.

“I’m in my early twenties but I’m not giving you my name or job. I don’t trust journalists too much.”

He was happy to explain how he had outsmarted plenty of them though.

“I wish I could tell you some elaborate tale of how it happened but it really was only possible because the poor girl didn’t do one second of research like scrolling through my tweets. I thought she would realise at some point especially when I sent the picture.”

The image Jerome sent the PA journalist of him and Jennie had been created on the AI image generator mid journey

After a few failed attempts, including one where Jennie appeared to be a giant trout, he found one that was believable enough that the PA journalist didn’t question it. It wasn’t just her he fooled though.

The newswire that the journalist worked for shared this story widely, and even as it landed on picture desks across Fleet Street no one appeared to notice that it wasn’t a real photo. Instead, they ran the image and the interview with Jerome as if it was all verified fact. 

A pinned tweet on the journalist’s X/Twitter profile shows that she had only been at PA Media since 18 May . Why did no one – neither a senior team member nor a sub-editor – think to reach out to her source via phone, to fact-check her story? Especially one so clearly implausible. At one point in the interview, shared across multiple publications, Jerome is quoted as saying: “Occasionally she will bite my wheelchair which isn’t ideal but I think it’s more her playful nature than anything malicious.” 

The real Jerome however was sympathetic to the journalist’s plight, “I think she was trying to get a story out too quickly. I got friends who work in journalism and they said the same. She was too keen and didn’t investigate properly.”

Chatbot Hallucinations

As I write this story, an article from the Daily Star is doing the rounds on the supposedly confirmed shock return to EastEnders of the soap’s popular character Bradley Branning. 

The source behind the shock storyline, an ex-staffer at the BBC perhaps? No, the journalist merely asked Google’s Bard whether it thought the character would return to the soap. 

“In a huge twist, it has been suggested by AI that Bradley could return to EastEnders, but as part of a ‘long lost twin’ storyline. The Daily Star asked one of the world’s most popular artificially intelligent ‘creative’ tools, Bard AI, whether Bradley could make a comeback, 13 years after his tragic death.”

While this story is clearly tabloid fluff, written for Facebook comments and shares (and it got 667 of them) it could start a worrying trend. 

In the past journalists have gone to jail to protect the integrity of their sources, taking great pains to be sure they were trustworthy, but now it seems it no longer matters if a source exists, or if they are even human. Perhaps in the future journalists will instead be happy quoting the hallucinations of an AI Chatbot. 

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