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A Well-Known Expert on Student Loans Is Not Real (chronicle.com)
578 points by cpeterso 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 163 comments

In 2017 they were claiming to be founded in 2015 [1] and didn't disclose that they were affiliated with financial companies. A few days ago [2] they were claiming to be founded in 2016 and disclosed that they were affiliated with financial companies.

The fake expert is not that concerning but providing affiliate links with no disclosure is a real concern and is rife across the internet and growing [3]. Obviously this company came clean once the journalists got onto them.

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20170610022155/https://studentlo...

[2] https://web.archive.org/web/20180420191847/https://studentlo...

[3] https://blog.marketing.rakuten.com/hubfs/Networks_Help_Drive...

do you find affiliate links more evil than a company being able to significantly manipulate how the media reports on the industry they profit from?

Isn't that just shoddy journalism on the part of media that reported and quoted them? We shouldn't shift the blame from the media companies that reported fake information as fact. We are never going to get rid of fake information. We can only push for journalistic standards to ensure we aren't bringing credibility and legitimacy to a company pumping out this crap.

We can push for higher journalistic standards and also push to punish crooks who intentionally deceive the public in order to line their pockets, especially when it's at the expense of struggling populations like heavily indebted students.

There are multiple people who did things wrong here. Sure, you can call out the media companies, but there is no reason to not also criticize fraudsters. There is enough blame to spread around.

Identity checks are incredibly time consuming and expensive. Many authors deliberately use pseudonyms.

The only practical way to avoid what you’re calling “shoddy journalism” would be to have a single international register of vetted and accredited blog authors.

Is that really an outcome you want?

Or perhaps journalists could actually do some investigative reporting rather than treating blog posts as even a potential source of truth.

Are people willing to pay them commensurate to the extra work they will have to put in to do this?

Sure... As soon as every project on github audits every line of code in all of their dependencies.

I'm not sure your analogy sticks. News organisations are purporting to be sources of truth. I don't think that many Github projects are purporting to be sources of audited dependencies.

Trust matters. It's a tremendous efficiency engine.

One verifies as feasible, but one also punishes intentional violations of trust severely.

> this company came clean once the journalists got onto them.

They changed their story, but we don't know that what they say now is true and they have a track record of intentional, per-meditated deceit.

This fabrication is by the folks behind LendEDU (YC W16).

Dishonesty "when it doesn't matter, in the eye of the investor" is a YC requirement:


""" Though the most successful founders are usually good people, they tend to have a piratical gleam in their eye. They're not Goody Two-Shoes type good. Morally, they care about getting the big questions right, but not about observing proprieties. That's why I'd use the word naughty rather than evil. They delight in breaking rules, but not rules that matter.

Sam Altman of Loopt is one of the most successful alumni, so we asked him what question we could put on the Y Combinator application that would help us discover more people like him. He said to ask about a time when they'd hacked something to their advantage—hacked in the sense of beating the system, not breaking into computers. It has become one of the questions we pay most attention to when judging applications. """

That's not a requirement, what it describes is not dishonesty, nor does it use that word. Nor does the phrase you put in quotation marks appear in the essay. Who's being dishonest here?

Unless the grandparent comment was edited, it certainly does appear in the essay - it's the paragraph under the heading "4. Naughtiness". (And it's a pretty worrisome paragraph, in all honesty.)

I meant the phrase in the first paragraph ("when it doesn't matter, in the eye of the investor"). In fact there's nothing in that first paragraph that isn't false.

In practice, this is what breaking 'rules that don't matter' looks like - you break the rules that don't matter to you, but those rules were probably put in place for a reason.

I was just having this discussion with my children. How much sense a rule makes depends on the altitude of the observer.

For instance, it makes sense to all people to choose for themselves whether to smoke. It also makes sense to protect people from food poisoning. Does it make sense to disallow the sale of raw milk because somebody might get sick but allow the sale of cigarettes with a big sticker that smoking will kill you?

Sometimes the sense of something changes between the small picture and the large picture. So it is with deciding which rules are ok to break.

Even when rules are put in place for a reason, you should still be able to break them as long as there is value in doing so and you pay sufficient attention to the underlying reasons for the rule. Reasons are more important than rules, after all. You won't be able to do anything exceptional if you're not allowed to be an exception in any meaningful way.

> but those rules were probably put in place for a reason.

Assuming that lawmaking systems are altruistic and incapable of folly. In practice that doesn't work

As a law-abiding citizen, I do want you to obey the laws, even when you think they are folly. Fix the law, instead of breaking it to your advantage where you don't like it.

I want you to adhere to this principle only up to an admittedly subjective bar (e.g. circumventing a tyranical regime). But a lot of the "mischief" being described here is probably well within the threshold.

> Assuming that lawmaking systems are altruistic and incapable of folly.

As opposed to assuming all those that will individually assess and decide what rules are worth following won't diverge in "interesting" (read as dangerous and life-threatening) ways occasionally as the inexperienced, the unethical, or the just plain stupid make choices we would all rather as a society they not.

Nope. It's not as black and white. Following the laws to the book, but not being afraid of breaking the law in itself, but being afraid of crossing ethical lines and understanding the cost of breaking the law, willfully accepting what retribution comes back when caught. There has to be some level of human conscience at play in these decision making. There are hundreds of laws that are enforced while ethical lines are being crossed and laws are broken without crossing any. All we can ask as a society is that we train and employ our rationality and conscience.

Rules and regulations require trade-offs. The YC types that run these companies notice the inefficiencies resulting from these trade-offs, recognize the opportunity to profit from them and arrogantly assume they have the right to ignore any rule they can't immediately see the harm in breaking; either because they aren't / wouldn't be affected by the negative externalities the rule is mitigating, so they don't understand why it exists, or, more often than not, because they don't really give a fuck about anything other than making money and being big-time shot-callers.

You're still assuming that all rules are mitigating negative externalities. I find your faith in government amazing, and I'm no libertarian.

Can you offer any recent examples of start-ups routinely breaking the law where nearly everyone is in agreement that their law-breaking has no negative social effect?

Again, all rules involve trade-offs. It may be that those trade-offs or preferentially unfairly benefit some special interest group or otherwise aren't worth the cost to society, but it's not up to profit-seeking hucksters to unilaterally make that determination.

The first example that occurs to me is startups selling medical marijuana in states which have already legalized it (yet they're still breaking federal law).

They're in conflict with federal law, but they're following a legal and regulatory framework that was established by their local governments, so there's a broad consensus where they are operating that it's OK to break those rules. That's not unilaterally deciding to ignore the law. A better example of a start-up in the marijuana space that did do that might be, say, the Zeta Cartel.

(obviously, I'm not saying that no one should ever break an unjust law, but I don't believe for a second that we should allow profit-motivated companies to be good judges of what are just and unjust laws)

So you ask me to provide a counter-example to your position, by mentioning a startup which broke the law "where nearly everyone is in agreement that their law-breaking has no negative social effect", yet when I provide one, it doesn't count because "there's a broad consensus where they are operating that it's OK to break those rules"?

This isn't even a No True Scotsman, it's literally contradictory.

No, there are two separate points being argued here.

You first implied that there are plenty of rules that are completely pointless - mitigating no negative externalities. I challenged you to provide an example of a start-up whose business was based on breaking those kinds of rules - since usually the reason you can make money off rule-breaking in the first place is because you're externalizing the costs onto the rest of society.

I then said that rule-making is a trade-off, and that you don't get to unilaterally decide those trade-offs are illegitimate because you want to make money. In the case of medical marijuana, yes, obviously, there are negative social consequences to selling marijuana and there are people who would vigorously argue in favor of federal drug laws. But these clinics are not unilaterally operating in defiance of federal drug laws; they have the backing of the government of their states.

Of course, there are also plenty of profiteers who just break the law and then reinvest the profits in the task of forcing communities to accept their social irresponsibility and lawlessness as a fait accompli (AirBNB, Uber).

If you really want to think seriously about these issues, you need to move beyond just name-dropping 'logical fallacies' to try and win arguments.

> If you really want to think seriously about these issues, you need to move beyond just name-dropping 'logical fallacies'

You crossed into personal incivility here and again later. Would you please not do that, regardless of how wrong someone else is?

Long tit-for-tat back-and-forths are tedious anyhow, and it's better to abstain from them on HN, though I know how hard that can be.


I disagree with your portrayal of the conversation. You made an overbroad claim (they're either oblivious or don't care) and I challenged its universal applicability. Your nuanced third position only came out after that.

I do want to think seriously about these issues, and I think that's exactly what my challenge accomplished.

As a further question: why is a startup imposing externalities on its surrounding communities (like those two) necessarily in the wrong, whereas a state can do the same (legalizing marijuana has effects on neighboring states) without moral qualms?

Is the problem really the law breaking, or that you just dislike the motives for doing so?

As a non-american, I'm baffled that you have contradictory federal and local laws at all. (With no clear precedence rules defined and - since the current administation - both federal and local agencies determined to enforce their respective laws)

Honestly, I think this contradiction is a bad example to show a "rule that can be broken with no negative effect" and more a hint that you guys have some bigger problems that should be addressed.

But if you do take it as an example, I think it comes down to who decides a rule is "non-essential". In the marijuana case, it was itself decided by an established and elected body (the state administration) yet in the OP's case, it was the the rule-breakers themselves who decided that rule is OK to be broken.

I'm not american either :) but there is clear precedence rules - the Supremacy Clause says federal law takes precedence. But that's only a problem is state law directly contradicted federal law, making it impossible to comply with both. Since the states merely give people the choice, people can still comply with federal law by not using marijuana.

Regarding the who decides, I agree that makes a difference inside the state itself. But what about its effects on the neighboring states, which had no say on the matter? To reuse my example in the other post, if a democratic country decides to dump pollutants on a river that goes to their neighboring country, is that action less wrong than if a company decided to do so?

And further, what if that company is a coop with a democratic decision model?

Given that my 'nuanced position' was included in the same post as my 'overbroad claim', and that you're apparently now seriously arguing that there is no difference between handful of guys in a start-up making a decision to ignore regulations for profit and a policy decision made by a body of democratically elected representatives, I think it's clear your commitment here is to reddit-style 'logical gotcha' argumentation rather than a good-faith effort at grasping the issue.

Given that my 'nuanced position' was included in the same post as my 'overbroad claim'

If it is, I apologize. I've re-read your first post (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16928822) a number of times and sincerely cannot find it.

you're apparently now seriously arguing that there is no difference between handful of guys in a start-up making a decision to ignore regulations for profit and a policy decision made by a body of democratically elected representatives

I think there's a difference inside the territory controlled by that democratic body, but not outside. If a democratic country decides to dump pollutants on a river that goes to their neighboring country, is that action less wrong than if a company decided to do so? In my view, not really.

No one is allowing companies to be good judges. They are getting judged when caught, they get judged for actions that don't break any laws ex: FB. Lawmaking is a continuous process. Breaking the law in itself is not unethical.

The YC credo is to encourage these companies to think of themselves as judges of what is and is not acceptable lawbreaking. That's the problem.

That's not what the person you are replying to said.

There's a big difference between knowing when to break the rules, which Altman and Graham advocate, and being commercially dishonest like LendEDU has been. Even putting aside the ethics, there are industries you fuck around with rules in and then there's consumer lending.

There isn't really, or at least the difference is almost always argued/decided post hoc.

> the difference is almost always argued/decided post hoc

At the margin, yes. LendEDU's behaviour, here, is far from the margin.

One element is in choosing sensible battles. Uber and Airbnb fought municipal governments. Zenefits got creative with states and Theranos with the federal government. They (EDIT: Uber and Airbnb) each also fought their battles in a way that made (a) investors money and (b) consumers happy. In this case, the ones being deceived are the consumers. In the process of being sold lending products. That's stupid, desperate rule breaking.

How did Theranos do either of those? Their faked results gave health scares to many, and didn’t detect health problems in others. That isn’t making consumers happy. And I’m pretty sure Theranos’s investors have not made money.

> How did Theranos do either of those?

Pardon me, I mis-spoke. I was using Uber and Airbnb as (limited) examples of productive rule breaking and Zenefits and Theranos as counter-examples of imprudent illegality.

The "productive rule-making" of those two companies contributed to a worldwide rent crisis (Airbnb) and attempted to undermine labor laws (Uber). Local governments and labor organisations are still busy dealing with those consequences.

If you "break the rules that don't matter" and leave the resulting mess for others to solve, that's not "naughty", it's just plain amoral.

Airbnb provided a platform, so calling it "rule breaking" is a little disingenuous. Saying they contributed to a worldwide rent crisis is just melodramatic. There's certainly data to suggest that Airbnb caused housing prices to increase in some markets, but that's the nature of providing a "new" service that's well sought-after.

Uber undermined labor laws only in the sense that they tried to get states to overrule local labor laws that were crowding their ability to keep drivers as contractors. That's just normal business, calling it "undermining" is, again, disingenuous at best.

While attempting to destroy labor might be business as usual it is wretched enough that it shouldn't be written off, ever, especially when it starts as illegal practices.

They weren't attempting to destroy anything. They were properly using contractors and some cities felt that it was unfair and introduced new regulations and Uber wanted the states to overrule them. There is plenty to dog on Uber about without having to introduce hyperbole.

Uber have a string of other issues, from threatening journalists to writing software to evade law enforcement oversight, which places them in the bad example bucket.

I understand what you're getting at with Uber and Airbnb. I'm not especially familiar with Zenefits. I'd thought that Theranos, though, was a major straight-up fraud.

Calling what Theranos did "being creative" is pretty creative by itself.

Treason doth never prosper?

What's the Reason?

For if it prosper:

None dare call it treason.

--John Harington

This seems like a highly irresponsible thing for someone like PG to be saying. He's held up as a leader of and role model for the startup community. It's far too ambiguous and, while I believe he meant "don't be limited by tradition or get caught up in red tape", it's far too easy to mis-read as "the ends justify the means" and could be used by startup founders to justify all manner of shady behaviour.

The thing is, neither position is very useful (in the sense of information gain) as startup advice. You could break the rules and get killed by regulation, or you could play it safe and never have a chance to innovate.

Concepts like validated learning and kaizen are more useful IMO.


> It’s a moral imperative to be dishonest to a woman if pumps her state

It's not. And if you do this, you're likely doing it at least as much for yourself and the increase in social capital you are afforded for playing along as you are to actually make the other person feel better.

The truly honest person or the person that really was just looking to help the other the most would probably look for a middle ground where more truth was used, while possibly attempting to minimize pain.

This doesn't necessarily mean stop doing it (society runs on this), but at least own up to "pumping her state" because you get benefits for being the one that did the "pumping".

It's interesting how your post is essentially agreeing with the parent poster ("doesn't necessarily mean stop doing it (society runs on this)"), while lambasting them for some presumed selfish motivation of the act, which you have no way of knowing.

I'm simply pointing out it's not a moral imperative, and the sexism I inferred (correctly or not) should be offset at least by the knowledge of what you're getting out of it.

That is, the lambasting is purely about paying more attention to the transactional nature of these things, instead of viewing them as a matter of someone gives, and someone takes.

The "doesn't necessarily mean stop doing it (society runs on this)" portion is mainly about societal transactions in general. If you stop, you'll be ostracized unless you have enough capital of one form or another that it doesn't matter.

"pump her state" What on earth does that mean?

Inflates her ego, I assume, Makes her feel better.

If this is true, how is it not the top comment? Or at least higher up? Seems like it is one of the most relevant pieces of info for a HN reader.

This is a great additional article: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/25/lendedu-ceo-says-survey-spok...

This seems 100% true.

How is this not higher up? How has YC not responded yet? This is a pretty serious situation.

Fake news, financed by YCombinator. For real. Who will believe a YC company spokesperson now?

If it can be proven that LendEDU or any other student loan company profited from their statements, this is a picture case of wire fraud. 18 U.S.C. §1343 [1] for reference, states that "whoever devised or intended to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations [...]"

They did not disclose their connection to LendEDU and if LendEDU profited from their fraudulent pretenses or representations then there you have it.

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1343

Would that make Paul Gram and YC co-conspirators, given they had intimate access to internals and funded LendEDU (YC W16)?

I'm no lawyer, but making a fraudulent identity for the sake of controlling student lending seems on its face very wrong.

Probably not. Unless LendEDU reached out the website personally. And it's unlikely rich investors will face consequences any way.

I’m not sure... Any actor in a commercial technically falls under that definition.

Would that count as "false or fraudulent pretenses"? It seems like the fact that it's a commercial serves as an indicator that the consumer displayed is a constructed example, rather than an actual person.

No, you see - with an actor in a commercial, the other party clearly knows the affiliation with the company and the statements made are advertisement. Of course if they lie, and not just exaggerate, the company can be sued for other reasons (e.g. unfair competition).

With Drew Cloud and The Student Loan Report, they pretended to be a single person who has personal experience with whatever, but definitely no affiliation with LendEDU. So if LendEDU paid them (or gave them any other benefits) to talk positively about them and steer business towards them, it is fraudulent.

Since this thread defends using a persona, I'd be interested to know how many YC companies use them.

Are tech entrepreneurs viewed as inept at communication and thus need a proxy to speak publicly?

Why not make such statements through a spokesperson or the CEO?

The CIA did something similar in the 50's and 60's, with a fictitious economist called Guy Sims Fitch: https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2016/09/meet-guy-sims-fitch-a-fak...

And I'm sure they've done it every decade since.

On the topic of media manipulation, this book has changed how I interpret press content more than anything I've read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust_Me,_I%27m_Lying

The book is excellent and when I first heard about it, I figured the reviews were enough. They were not and it should be widely read: https://jakeseliger.com/2014/05/07/the-death-of-the-novel-an...

Thanks for the recommendation. I just started reading, and so far it's quite frightening but enlightening. Holiday uses a scary number of examples to show how effective his tactics are.

edit: I'm not seeing any deep description of the audience, other than as sheep who provide clicks, which is worrying. Surely knowing the audience is important?

> The self-described journalist who specializes in student-loan debt has been quoted in major news outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and CNBC

Curious to hear how this got past their vetting processes.

As someone who has been quoted by major news outlets in what's likely a similar fashion - adding color to the story rather than reporting news - there is rarely "vetting" and the fact checking that occurs is merely confirming that what the journalist wrote matched what I said. They don't try to find additional sources to corroborate the story.

So the fact checking focused on the surveys conducted, the methodology, etc - not whether Drew Cloud was a real person.

(Also, I'm a real person so it's possible they do this type of vetting and I never experienced it because... well, I'm real)

This has been my experience as well. Most of the writers are either under so much pressure to pump out articles they just simply don't have time to fully vet every source OR they're a contractor and don't care to seriously vet the source.

Some are found through here and are not vetted much: https://www.helpareporter.com

1. There's obviously a large difference between the front page of the Post or Globe and some knock-on blog they run in the Home section of the website.

2. Curious to hear how this is even slightly relevant to the issue.

This was originally posted with the original title: "Drew Cloud Is a Well-Known Expert on Student Loans. One Problem: He’s Not Real."

And then it was changed to the current, more clickbaity one. Why? (I'm saying "clickbaity" because the fake person's name, which was relevant information, was omitted.)

There's also a comment thread curiously missing. Are there rules about what warrants the deletion of a thread? I doubt the participants deleted their comments individually.

For whatever it's worth, my question was a genuine moderation policy question. I wasn't trying to suggest a conspiracy or anything. I don't think there is one.

Well it doesn't help that LendEDU is a YC startup.

> One in five students use extra money from their student loans to buy digital currencies.

Is this for real or just bogus results from an unscientific survey?

Totally bogus, the survey was an online poll conducted by the very website that was reporting it, who has lied about other things as pointed out by the article itself and these comments.


Also this


>Mark Kantrowitz, a well-known student loan expert, said he suspected there might be a connection between LendEDU and Student Loan Report because both claimed a statistical degree of precision from their surveys he said was inconsistent with their sample sizes.... "It stood out as something both sites do, but no one else does," Kantrowitz said. "The use of two decimal points of precision also suggested that some of their surveys were complete fabrications."

I'm not a statistics expert, so could someone tellmy why using two decimal points of precision suggests survey data fabrication.

> I'm not a statistics expert, so could someone tell my why using two decimal points of precision suggests survey data fabrication.

If you use too many decimal in a report in the physics lab the T.A. will yell at you and ask you to redo it.

I'm not sure that the two decimals is a sign of fabrication, but it's a sign of sloppy work, like someone that just copy all the decimals that Excel shows in the screen, probably because they don't know enough statistic or they don't care, and I'd take all the conclusions with suspicion, and even take a look at the methodology to collect the data (and try to ensure the data is not fabricated).

To get a result with two decimal points, let's say something like 26.21%, and be sure that the 1 has some meaning and it is not a just a blob of ink you need a lot of subjects in your sample. A naïve analysis is to have at least 10000. If you have only 103 you get the last 1 in the division but it's meaningless, you can't expect that if you make a bigger and better pool you will get a result that has a 1 there. But it is worse, because the confidence interval decrease like the square root, so you need something like 10000^2. (There are some constants here and there, so perhaps you can get away with a smaller sample, like 10000000 instead of 100000000, but I'm never remember the details, but 100 is not enough.)

a well-known student loan expert

He's going to have to stop describing himself that way.

Even as a current computer science student, nowhere near 1/5th of my peers do this. I can't imagine a non-computer science student would be more likely, as well. That's anecdotal, but 1/5 of students using _student loans_ to buy digital currencies strikes me as completely absurd.

If your intention was to pump digital currencies you would probably say something like "everyone else is buying"...

Everyone purchasing with leverage doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

According to the Chronicle article linked, experts raised concerns about the methodology of that study.

This happened on a smaller scale—and more innocently—in the world of video game journalism, during the golden age of Alternate Reality Games, when "PixelVixen707" was revealed as a fictional character in a promo campaign for a novel.


Your comment triggered me to remember “Robert X. Cringely is the pen name of both technology journalist Mark Stephens and a string of writers for a column in InfoWorld” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_X._Cringely

The most surprising thing in the whole article is that one of the people writing as Drew Cloud could really think ‘meant’ is spelt mean’t.

Looks like a honeypot to sniff out replicated articles to me.

> The most surprising thing in the whole article is that one of the people writing as Drew Cloud could really think ‘meant’ is spelt mean’t.


Mostly it's only americans who use "spelled", everyone else uses "spelt"


Both are correct.

I see spelt fairly often. Spelled is mostly American.

I was referring to fipple's correction with "Spelled" instead of "spelled". If he's going to be pedantic, he's got to go all the way.

Isn't this like using a 'Persona' for content marketing? I have come across a few affiliate-heavy sites in very competitive niches which had a similar persona behind them... Dig a bit deeper and all the claims to fame, like 'mentioned in Forbes', 'consultant for this', 'expert on that' just disappear.

I am not against personas per-se, but that should be evident.

I recall seeing a site that was doing an A/B test with their "authors." My friend sent me a link to a story that had the author's byline at the bottom. Not unusual, except on my screen the byline had a picture of a man with a short blurb about "him" and my friends screen the byline had a picture of a woman with a totally different name and different "backstory."

I always thought that some scammy websites use pictures of models in place of the actual author but I didn't expect a downright fabrication!

Is that what "persona" means now?

I am familiar with the term from usability testing/profiling, where it is a tool used internally. Pretty sure the originators of the concept there did not mean the "personas" to be presented as real people to... well, anyone at all. I don't understand them as being meant to be shared with the public at all. I don't think those who developed the concept in the field of "user experience" would take the "innovation" in the term as a compliment.


He's using the classical definition, which is very different from the UX definition.

A persona is a character played by an actor. In this case, ghostwriters are playing the part of the expert.

Does this story remind anyone else of David Manning?


Cause he was a fake 'expert' meant to shill products too. In that case, a fake movie critic created by Sony to sell its worst movies.

As it turned out, misleading customers that way was illegal, and hence as mentioned on the wiki page:

> On August 3, 2005, Sony made an out-of-court settlement and agreed to refund $5 each to dissatisfied customers who saw Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, A Knight's Tale, or Vertical Limit in American theatres, as a result of Manning's reviews.

Wonder if something similar could happen here?

Is this illegal, to represent opinions through pseudonymity?

Can a pseudonym legally advise someone?

My opinion is that the pseudonym is a clever way to share things that you don't want directly associated with yourself, or things that are embarrassing, etc.

It should be allowed, pseudonyms have been used for thousands of years in literature.

If you're not face to face with a legal adviser and able to ask for ID, then you DON'T HAVE a reasonable expectation of authenticity, although I don't know if that factor matters, by the letter of the law.

This is thought provoking stuff!

Not sure on the illegality from pseudonymity - I'm fairly certainly you have the right to call yourself what you want, and as long as it isn't a contract, can live happily with a made up name (and nothing stopping multiple people having the same pseudonym).

Potential issues are more around advertising standards, disclosure etc...

Once pitched a similar idea (without the fake persona) in a previous role - we create a separate news source for the industry, and post the occasional "sponsored update" about our company. I scrapped pursuing it as the CEO didn't want the disclosure statement that it was connected to us prominently on every page. No way I was going to do it under the table, for exactly these kind of reasons.

The problem is an undisclosed conflict of interest, not blogging under an assumed name.

If a blog about, say, coffee was run by this company under the name "Drew Cloud," nobody would care.

I dont really understand how those stats would help the company. Can anyone enlighten me? I only have a cursory understanding of how student loans work - students buy loans to pay college fees and stuff right.

> Matherson said Cloud "was created as a way to connect with our readers...and give us the technical ability to post content to the Wordpress website."

Um. What?

Shady junk mail for sketchy financial services, reimagined.

Let's call it what it is: a fabrication. The people who created Drew Cloud are liars. And they lie for money.

In my view this should mark the end of their careers. They should be welcomed to see the error of their ways and try again with better ethics. Unfortunately this is not how it will go. There is great demand for professional liars, and these authors will not have to stop and think over.

If you're going to lie, make sure your motives are above personal gain.

Well, have I just binned the entire industry of ghostwriters as liars over this minor outrage? Or is it different if the person I'm writing for actually exists? I'll have to mull this over.

> In my view this should mark the end of their careers

I'm not convinced it isn't illegal, given Shop Tutors, Inc. d/b/a LendEDU works with lenders.

Their "Best Personal Loans for 2018" page [1] lists SoFi, Citizens Bank, Goldman Sachs, Prosper, Upgrade, FreedomPlus, Upstart, Lightstream, Lending Club, Payoff, Best Egg, Avant and Lending Point, as well as itself, lenders who presumably pay LendEDU a referral fee. If you have a relationship with one of these firms, it might make sense to drop them this article in a support message.

If you borrowed through LendEDU, or know someone who did, file a consumer complaint with (a) the FTC [2], (b) your state financial services regulator and (c) your state attorney general [3].

[1] https://lendedu.com/blog/best-personal-loans

[2] https://www.ftc.gov

[3] http://www.naag.org/naag/attorneys-general/whos-my-ag.php

> If you borrowed through LendEDU, or know someone who did, file a consumer complaint with (a) the FTC [2], (b) your state financial services regulator and (c) your state attorney general [3].

I would also suggest filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) [1].

[1] https://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/ | (855) 411-2372

Just do it soon, before Mulvaney shuts the bureau down.

File complaints with both the CFPB and FTC. This is a textbook "deceptive practice", and both agencies have jurisdiction over this type of thing. The more noise we make, the more likely they are to act.

>In my view this should mark the end of their careers. They should be welcomed to see the error of their ways and try again with better ethics.

While I emphatically agree with the gist of your comment, the one problem I have with the quoted part above is that I don't see how the first sentence squares with the second.

When Stephen Glass was found to have fabricated stories for the New Republic, he wasn't given a do-over. He had to switch careers. I think that's the right way to handle fabrication.

I agree. With try again I meant start over.

The most famous write in person is also a fabrication: Ann Landers.

A pen name isn't remotely the same as a fabrication like "Mr. Cloud".

It was a pen name backed by multiple writers. Why is it different?

It was only one person writing at a time under the pen name. And they didn't make up a biography for the pen name. And they didn't have an undisclosed conflict of interest. And when journalists[1] inquired about the identity of the columnist they didn't try to hide it.

Maybe those are minor differences, but "Ann Landers" "Dear Abby" "Dear Prudence" and similar feel different than a corporate team of people working on behalf of a loan refinance company giving you advice about loans.

In a related vein, learning that Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene (famous for _The Hardy Boys_ and _Nancy Drew_ novels) were really whole teams of ghostwriters surprised me.[2] I had always thought they were similar to the advice columnists, with one person adopting the pen name for a long run.



Was there a commercial conflict of interest between the writing and the writers?

And it was always understood to be a pen name. Nobody was under the illusion that there was someone named "Ann Landers" dispensing advice, they even held a contest for the replacement when one of the earlier writers passed away.

While in college I lived with a Russian rocket scientist visiting the university. (Apparently Russia is kickass at rocket science, they've just struggled to build them as well as they design) He was a hoot, embodying several russian stereotypes and teaching me new ones.

One day I came into the kitchen and he was studying the newspaper. "At first, was very concerned..." he said, in a thick-but-very-clear Russian accent. (Georgian, I think, though I wouldn't know) "...giving so much power to a woman." Indeed, he was speaking with great gravitas. "But is very wise, this...'Dear Abby'"

The way you told it I'm not sure whether he was joking or serious. It's a good story both ways!

I'm pretty sure he was serious, but I can't be 100% sure.

Another time he bought a used car from a woman and one day he had the hood up and was shaking his head. "Can tell was owned by woman. Very dirty." Note he wasn't talking about anything INTERNAL, but the actual external surfaces of the engine. Same issue...pretty sure he was serious, but not positive.

He was, however, greatly impressed by the female nurses he encountered (when having liver issues, likely due to using vodka in place of water) - his version of Russian female nurses sound more like a movie brute orderly than an RN.

How can you say that "nobody was under the illusion"? Surely millions of people were -- the newspapers didn't disclose that the name was a pseudonym, and plenty of other advice columnists aren't pseudonyms.

It wasn't always printed at the bottom of the column, but it was always disclosed. If someone wanted to talk to the columnist, they didn't correspond at length with journalists under the fake name. Or claim that Abigail Van Buren was unavailable due to travel. Contemporaneous newspaper articles discussing the writers behind the columns are easy to find.[1]


Interesting. I guess the difference is she never claimed to be a real person. Though I don't know that.

I have a hard time believing that if the question was posed "are you real?" the answer would have been "I'm traveling between conferences."

I don’t usually claim to be a real person either, but it’s generally assumed that I am.

If you think that's bad, let me tell you about this dude supposedly called "Mark Twain". Beloved American humorist? Or lying liar with pants on fire? You be the judge.

I grew up reading Ann Landers and believed the name represented an individual, having been presented no reason to believe otherwise.

Me too (though I was young). My newspaper even had a portrait next to her name like the other authors. Now I wonder who it was.

Edit: it was Esther Lederer, linked to from another comment

Esther Lederer wrote the column from 1955–2002 and is the person most people refer to when they refer to "Ann Landers"


I'm taking this as a snarky way of saying "It's different because this time there is a conflict of interest", but I still don't follow.

Undisclosed conflicts of interest are an issue whether or not you sign your real name.

Mrs. Silence Dogood?

> The people who created Drew Cloud are liars. And they lie for money.

If this is a crime lock me up.

Who isn’t lying in some way at work everyday?

> Who isn’t lying in some way at work everyday?

Most people. A chief commercial skill is knowing to keep quiet or change topics instead of saying something unambiguously untrue.

Depending on your ethics, a lie of omission is still a lie.

If you're so close to lying you have to change the subject to avoid doing it, how is that any better?

Let's talk about something else.

Can we agree that refraining from consciously speaking outright lies for profit is at least a requirement for ethical behaviour?

Whether it's sufficient is a different story.

Damn, Drew Cloud for student loans and James Blockchain for investing were my 2 go-to people. Now what?

Deepak Lerning?

The thing is that in some village in India there is probably some real dude with that very name, and he probably has no idea why some nerds think it is funny.

One of my coworkers had the first name of Engineer! An excellent engineer, in both senses.

Bitcoin is definitely a scam and us-government-backed finance is awesome in every way.

This is only slightly more nefarious than when these newspapers inventa source.

That’s conspiracy bullshit.

Journalists allow unnamed sources to get the truth out. In doing so, they substitute their own reputation for that of the source.

You’d never heard about Watergate or Abu Grhaib without anonymous sources.

For anyone who hasn't already read it, this essay by our own Paul Graham describes this process:


I don’t think that’s the same at all. The submarine article is about helping journalists with stories. This article is about lying to journalists and everyone else by creating a fictitious person, all for their company’s financial benefit. And ironically they tout their intent to “provide transparency”. Too bad they didn’t make him a combat vet, then they could have been prosecuted.[1] Makes me think of a quote I once heard, “Integrity is what we tell other people to have.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Valor_Act_of_2013

Lying for financial benefit and to impress investors is covered in this article: http://www.paulgraham.com/founders.html

which harkens back to when AirBnB spammed Craiglist users (violating Craigslist ToS and users' stated contact preferences) with fake inquiries about rental properties.

>The submarine article is about helping journalists with stories >I don’t think that’s the same at all.

The parallel I see is that in both cases, you're introducing things into the news cycle for your own benefit. In the Submarine article, PG even talks about how shaky statistics were made more credible by insertion into publications (like a PR-driven version of this xkcd[0]).

The difference between submarine tactics and what happened here was that the data was outright false instead of merely cherry-picked or optimistic. However, a journalist who is doing their job will catch both: they will not allow information to be presented as having a higher confidence than it actually does, whether that means promoting a number from "made up" to "reported somewhere," or promoting a number from "reported somewhere," to "credibly sourced."

So, the similarity that I see in both cases is the willingness of journalists to serve private interests by reporting error bars as less wide as they actually are; so long as they do not mis-report the mean values being focused on.

The same? No. Similar? Yes, they both involve exploiting the same bug in the system.

[0] https://xkcd.com/978/

> The parallel I see is that in both cases, you're introducing things into the news cycle for your own benefit.

That's just PR.

I'm tired of PG's submarine essay. Although he's got a cute hook with the concept of "the submarine," what he describes in the article is just bog standard PR. But somehow HN folks (most of whom have no direct experience with PR themselves) have come to believe, based on PG's essay, that anything involving placing a story with a reporter is some special thing called a submarine.

Anyway, yes, this fake person is an example of PR, but the reason it's worth writing about is that it's a great example of truly shitty PR. Reporters live to find out The Truth, and they hate to get lied to or fooled. Anyone who put Drew Cloud in their stories is going to be pissed off at LendEDU for a long time. Pissing off reporters and editors is generally considered to be a bad PR strategy.

Submarine? More like a Battleship.

Not quite the same.

There seem to be two things going on here: - writing behind a pseudonym - spreading misinformation

As others have pointed out, the practice of writing behind a pseudonym, in of itself, doesn't seem all that nefarious. Think: ghostwriters or reddit making up a bunch of fake accounts to simulate website activity.

The practice of spreading misinformation is bad, but none of the misinformation they spread seems practically damaging.

Not sure why, but this seems to be getting a lot more attention than it deserves. Give them a break?

They didn't write under a pseudonym, but perpetrated fraud on other other organizations and on the public by creating a false identity and pretending it was real. Those are completely different acts.

smallgovt is a psuedonym; you're not claiming it's a real name of a real person, and making up a fake backstory, and getting quoted in the Washington Post.

The real story here is that respected sources like The Washington Post didn't investigate their sources and spot the fake news before publishing it. Fabrications are a dime a million on the internet, but real journalists are supposed to do enough homework to cut through the crap.

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