‘Willy Wonka’ Huckster Sells AI-Written Vaccine Conspiracy Books

Lifestyle

Parents are furious at a man who charged them as much as £35 (around $44) per ticket for a Willy Wonka-themed family event in Glasgow, Scotland this weekend. That’s because the “immersive” experience sold to them by a sketchy company called House of Illuminati turned out to be little more than a few set props and unprepared actors in a mostly barren warehouse — with no chocolate whatsoever.

Customers, some of whom traveled from afar and waited in a long line with their children, were incensed enough to call the police after “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” turned out to be a ripoff and the organizer, Billy Coull, hastily closed it down on Saturday afternoon. Pictures from the botched tour went viral, in part because of the contrast between the lavish, colorful AI-generated artwork used in promotional materials and the depressing, laughably slapdash reality that greeted young fans of Roald Dahl‘s fanciful novel and its various film adaptations.

Those taken in by the misleading promotion mobilized for refunds and press coverage in a Facebook group this week, alternately griping and joking about the candy-coated catastrophe — and referring to Coull by crude nicknames like “Willy Wanker” in memes. But while Coull’s attempt to cash in on a beloved children’s book is already the stuff of local legend, the rest of his digital footprint reveals a new kind of aspiring entrepreneur that may become all too common: the AI abuser.

Coull, who did not return a request for comment, seems to be the sole employee of House of Illuminati, one of several companies he has registered. (It was incorporated in November; the company did not respond to a request for comment.) The House of Illuminati website, like the Willy’s Chocolate Experience website, is packed with AI-generated art advertising “unparalleled immersive experiences” such as “Mystique Galas” and “Enchanted Retreats.” The descriptions of the company and its supposed events are themselves almost certainly written by an AI chatbot, according to analysis by the detection tool GPTZero. (The text on the Willy’s Chocolate Experience page is also likely AI-written.)

Since the Wonka fiasco, Coull has taken steps to scrub various social accounts, taking down both a LinkedIn profile and a YouTube channel where it appears he presented himself as something of a business guru and life coach. His personal site, also deleted, touted a number of dubious academic degrees and said he worked as a “consultant” for a brand called Empowerity, which is now defunct. As of 2021, he was co-directing a Glasgow foodbank that he claimed fed thousands of families a month — that, too, no longer exists, and some Glaswegians suspect it was not entirely above board.

While deleting much of the material that would lead internet sleuths from the Wonka incident to these earlier projects, Coull has, perhaps surprisingly, not shut down the entirely AI-spawned House of Illuminati business. The company’s Facebook page continues to promise refunds, and some customers say they’ve gotten their money back. Neither has he pulled down his Instagram account, which contains only a few posts hyping independently published books available on Amazon. These include titles such as Selling Innocence, a novel about a human trafficking survivor who “navigates a treacherous landscape filled with politicians, clergymen, celebrities, and billionaires.” The language hints at themes of the QAnon conspiracist movement and misinformation about the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The 16 books on Coull’s Amazon author page were all published in the summer of 2023 — some of them on the very same day. The synopsis for each is AI-generated, according to GPTZero analysis, and so is the text between the covers, as one irate reviewer has complained. Coull couldn’t even be bothered to pen his own author bio, which declares him a “rising star in the literary world” who “weaves spellbinding tales that delve into the mysterious realms of fictional thrillers and gripping conspiracies.” While some of the stories are generic puzzle-driven plots in the vein of The DaVinci Code, others — like Selling Innocence — are geared toward paranoid right-wing politics. Operation Inoculation, for example, promises a “conspiratorial journey into vaccination truth” related to the so-called “deep state,” in which ” the carefully constructed facade of the vaccination campaign begins to crumble.”

All in all, then, it looks as if Coull leaves a long trail of fishy schemes dating back many years — but has lately used chatbots and AI image generators to expand the scope and ambition of his flimsy ventures. While it’s not clear how many Amazon shoppers have fallen for the bogus novels, the Wonka affair demonstrated what can happen when a corner-cutting huckster gets carried away with his AI-enhanced pitch. This time, it just meant an inconvenience and some confused kids, and if Coull compensates the families, he will probably avoid more serious repercussions. The next person to sell a purely AI fantasy for top dollar? They could make Fyre Festival look like a well-planned weekend in the Bahamas.

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