Yesterday’s New York Times features an A1 article written by science correspondent Sabrina Tavernise about the rise in popularity of vaping among teenagers. The story quotes at least four teens, one of whom is saying on Twitter that his entire interview was a hoax.
Three days ago, for some reason, the Twitter account @nytimeswell solicited teens who vape for input on the forthcoming article.
If you’re a teen that vapes and want to talk to a reporter twice your age about why you love it contact @stavernise firstname.lastname@example.org— NYTimes Well (@nytimeswell) April 14, 2015
The tweet is so inherently absurd and ripe for trolling that literally the first reply was from our own Alex Pareene saying “it me. I’m the vaping teen.” And yet, it appears as if the Times indeed ended up getting suckered by one of many Twitter users looking to pull the rug out from under an old, stodgy news periodical doing a trend piece on a cool new teen thing.
that turned into me giving someone a fake interview under an alias. that interview was used in a web article. this article is in print now.— LeVar Burzum (@drugleaf) April 17, 2015
THE RAPPER LIL UGLY MANE pic.twitter.com/pt6U9TUaGa— LeVar Burzum (@drugleaf) April 17, 2015
As you can see in @drugleaf’s Tweet, he alleges to have posed as an 18-year-old named “Joe Stevonson.” Here’s the full relevant section from the Times:
Joe Stevonson, 18, a senior at a high school in Jackson, Miss., said he used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, after the habit started affecting his ability to play sports. He prefers a flavor called Courtroom, endorsed by the rapper Lil Ugly Mane, which is described on websites where it is sold as “a medley of things you might want while waiting for the jury to convict.”
As for whether he still craved cigarettes, “the only thing that’s really missing is feeling like your entire mouth is coated in dirt,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t smoke pick them up because it looks cool. But for every person I’ve met like that, I’ve met another using it like it’s a medicine against cigarettes.”
It’s hard to digest this passage without immediately feeling like someone is trying to put one over on the Times. From the wonky spelling of “Stevonson” to the citation of meme rapper Lil Ugly Mane’s bizarro vape infomercial to the punchline-y “the only thing that’s missing is feeling like your entire mouth is coated in dirt” quote, the entirety of these two graphs should have screamed “THIS PERSON IS FUCKING WITH YOU” to Tavernise and her editors.
Alas, the Times seems to have fallen into a trap that it had to have seen coming before it was even set by a kid who preemptively bragged that he was gonna do exactly this. In a tweet from two days ago, @drugleaf revealed that he had been able to set up a phone call with Tavernise. The tweet has since been deleted, but here’s a screenshot:
That said, another one from the day prior that includes the phrase “troll the new york times’ is still up.
my mom, from three rooms over, just yelled "please do not troll the new york times" at me— LeVar Burzum (@drugleaf) April 14, 2015
@drugleaf is just one of Twitter’s many jesters, but he also has nearly 17,000 followers, many of whom work in media. It’s not insane to think that someone at the Times should have maybe run across either of those two tweets before the paper printed quotes from a fake teen named “Joe Stevonson.”
We’ve reached out to both the Times and @drugleaf and will update if we hear more.
Update (6:20 p.m.) @drugleaf, whose name is not Joe, provided us with emails that confirm his interactions with Tavernise. He tells us that he was prepared to play a character in his interview with Tavernise, but backed off because he was “disarmed” by how nice she was and eventually told what amounted to half-truths. Here is a condensed version of his story, as told to me via Gchat:
i originally wrote a solid 3 pages before the interview, basically wrote down this fake person’s entire life. I was gonna give a fake history of Vaporwave, saying the genre of music stemmed from two dudes who loved Too Vape
then she calls and she’s really nice, it dissarms me, so I just kinda stick to what I really wanted to do
which was get lil ugly mane’s name in the new york fucking times
@drugleaf also told me that some of the biographical information provided to Tavernise was true—for instance, he did quit cigarettes through vaping—but that nobody at the Times fact-checked his story beyond asking him to specify his location. Here is the full text of the first email @drugleaf sent to Tavernise, which, again, should have been a very visible red flag.
Tavernise also tweeted @drugleaf after he revealed on Twitter that he hoaxed her, and says she sent him an email asking him if he told the truth.
An earlier version of this article included the account of an 18-year-old from Jackson, Miss., who discussed his use of e-cigarettes. After publication, the person who had provided that account contacted the reporter and said he had made up some of the information, including the name he used. That passage has been removed from the article.