Atlanta police and parents of missing CDC official forced to debunk fake news about his disappearance

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Atlanta police and the father of a missing official from the Centers for Disease Control have been forced to rebut a fake story from YourNewsWire about his disappearance.

Timothy J. Cunningham, a CDC epidemiologist, has been missing since he left work saying he was feeling sick on February 12. Police have “found no evidence of foul play,” according to The New York Times, and have disclosed that Cunningham had been “informed why he didn’t get a promotion shortly before he disappeared,” according to CNN.

On February 22, YourNewsWire, a major fake news website that experts have accused of serving as a Russian proxy, published a fake story headlined “CDC Doctor, Who Claimed Flu Shot Caused Outbreak, Missing Feared Dead,” which claimed that Cunningham had “warned this year’s ‘disastrous’ flu shot may be responsible for the deadly flu epidemic sweeping the country” (emphasis original). The fake story claimed that Cunningham was the anonymous “CDC doctor” the website quoted in a fake January story on the same topic that subsequently went viral. Since the January story, the website had published numerous other fake stories fearmongering about the flu shot.

On February 27, Cunningham’s father was forced to debunk the story, telling CNN that the claim that his son warned of problems with the flu shot “is a lie” and not “factual.” Maj. Michael O’Connor of the Atlanta police department also set the record straight, noting that Cunningham “was with the chronic disease unit of the CDC, not with the infectious disease unit,” CNN explained. But both CNN and People called the fake story a “rumor” and a conspiracy theory, failing to note that the claim started with YourNewsWire’s fake story.

The website’s February 22 post went viral, with at least 171,500 Facebook engagements so far, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo. Since then, numerous other websites and YouTube accounts have picked up the story. Rolling Out, an outlet that focuses on news related to African-Americans, was one of those that picked it up, writing that Cunningham “allegedly” gave the supposed warning about the flu shot “to media outlet YourNewsWire” and that Cunningham asked YourNewsWire “to release the information if he went missing or mysteriously died.” Rolling Out widely promoted the story on its Facebook page. Atlanta Black Star also ran with the fake story, linking to YourNewsWire’s article and pushing its own piece on social media. Political commentator Boyce Watkins also promoted Atlanta Black Star’s story. And on February 26, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch pushed the fake story on her radio show, reading almost verbatim from YourNewsWire’s post.

This is not the first time that YourNewsWire has fooled readers -- including celebrities -- or even other outlets. Just within the past month, the website’s made-up story that an NFL lawyer had been murdered for saying Super Bowl LII would be rigged reached a sports blog, a former NBA player, and multiple radio stations. The NFL was forced to acknowledge the website’s made-up story, with the league’s spokesperson calling it “ridiculous fake news.” As long as the website continues to make money from advertisements, it will keep pushing fake stories, no matter what damage they cause.

UPDATE: Police found Timothy Cunningham’s body on April 3 and said he likely drowned, according to CNN. In response, YourNewsWire published another fake story connecting Cunningham to the flu shot. Neon Nettle, another fake news site that has also published numerous pieces so far this year attacking the flu shot, published a similar fake story. As it has for most of YourNewsWire’s articles, the ad network Revcontent sponsored ads on the article, allowing the site to monetize its exploitation of Cunningham’s death. Neon Nettle was also able to monetize its fake story, using Google AdSense.