Drew Cloud was a prolific writer specializing in student loan issues, founder of the Student Loan Report, and “a source for news on the student loan industry, financial aid, and scholarships.” Media relied on him for sensational surveys about student debt issues and quoted him often.
Except Cloud didn’t exist.
In spite of an elaborate background and photo intended to make him seem real, Cloud wasn’t. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an expose on April 24, proving that the supposed media expert on students loans was actually a fake. Cloud had been quoted by the gullible press for two years. Cloud became a go-to expert citing surveys with outrageous claims such as “42.60% of borrowers would hookup with Caitlyn Jenner, if it mean't that they would have no more student loan debt. [SIC]”
But in reality, he was a composite character the student loan refinancing company LendEDU used to pitch stories to journalists.
The unethical ruse worked and many media outlets, including The Washington Post, Fortune and CNBC.com, were duped — citing Cloud in stories on loan forgiveness, bitcoin and shock surveys.
On June 4, 2017, The Post’s Michelle Singletary quoted Cloud and the Student Loan Report writing, "Only a very small portion of borrowers will qualify for loan forgiveness. And there could be a serious problem brewing if borrowers are budgeting with the assumption that their student loans will be forgiven."
A survey on students purchasing bitcoin garnered a good deal of attention from the media, including Fortune, CNBC.com and The Boston Globe. The Globe quoted Cloud as saying that “One-fifth of 1,000 students polled by The Student Loan Report, a website that reports on debt issues from the perspective of students, said they had used some of the money set aside for their living expenses to invest in cryptocurrencies.”
The San Francisco Chronicle cited one of Cloud’s surveys which said that “about 27 percent of students would contract the Zika virus” to rid themselves of loans in of of the fictional creation’s earliest media mentions. That was on July 12, 2016. Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer reported another one of his surveys on Feb. 17, 2017, “The results of our survey are slightly ... disturbing but show the lengths that Americans may go to free themselves from student debt.”
After The Chronicle of Higher Education spent more than a week trying to confirm Cloud’s existence, LendEDU — the company that owns Student Loan Report (SLR) — was forced to admit their lie and apologize. LendEDU CEO Nate Matherson wrote on SLR: "Drew Cloud is a pseudonym that a diverse group of authors at Student Loan Report, LLC use to share experiences and information related to the challenges college students face with funding their education."
Matheson claimed that “We have always held ourselves to high standards of content quality -- all of the data we published on The Student Loan Report was vetted, accurate, and licensed from the related polling companies.”
Even assuming the methodology of online polling to be accurate, however (always a dodgy proposition), glaring ethical problems remained. Cloud, fictional as he may be, actively encouraged refinancing on debt as a writer for Student Loan Report, something its parent company LendEDU does.
Matheson acknowledged that “there have been nine Student Loan Report articles that mention LendEDU. We now realize that we should’ve had a disclosure that the sites were owned by the same company.” Also, as The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, Cloud actively solicited journalists before being exposed, “Cloud had corresponded at length with many journalists, pitching them stories and offering email interviews, many of which were published.”
As for the media, CNBC.com left its report up to provide transparency and added a lengthy correction on April 25, citing the Chronicle’s work proving Cloud didn’t exist. On April 26, The Boston Globe included a correction about Cloud and its March 2018, bitcoin story.
The Post published a story about the fictitious Cloud on April 25, 2018, which acknowledged he had been quoted by them in the past, but no correction appeared in that day’s correction section online referring back to the specific stories that mentioned him. A Nexis search on April 26, 2018, also did not turn up a correction from The Post.