Reporters from BBC News, Sky News, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun were quick to welcome UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to Twitter on Thursday.
However, what they didn’t realise was that the account was a fake, set up by a serial Italian hoaxer who specialises in fooling journalists into reporting fake news as real.
The @FallonDefenceUK account tweeted a message to open the account, then hours later claimed that the head of ISIS had been killed:
According to Iraqi defence sources, Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi, the Is chief, has died today for injures. Unconfirmed. A good news! No details.
The incorrect grammar gave it away: The Michael Fallon account was actually run by serial hoaxer Tommasso Debenedetti, who confirmed to Business Insider that he created the account.
Tommasso Debenedetti has become skilled in tricking everyone on the internet. And by “everyone,” we mean everyone.
Using Twitter, he has been able to wreak havoc upon the global economy, threaten diplomatic relations, fool world leaders, and cause embarrassment to respected media establishments. Some call him a serial hoaxer, others prefer “social activist.”
In truth, Debenedetti is a middle-aged schoolteacher and father living in Rome with a colourful past and a mission to change the way we use the internet. He talked to Business Insider UK last November about why and how he does what he does.
Debenedetti started his campaign of hoaxes in 2000 while working in the Italian newspaper industry. More than 60 newspaper interviews conducted by Debenedetti are believed to have been published. The New Yorker says that Debenedetti’s supposed interview subjects included John Grisham, Desmond Tutu, Cardinal Ratzinger, Mikhail Gorbachev and even the Dalai Lama.
A 2010 New Yorker story revealed that all of his lengthy interviews with famous figures were completely fake. For 10 years, Debenedetti had fooled editors at conservative Italian newspapers into printing fictitious interviews that often included outlandish quotes.
If he sounds like an unusual man, that’s because he is.
In a 2010 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, Debenedetti said he was a father of two and a professor of Italian history who worked at a public school in central Rome. He said he was born in Rome in 1969, the son and grandson of two famous journalists. His father is reportedly Antonio Debenedetti, an author, poet, and literary critic. In a 2010 interview with The New Yorker, Debenedetti said he had fallen out with his father, saying “we don’t have a relationship.” His grandfather is writer, essayist, and journalist Giacomo Debenedetti, the Italian writer known for his coverage of Jews living in Italy during the Second World War.
Despite his family’s notable history, Debenedetti doesn’t intend to follow in their footsteps. “Italy is a joke,” Debenedetti said at the time of his exposure as a faker, explaining that he worked as a freelance writer selling fictitious interviews to conservative newspapers because they often published pieces without fact-checking them first. To learn the speaking style of the people he impersonated, he would carefully read their books.
Author Philip Roth was quoted by Debenedetti in a fake interview in Libero as calling US President Barack Obama “nasty, vacillating, and mired in the mechanics of power.” But when a journalist later questioned him about those quotes, he denied having said them. “I can’t imagine what he’ll do now,” Roth said after Debenedetti was revealed as a serial hoaxer, “surely his career is over.”
But Debenedetti was only getting started. “I would like to be Italy’s champion of the lie,” he said in 2010 after being exposed. And sure enough, that’s exactly what he has gone on to do.
After exhausting the opportunities offered to him by lazy newspaper editors, Debenedetti decided to use the internet as a new medium to spread hoax articles. He has hit on a winning formula that can cause hoaxes to spread in seconds.
Debenedetti creates fake Twitter accounts for government figures, complete with convincing bios. He sends an initial tweet welcoming followers to the profile, before suddenly sending an all-caps breaking news story days later that is invariably fake.
Here’s one of his previous fake accounts:
The account started life as a “personal” account for Vladimir Putin before changing to Edward Snowden days later. The Twitter archive site Bio Is Changed shows that it had also been used to impersonate the Prime Minister of Sweden and the Prime Minister of Denmark, as well as other Russian politicians.
But is anyone actually falling for this tactic? Surprisingly, hundreds already have. One Debenedetti’s hoax accounts, shown above, had a host of influential followers, thanks to his tactic of using the same account and simply changing the photo, name, and bio.
When a story emerges on Twitter, one of the first steps for a journalist is to check the account’s followers. Other than Twitter’s verified tick, a surefire way to know if a political account is real is to see how many followers the account has and whether any respected journalists follow it.
The fake Sergei Shoigu account had nearly 1,000 followers. All of these news organisations have employees who were following the hoax Twitter profile:
- BBC News
- Bloomberg News
- BuzzFeed News
- City A.M.
- The Daily Mail
- The Daily Telegraph
- The Evening Standard
- The Financial Times
- The Guardian
- The Huffington Post
- International Business Times
- Politics Home
- The Spectator
- The Sun
- The Sunday Express
- The Sunday Times
- The Times
- The Wall Street Journal
As well as journalists, Debenedetti’s hoax account was also followed by accounts belong to WikiLeaks, EU ministers, ambassadors, a Twitter employee, and even official political party accounts. To people unfamiliar with Twitter, or to journalists who aren’t trained in verifying social-media rumours, it’s easy to think that the account is real based on its followers.
Worryingly, Debenedetti told Business Insider that his hoaxes could quickly become even more convincing thanks to Twitter’s eagerness to hand out verified accounts:
Last year, my fake account for German Foreign Minister Steinmeier obtained the verification logo for two hours, but later was suspended. Also, my fake Twitter account for Italian Prime Minister Monti obtained the verification symbol in 2012, and was followed by French President Sarkozy.
Because Debenedetti communicates through his network of fake accounts, it is impossible to verify that we spoke to the actual internet hoaxer Tommasso Debenedetti. However, his answers are certainly in line with interviews he has given in the past.
Debenedetti doesn’t think that Twitter’s occasional errors in the verification process are to blame for rumours spreading online. Instead he sees a more fundamental problem:
News agencies such as AP, Reuters, and big newspapers are able to verify news. But little newspapers, blogs, and radio stations are not able to verify, and so regularly accept rumours and fake news. The problem is the situation of social media, and generally of the web. I’m sure I’ll continue.
Despite Twitter’s verification process, it’s still easy for any devious user to quickly spread a rumour that has a global impact. One of Debenedetti’s most successful hoaxes took place in August 2012. He created a fake Twitter account to impersonate Russian interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev and proceeded to tweet out an all-caps message saying that Syrian president Bashar Assad and his wife had been killed.
The hoax progressed like a real breaking news story, starting as a claim that Assad had been injured, before new “developments” emerged. But unusual about this hoax was its impact. Zero Hedge reports that minutes after the tweets were sent, traders began to take notice. The price of crude oil soared as the financial world worried about Syria’s political future and the availability of oil.
Unlike his series of newspaper hoaxes, which Debenedetti says were written in the evenings after he returned from his job as a teacher, his Twitter antics are often worked into his lessons.
Last year I created a fake Twitter account with my students, using the school’s PC. The students and the school’s director were all enthusiasts. And the account, I can say, was very well-followed, and some news sources quoted it.
So what’s next for Italy’s social media prankster? After all, Debenedetti has successfully proved that he can prank both old and new media. “I’m in contact with an important newspaper to write interviews with famous international writers under a fake name,” he said. “The interviews will be, naturally, hoaxes.”