The anatomy of a food hoax we almost fell for

There’s an old maxim in journalism that goes, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

The principle behind the adage is that good journalism comes with a healthy dose of skepticism and it's better to be sure than to be first.

"Usually these things jar with your journalistic instinct. If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

— Malachy Browne, news editor at Storyful

That said, as the speed of information in the digital age increases, the lines between traditional and social media have blurred, leaving phrases like "certified viral" to cement a story’s status as news.

So when we saw a so-called viral story about two vintners who had invented a device that could turn water into wine in just three days, we were excited to taste the wine and see the machine in action.

As it turned out, the magical wine maker, called the Miracle Machine, was really a marketing ploy designed by a public relations company to promote their pro bono client, a clean water charity called Wine to Water.

The stunt is just one in a host of food hoaxes to hit the media in recent weeks. There was the Dumb Starbucks story, in which Starbucks like drinks with the prefix dumb were served at a real coffee shop set up just to promote comedian Nathan Fielder’s new show on Comedy Central.

Then there was comedian Nick Preuher, who fooled five local TV networks (including a Fox affiliate) into thinking he was a legit chef named Keith Guerke as he fed the hosts disgusting concoctions. Prueher and and his partner, Joe Pickett are now on tour with a new live stage show where they screen footage from the five TV shows they fooled.

"Usually these things jar with your journalistic instinct," said Malachy Browne, news editor at Storyful, a company that helps journalists figure out whether viral stories are legitimate. "If it's too good to be true, it probably is."

With the recent spate of food hoaxes hitting the media world, we mapped out the anatomy of one we almost fell for.

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It started with an exclusive story published in Business Insider on March 1 with the alluring headline: Lot18 Founder Has Invented A Tiny Home Device That Turns Water Into Wine In 3 Days.

The article’s reporter, Alyson Shontell, happened to have lunch with a former co-worker of Philip James, a vintner and founder of wine companies Lot18 and Snooth. The co-worker said that James had left Lot18 to work on a new startup called the Miracle Machine.

On February 28 Shontell emailed James to ask about the company:

"I stumbled across your new startup, the wine maker. I was thinking about writing up your new venture. Any interest in chatting about it? It's good to see you're still in the same startup space," she wrote.

On March 1, James wrote back:

"I want to wait until we get it launched on kickstarter first - that should be very soon. Next week I hope, until then we're in a bit of a holding pattern."

Wanting to scoop other outlets, Shontell said:

"If you don't mind, I'd like to go ahead and post a story about what you're up to and then when you're ready for launch I'd love to chat with you and see a demo (or even past failed experiments with the device)."

James responded "OK."

After the story ran, the Miracle Machine went viral with nearly 600 media outlets around the world, including ABC News and TIME, picking up the story about the faux contraption, which was priced at $499. That was enough to get 7,000 people to sign up for information about The Miracle Machine's Kickstarter campaign, which still had yet to launch. Both James and his fake business partner declined to give any media interviews (which was why we passed on the story), with hopes that the one viral article would suffice.

"It built up organically," Scott Beaudoin, a director at MSL Group, the public relations firm that planned the hoax, told "Business Insider ran that story and from there it just caught fire...I’ve been shocked by the interest it generated on its own."

"Everybody wanted to be the first to talk about it, because it was truly miraculous," continued Kevin Boyer, who was the second fake front-man in the hoax and is president of Customvine, a winemaking and marketing company he chairs with James. "I was not surprised that there was interest, but I was surprised that there was no fact checking."

Over a conference call with, Beaudoin and Boyer explained that Customvine has been a long-time supporter of Wine to Water--a non-profit working to provide clean water to people around the world.  Last year, James rode his motorcycle 17,000 miles to raise money for the charity. When the pair was asked to lend their support as the fake inventors of the Miracle Maker, they quickly agreed.

In a press release that was sent out to reveal the hoax, the charity stated that it has provided more than 250,000 people in 17 countries with access to clean drinking water and, for only one dollar, can provide clean water for one person for an entire year.

Still, it begs the question, why does a charity (which, being wary of being fooled twice, we looked up on the non-for-profit watchdog site GuideStar to make sure was legitimate) need to lie to promote its cause?

"I would quarrel with the idea that it’s a violation of trust," Allen Peterson, CEO of Wine to Water told "We are very serious about the crisis that affects 800 million people. Our ability to save one child’s life makes this all worth it, and the truth is that in today’s world there’s so much noise that it’s a difficult to get a real message through."

Agree?  Let us know what you think.