Published: 06:00, 05 May 2021
| Updated: 15:50, 05 May 2021
To the untrained eye, the 'Kent Chronicle' may have appeared to be a legitimate local news website, filled with stories of life across the county.
The site was sold to potential advertisers as the county's 'third largest online news publication'. In reality it was the bedroom creation of a schoolboy with a flair for self-promotion, as Rhys Griffiths and Katie Heslop can now exclusively reveal...
Confident, fluent in the latest buzzwords, and keen to tell the world about his growing side-hustle, sixth-form student Laurence Moss is every inch the kind of tech-savvy Gen Z entrepreneur who could make it big from the box room of his parents' house.
Clad in jeans and an understated black sweatshirt, the 17-year-old boasts of how his Instagram marketing agency Greedy Growth is helping businesses and professional athletes reach bigger audiences online.
So far, so on brand for the generation that knows how to make a buck from social media. So much so that news outlets around the world have even reported on the exploits of the Ryarsh teen who has launched what appears to be a flourishing business during a pandemic.
But we have not arranged to sit down with this would-be marketing guru to talk Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok. We are interested in something a little more traditional: local news, professional journalism, and a bogus website masquerading as the real thing.
"I don’t actually want to talk about that because it’s a separate project I’ve got going on," Moss says as when we ask him to tell us a little more about his involvement with the Kent Chronicle, a supposed news website billing itself as the county's 'third largest online news publication'.
Watch: Our reporter talk to Moss over his 'fake' news site
His reticence to delve deeper into the operation is likely to have something to do with the source of its content - stories lifted in their entirety from other professional news-gathering organisations, including KentOnline, and attributed to 'reporters' either faked or based on genuine journalists whose pictures could be found online.
Investigation into the online presence of this seemingly-legitimate outlet soon exposed its links to Moss and his online activities.
Within minutes of accessing the Kent Chronicle page on Facebook - which has since been removed - a check on the page history revealed that in September its name was changed from 'Greedy Growth Ads' to 'Kent Chronicle'.
So could Moss tell us more about his involvement in this project to present to the world a local news service based on lifting work produced by other news media?
"I designed the website, I don’t get involved in the content distribution and whatnot," he said, as we presented him with evidence of reports lifted in the entirety from KentOnline to the Kent Chronicle.
"I run quite a few different start-ups at the moment, Greedy Growth is what I focus on, I do social media marketing, but obviously I do own other websites and I do get involved in other things, but those things aren’t what I am directly involved in, if that makes sense.
"If you look at that website (Kent Chronicle), I wrote one article myself on mental health last year.
"I definitely will speak to them about that (content taken from KentOnline) because if that is your content, that shouldn’t be on there and I can get that all taken down and stop that happening."
"I set up the website, I designed it, I will talk to the guy who does handle that and we can get this taken off immediately because obviously that is not on at all."
Pressed on the identity of the unnamed "partner" who was responsible for the content on the Kent Chronicle site, our teenage entrepreneur preferred not to say.
However, since the fraudulent site was taken down and no longer accessible less than 30 minutes after our conversation ended, one must conclude that Moss is exercising significant control over the project.
Shortly after, a private message arrived.
"I've just taken the website down from my end, and will have a chat to my partner tonight about why it was done in this way in the first place.
"Obviously this is not acceptable and I did not wish for this to happen or for any detriment on your end. I do apologise for this and my lack of awareness as to what was going on."
Before the Kent Chronicle site was taken down, we investigated the identities of the supposed reporters who were - to the audience at least - seemingly responsible for the articles published on the site.
There were four supposed journalists at the Kent Chronicle, whose work attributed to them was actually taken from KentOnline, with national news lifted from HuffPost.
First up is Ella Sutherland, whose title was given as audience content editor, and who covered "the whole county with a focus on what makes Kent unique".
A basic LinkedIn profile, which has since been deleted, was set up for Ella. Her only experience was given as reporter for the Kent Chronicle since August 2020, with no education or other work listed.
This is where the trail for Ella runs cold, with no mention of her anywhere but the Kent Chronicle and no social media profiles.
The picture used on her LinkedIn and Kent Chronicle profile could not be found anywhere else online, but that's certainly not the case for the other reporters.
The headshot used for junior business reporter Christina Woodhouse on her Kent Chronicle profile could be found across the web.
A company dedicated to making sure women have sanitary hygiene products in their workplace in the UAE had used it on their site.
As had a company where you can design your own business cards. Even Apple had used it to demonstrate audio and video conferences on their iPhones.
There were also several LinkedIn profiles using that exact image.
Christina Woodhouse was even more of a ghost that Ella Sutherland. She had no LinkedIn profile and could not be found anywhere else but the Kent Chronicle. She was just a name and a face, which was dotted across the internet.
The same could be said for Rose Sape, a multimedia journalist who it appeared had written stories focussed on national issues. In fact, at least five of these had been taken from HuffPost, including an exclusive.
The headshot of Rose on the Kent Chronicle website was splashed across the internet; on a site that gave dating advice, a page for a rehab centre, an article about pick-up lines, the list goes on.
Once the picture was credited as being from Pixabay, a site with copyright free images. According to the site: "All contents are released under the Pixabay License, which makes them safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist - even for commercial purposes."
Rose has no LinkedIn account and no social media profile.
A familiar pattern begins to emerge - make up a name and nab a picture from the web. But there is an exception.
It appears the picture of Ben Roching, sports reporter at the Kent Chronicle, is actually of a young journalist based in Scotland.
The photo showed a smiling brown haired young man with glasses, wearing an orange coat. He looks real, not like the bland, stylised photos of the other reporters, their faces smoothed over most likely by photoshop.
The only place that photo can be found, other than on the Kent Chronicle, is accompanying an interview on the website journalism.co.uk from November 2020, with journalism graduate Iain Leggat, where he speaks about his job covering trending new stories.
According to his Twitter profile, where he is pictured wearing what seem to be same pair of glasses that appear in Kent Chronicle photo, Iain is still with the same company, covering TV and culture.
Interestingly, the article says Leggat has sports reporting experience - perhaps this is why his picture was chosen as the cypher for Kent Chronicle's very own sports reporter?
A LinkedIn profile which has been created for Ben has 49 followers, and even uses the photo of Leggat.
His profile goes into slightly more detail. As well as working at the Kent Chronicle for 11 months, it says he also studied at the University of Plymouth for four years.
Finally, a LinkedIn profile, which has now been taken down, was also created for Henry Witt, whose title was given as head of partnerships at Kent Chronicle.
The headshot used for Henry can also be seen on an article about testosterone as well as other sites.
Clone and bogus news websites such as the Kent Chronicle are on the rise and not going away any time soon, Matt Aspinall, from NLA media access, says.
The NLA is a publisher-owned rights licensing business and works on behalf of the UK's newspaper and magazine publishers, with a core aim of supporting journalism.
Mr Aspinall is head of publisher services at NLA and heads up Text Tracker, a copyright infringement service.
Text Tracker identifies when clients' articles or websites have been lifted or cloned and then gets MLA work to get it taken down.
Launched in 2015, Text Tracker now have 30 clients, mostly national newspapers, but more regional publishers have joined recently.
In 2020 NLA removed about 20,000 articles across 700 websites and Mr Aspinall suspects there will be more this year.
Speaking about why these sites need to be taken down he said: "It's stopping others monetising your work, making sure you're not losing out on ad revenue."
There is also the frustration when reporters work extremely hard on a story, only for it to be taken and attributed to someone else.
The methods and presentation fake sites are becoming more sophisticated, he says.
He said: "That's the real problem, it isn't obvious, that's why people share these sites. Let's say it's called 'Kent News Today' or something, for someone who doesn't follow the news they might see an article and think that's legitimate."
Some people think if they change an article ever so slightly, perhaps hoping they can get away with taking the story.
"They cynically undermine the efforts of real journalists who are working to keep the public informed during a time of national crisis..."
Mr Aspinall said: "I have been working with a couple of major newspapers recently and what they're finding is their article has been changed every so slightly and the person doing it thinks they aren't infringing copyright because they are changing it."
He says even if the article is from a regional site, that won't stop someone taking it, as they are keen to get hits from whatever source.
Despite residing in something of a grey area legally, the act of "scraping" content from one website to another can be done for legitimate reasons and in fact is almost as old as the web itself.
The first web robot, World Wide Web Wanderer, was created in June 1993 and was intended only to measure the size of the web by "crawling" sites and indexing their content.
Cases where the "scraping" of content may be legitimate could, for example, include a computer programme set up to automatically pull insurance quotes or hotel prices from one business's site onto that of a price comparision service. Similarly, search engines such as Google use automated systems to constantly trawl the internet to examine content so it can update results provided to users.
But while in some cases the running of these programmes can be legitimate, in others it can constitute an infringement on the holder of the data, for example in the case of re-producing content under copyright or where terms of service explicitly prohibit the harvesting of data.
The News Media Association said that in recent months it has seen several examples of websites targeting "genuine local news websites in a systematic way".
The association describes itself as the "voice of national, regional and local news media organisations in the UK" and exists to promote the interests of news media publishers.
A spokesman said: "Fake news sites which invest nothing in real journalism yet lift and seek to monetise the content of genuine news media outlets have no place in our democratic society.
"They cynically undermine the efforts of real journalists who are working to keep the public informed during a time of national crisis.