Fake Harvard Students
Harvard.edu's biography states that Mikao John was an erudite student. He was a Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences Technology medical student who studied statistics and biochemistry at Yale and had published research in The New England Journal of Medicine.
John was also prolific at writing blog posts for Harvard's site. Each of his posts appeared below the Harvard University and schools crimson veritas seals and over a message claiming copyright from the President and Fellows Harvard College. However, they didn't sound like medical research.
Johns most recent work was instead entitled KeefX.co, The Cannabis Fintech Company That Provides $1M per Month. This article featured a very flattering article about a startup providing financial services to marijuana businesses. Idahome Solar Makes Switching To Solar Power in Idaho a No Brainer, which highlighted the client-first mentality of the company and its incredible financing program.
It turns out that Mikao John is not a Harvard student. A fraudster created that persona to sell SEO-friendly links to Harvards web system. He also wanted to be hyped up by someone from one of the most prestigious universities in the world to market to publicity-hungry marketing firms.
Scammers are known for creating fake Harvard students in order to promote their brands on the university's website. Futurism asked Harvard to remove the Mikao John profile and about two dozen other accounts used for the same purpose.
Emails advertising the Futurism scheme show that a Harvard blog post by a fake student such as John can be purchased for as low as $300 through PayPal. Some of the posts are anodyne and promote hair loss treatments or car insurance. Some are more alarming, such as a post by an account that seemed to be trying to imitate Harvard with the username Harvard2, which made racist and sexist comments about women and promoted a website that sells mail-order brides.
Shortly, Harvard.edu has become a spammer-free zone where fake students and others sell a slew of dubious products and services.
It appears that anyone can, or could, with $300 spare depending on Harvard's success in closing down the practice, advertise almost anything on Harvard.edu in posts that borrow Harvard.edu's domain and prestige, while not mentioning the fact that they are paid advertising. Google's indexing shows that certain areas of Harvard's website were almost completely taken over by spammers before the university began removing them in response to our queries.
Harvard spokesperson stated that they are working with the university to combat the scammers and fake students who have gained access to the site. The scammers created the fake accounts by enrolling for online classes, and then using the email address to hack into the university's various blogging platforms.
Futurism was informed by a spokesperson that Harvard offers many web publishing options for members of the community. We know of several cases in which individuals registered for an online Harvard course to get the credentials to create a website and then used that website to spam with SEO.
The Harvard spokesperson stated that these cases of unauthorized usage are not due to technical vulnerabilities but misuse of a process. We will ensure that Harvard's web publishing resources are accessible to all members of our community and we will strengthen our processes to prevent fraudulent usage.
The people involved in posting blog posts to Harvard's website expressed little regret.
For example, Mikao John mentioned one of the companies in the blog post. Futurism asked T1 Advertising if the mention was possible. T1 Advertising admitted that it occasionally pays media consultants to place blog posts on Harvards site.
Futurism was told by Thomas Herd, founder of T1 Advertising that there was no ethical issue with the arrangement.
He said that the author's name, the location of Harvard, and Harvard access were all out of our hands (T1 does not have direct access to Harvard).
He said that if they were publishing blog posts in a wrong way (or if the article's name is incorrect), then it was the first time I heard about it. Responsibility would fall on Harvard and how they represent their services to us, and the many other agencies to which they reach out for blog post services.
Herd seems to have used the service to build his personal brand in a Harvard blog post entitled Thomas Herd Drives Academic Revolution in Digital Marketing. The post does not mention that it was an advertisement. Herd claims that his marketing strategies are the holy grail that every company or brand owner wants.
Futurism was contacted by an operative Herd claimed had secured T1 posts. She complained that Harvard had been removing clients' posts lately, possibly in response to Futurisms investigation.
She claimed that she had an acquaintance at Harvard, who she paid for site access. Harvard denied the charge, citing an internal investigation. Harvard expects access to be restored shortly.
Harvard's initial response to the fake students was slow. For example, after being initially notified about the Mikao John account by Harvard, a spokesperson stated that the posts would be deleted. However, they remained up for two more weeks before Futurism sent a follow-up message.
It felt like if a reporter had not been sending many emails, fake students would probably have been allowed to keep posting indefinitely.
Mikao John, the fake student, and other students, illustrate the dangers of user-generated material. This is a term that refers to situations when institutions or publications permit community members to post material without much scrutiny.
It sounds great in theory. But when media brands including Forbes and Entrepreneur have leveraged the concept to create contributor networks, in which unpaid and thinly credentialed writers are allowed to post authoritative-sounding articles about the world of business, the result has often been that those same poorly-vetted writers start soliciting payoffs from marketing firms in exchange for publishing flattering stories about their clients.
Harvard's problem with fake students seems to be related. The university creates a forum for students and community members to post anything they like. By opening up the system to everyone who registers for an online course, the university inadvertently encourages a black market where scammers can sell access to its website for SEO and marketing purposes.
Also, it is worth noting that Harvard's ability to post any content you wish to Harvard's site under the credentials of Mikao John could be used for something far more sinister than selling CBD or hair loss treatments. Imagine an enterprising fraudster shorting stock in a biotech company, then paying Harvard to post a blog post attacking the technology, buying social media reach, and then cashing out on the controversy.
Fake accounts are also discussed in the context of wider discussions about online misinformation. It would have been easy for an anti-vaccine activist, or political operative to pay to question the effectiveness of COVID vaccine, or to undermine confidence in election results under the disguise of a Harvard student researcher.
However, the reality is that no one involved in the scheme was able to comprehend how powerful their access was, or to consider its implications.
We asked one scammer, who was selling fake Harvard students, if he thought Harvard would mind his activities.
He replied, "I don't know."
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