This story was originally written in Russian and published on the website Noodleremover.news. The English translation below was written by RuNet Echo’s Kevin Rothrock.
Just last month, something all too typical happened in Russia’s news media: a perfect example of where fake news stories originate, how they’re spread, who is responsible, and who believes them.
On August 25, the news agency Interfax reported the following story:
August 25, 2016, 6:50 p.m., Moscow time
Trump condemns the decision to bar Russian Paralympic athletes from Rio Games—reported
Moscow. August 25. INTERFAX. US presidential candidate Donald Trump has criticized the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to bar Russian athletes from the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s rejection of an appeal by Russia’s Paralympic Committee. “The decision to bar Russian Paralympics athletes was made by complete retards. These people are the real cripples. How do you explain the fact that athletes from Russia, where there was a doping scandal, competed in the Rio Olympics, but Russia’s Paralympics athletes (who weren’t involved in any doping scandals) won’t be competing? Venting your own uselessness on people from Russia with strong spirits and disabled bodies—how is this not dirty and underhanded?” the BBC quoted Trump saying.
The story immediately jumped to the top of the Yandex Novosti news-aggregator.
It would be easier to list the media outlets that didn’t report the story above about Trump defending Russia’s Paralympics athletes. To the credit of my former colleagues, this was RIA Novosti and RT (Russia Today).
But here’s the catch: Donald Trump never said anything like what was reported, and the BBC never quoted him saying anything of the sort. This revelation was made by Danila Galperovich, a correspondent at Voice of America, who called Interfax’s production editor, and soon thereafter Interfax sent out a newswire alert reading:
RETRACTION: Please retract the slug USA-TRUMP-PARALYMPICS-RUSSIA with the headline “Trump condemns the decision to bar Russian Paralympic athletes from Rio Games — reports,” which appeared by mistake on Interfax’s newswire at 6:50 p.m. on August 25, 2016. We apologize to our subscribers.
People already know this much about the story. People have written about this error. Now I’ll get to the part that I noticed on my own. The original source of this fake story is a website that I know all too well. The alleged quote by Donald Trump standing up for Russia’s Paralympic athletes first appeared on the website Oppps.ru (“Optimist”)—one of Noodleremover’s longtime favorites.
This is hardly the first time that a fake news story from the website “Optimist” has made its way to a “real” news outlet. I’ve written about this many times before. Every time, the method is exactly the same, and every time, unfortunately, it works: Oppps.ru writes up some “news” with some colorful quote by a famous figure and always cites a well-known media outlet (often a foreign publication). Usually it’s the BBC (sometimes it’s Deutsche Welle), and the author of these fake news stories is usually listed as the real Moscow correspondent for these news agencies, to add extra plausibility.
The pseudo-news story first appears on some backwater or specialized website, and then from there it makes its way to the “big” outlets. What we get is a multi-layered chain of legitimization of fake news: a note published on an unknown website gets picked up by a slightly better-known outlet, and from there it reaches the national media, or—“better” still—it gets picked up by a news wire service. And once a news story appears in the feeds of Interfax, TASS, or RIA, it’s already been made the truth by default. Few people get it in their head to crosscheck the largest news agencies in the country. That is how an obviously fake story becomes the top news on a website like the independent radio station Echo of Moscow. Or even on the independent newspaper Vedomosti.
Then, of course, somebody gets it into their head actually to look at the real website of the foreign media outlet, and they find out that the public figure never said anything like what was reported, and maybe they didn’t even give an interview to the publication in the first place.
At about this point, Oppps.ru deletes the original “news story” from its website, and so the original source is lost. But I happen to know where to look. The handwriting here is all too distinctive. And of course here it is:
I specially archived this for the edification of newsroom staff everywhere: http://archive.is/zVkN7 (I apologize for using the website archive.is, which is banned in Russia. Russia’s state censor, Roskomnadzor, can go burn in hell—just open the link in Tor or use an anonymizer.)
After this, someone at the publications that reprinted the fake “news” then either quietly deletes the story, or adds a retraction to the end (and the most honest outlets even apologize to their readers, as did Interfax and Vedomosti). But the least squeamish media outlets don’t even break a sweat: why delete the story, if the news is good and it brings in traffic? Vesti still has the story up to this day, without so much as a correction or even a note to readers. “Man of the Hour” (Vinovnik torzhestva”)—the website of the newspaper “Soviet Sports,” which was apparently the first to republish the news from Oppps.ru—also didn’t even bother to take down the story. Still today, weeks later, the “news” about a fake quote in a nonexistent story by the BBC is still there on the website. This bothers neither Yaroslav Karamov, who wrote the story, nor his managers. Apologizing to their readers for publishing fake news? It’s below them.
Nobody handled this better than Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which of course was one of the first media outlets to republish the fake. Online, they’ve got a story with the headline “Trump’s Criticism of the Paralympic Committee MIGHT Be Fabricated.” Well I’ll be damned! It might be fabricated—and it might not!
At this point, let me share a few insights I can offer from experience in this industry. Behind this one little Interfax story with a headline that now reads “RETRACTED,” there’s a whole professional drama that we don’t see. The issue here is that the story didn’t appear just anywhere, but on the Terminal—a program that that grants live newswire service not to readers, but to subscribers (other media outlets that pay the news agency to get their correspondents’ reports first). Later, still other media outlets repackage the agencies’ reports, adding their own photographs, expert commentary, and so on. And there is a fierce competition between the major news agencies to get the most “breaking” news to their subscribers first. Because even if there are 100 different media outlets accredited at some important press conference, afterwards everyone will still be citing the one news agency that’s first to publish on the Terminal. This is why, when I worked at RIA, there was a special assistant who measured how many seconds RIA was ahead of Interfax and TASS, when it came to reporting different news stories. The newsroom granted prizes for the most outstanding efficiency.
It wasn’t all prizes, of course. The most terrible sin for a newsman at a news agency is writing the kind of story that has to be retracted later. A news agency is the main source of information not so much for its readers, but for other publications. So if a fake story finds its way to the Terminal, it’s instantly transmitted across the entire media, and everyone cites your news agency. That’s why, at RIA, the penalty for publishing a story that needed to be retracted was 10,000 rubles. (That and the public shame, of course.) I don’t know how they do it at Interfax, but I suspect that somebody in the newsroom over there had a very bad day, after the Trump story.
In an interview with the radio station Govorit Moskva, a representative of the news agency said that Interfax regrets the recent incident. “Interfax apologizes to its subscribers,” he said, adding that a severe punishment awaited the person responsible for publishing story.
“I spoke to the BBC, and they told me that they never had this story [about Trump]. And we immediately retracted the whole thing. I still haven’t sorted everything out, but—once I do—I’ll punish those responsible in ways they won’t soon forget,” he said.
And rightly so. It’s understood that the staff in the operations division of one of Russia’s biggest news agencies should write stories faster than the rest of the country’s journalists, but fact-checking whether Trump actually gave an interview to the BBC would have literally taken just an extra one or two seconds. The same goes for reports that Mikhail Gorbachev died, or that Ksenia Sobchak was ejected from Putin’s press conference in a state of narcotic intoxication. Or that Maria Gaidar is pregnant with Mikhail Saakashvili’s child.
I’m not making this stuff up. These are all “news” stories from Oppps.ru that, in one form or another, have made it to the headlines of “real” news agencies. At first glance, Oppps.ru is a typical content-farm—a garbage website built on WordPress that sucks content from other sites and skims a little traffic for itself from people who randomly visit the site while surfing the Web for the perfect casserole recipe. But one thing separates Oppps.ru from thousands of other websites like it: its owner has what you might call a mission. And its owner has a very good understanding of the modern media’s methods, and the psychology of how news today is consumed. Among hundreds of posts like “The Best Recipe for Meatballs” and “Faina Ranevskaya’s Top Ten Aphorisms,” he plants masterfully crafted phony news, which then makes its way to the real news media — all the way to the national networks.
I found the person who owns Oppps.ru, and I had a curious conversation with him. He tried to convince me that this whole scheme isn’t his invention, and that he is only copying content from other websites.
Alexey: Tell me, do you write your own news stories? Do you have an actual newsroom with staff? I’m interested in how exactly you write news stories that then make their way to different publications, all the way to the national media.
—: All the stories are copy-pasted. Part is from the Ukrainian Web, and part is from the Russian. Half is from the liberal side, and the other half is from the patriotic side.
Alexey: But there is a certain number of news stories that appear first on your website. They’re written according to the same format: you take a well-known newsmaker, a Western or Russian publication, the real name of a correspondent, and so on. Like with Ksenia Sobchak and Echo of Moscow’s [Alexey] Solomin, for example.
—: There are stories like that. Here we’re exploiting a weakness in the search engines. If you write stories [claiming] comments from certain websites, then those websites display [in the search results], but our story is buried earlier on. This scheme is based on a Ukrainian gimmick. That’s how they do it.
This didn’t surprise me because the chain of all the fake news stories always came to an end at Oppps.ru—meaning that this site is mostly likely writing all these fake stories itself. But why?
—: I think each individual should learn independently to think and analyze for themselves, and not believe everything they read on the internets [sic].
Alexey: Here I agree with you 100 percent. I’m giving you two thumbs up.
—: That’s why you need to check and read two sides [to every story], and read in-between. That’s basically it. 🙂 🙂 We think fake news is necessary precisely so that people don’t forget how to think for themselves.
Alexey: I agree completely with you about goals, but I’m not sure I can support the means. All the garbage in today’s information sphere is more than enough.
—: The world’s leading mass media outlets are divisive. Nowhere in the world will you find a newspaper or a magazine where they write the truth 100% of the time.
So the owner of a website that commercially produces fake news is actually an educator promoting media literacy. I can’t say, however, that he’s been terribly effective in meeting his stated goals: time and time again the mass media and its readers have fallen for his fake news stories. Critically assessing sources is that key skill still undeveloped in both editors and readers, as the Interfax case demonstrates. And lots of readers are still raging in comments sections, saying—hey—it turns out Trump actually does support us.
By Cavin Rothrock, Global Voices