It’s no longer a simple term which defines a malpractice in the media. “Fake news” is now much broader and nuanced than the early days where it simply meant a media agency reporting something factually incorrect as its journalists were guided by an in-house bias. A CNN “reporter” in 2011 asked me, in Morocco, to help her produce a report which suggested that King Mohammed VI was “clinging” onto power. He wasn’t at all, so I refused to help. It was fake news. I was fired days later for being “difficult to work with.” She went on to get a promotion and become an international correspondent before Atlanta finally fired her in December 2018 for too many instances of record-breaking unethical journalism.
It wasn’t that Lisa (let’s call her that) was a loud New Yorker who was struggling to really make the lowest grade as a reporter and needed to cut corners which shocked me. It was that she had the full support of CNN bosses in Atlanta who wanted to help her.
Perhaps Lisa’s piece de resistance – stealing wholesale an article I had already published on the CNN website under my own byline by just adding one line at the top before putting her name on it – is a testimony in egregiously unethical journalism and sets a new record in media shite-hawkery.
But it was the ease at which she did it. Like this was normal.
Some CNN haters will say this is par for the course for an organization they may believe is already corrupt but it is worrying how Atlanta supports such sensationally low grade journalists who, by definition, it seems are bound to break every journalistic code just to get the job done.
Organizations like CNN are being duped by fake journalists all over the world who effectively translate into English government-aligned “news.”
But organizations like CNN are also being duped by fake journalists all over the world who effectively translate into English government-aligned “news” which they manufacture and process and ultimately sell to other networks.
July witnessed an extraordinary new watermark in how we treat and acknowledge fake news – and should, in theory, raise mainstream media’s awareness of a whole new game of disinformation, as a shocking case of “fake news” was exposed, with a lot of red faces in America who were duped by the scam.
For those who still chuckle to this day about “Danny” the “opposition fighter” in Syria who faked his own live interviews by staging gunfire on queue outside, seconds before the CNN interviews started – and just so happened to be working as a full time propagandist for “rebels” (read ISIS) – the story of Raphael Badani should raise a howl.
Badani was a leading opinion writer for a number of right-wing websites based in the US, along with Saudi websites Al Arabiya English, Arab News (owned by MbS’ brother) and the Jerusalem Post.
Badani argued strongly against the policies of Qatar, Turkey, and Iran and was strangely really quite upbeat about the UAE and its policies in the region.
There was only really one problem about Badani which you would have thought might have irked the US editors at the Washington Examiner – or indeed the three pro-Saudi, pro-UAE, pro-Israel Arab media outlets above.
Badani doesn’t exist.
No, that’s not saying he is using a fake name. It’s that he doesn’t exist as a human being at all. He was cooked up almost certainly by a surreptitious media advisory team working for the UAE government who found it surprisingly easy to take a photograph off a blog of a businessman in Chicago and invent a name, a fake professional profile page, and before you know it long articles which had a distinctly pro-UAE bias were being published in the West, on websites which have real leverage in Washington DC.
Recently the Saudis came under fire by Twitter, which closed down a staggering 88,000 accounts linked to a disinformation campaign.
All Arab countries have fake news operations, let’s be clear. Bots who swarm on Twitter to further a point of view or engage in the gang banging of political enemies. Recently the Saudis came under fire by Twitter itself which closed down a staggering 88,000 accounts linked to a disinformation campaign.
But the UAE has raised the bar with Badani, who is believed to be just one of 19 avatar-generated fake journalists/writers who produced articles heaping praise on the UAE in 46 separate publications.
Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa University, believes more “due diligence” should have been done by the editors of the outlets that had published these personas, as he is quoted as saying in an article by Al Jazeera.
“The big problem here is an issue of vetting,” Jones told the Qatar-based outlet which is a victim of the scam.
“These outlets that have published these works – which includes prominent outlets like the Washington Examiner – are not doing sufficient checks on their contributors.”
Indeed, on Twitter Jones goes further to mock Arab News, the Jerusalem Post and Al Arabiya suggesting that unlike the US outlets, these operations probably knew what they were being offered was fake news of the most sordid kind. Shameless disinformation designed to alter the media agenda and misinform decision makers in DC.
One of the fake journalists outed by reporter Adam Rawnsley and academic Mark Owen Jones is called Salma Mohamed, who still has a profile on Al Arabiya.
Remarkably, one of the fake journalists subsequently outed by the Daily Beast reporter Adam Rawnsley and the academic Mark Owen Jones is called Salma Mohamed, who still has a profile of herself on the Al Arabiya website and even articles still running on Arab News. Astonishingly, the owners of either website see no real reason why her profile and her pieces should be taken down, casting some doubt as to whether these organs are actually genuine media outlets at all or quasi intel agencies peddling disinformation.
But how many more are there who are already entrenched in big media outlets? How many genuine human beings or avatar-generated fake human journalists are working the system for Arab countries looking to profit from fake news?
Journalists like me, who have been shocked by CNN’s working practices, will worry if the same machine is taking over their own coverage of the Arab world by scores of freelancers who most certainly have a distinctly biased agenda aimed at distorting facts.
Who needs avatars when you can use humans?
When I worked with CNN, I was constantly told to stop complaining about the draconian conditions and pay which barely amounted to a meal in a restaurant in any western town, because “we have hundreds of Mohameds who work for us for a fraction of what we pay white guys like you,” said the Palestinian lady who was head of the freelance operation in Atlanta.
But when I checked on the CNN website and saw some of these articles immediately it became clear that CNN.com was paying money to freelance translators in the Arab world who were more often than not, translating articles from government-friendly newspapers into English. Think about that for a minute.
I still remember Lisa asking me to film the crowds in Casablanca when they suddenly moved quickly which would have misrepresented the Sunday demonstrations, which were mainly peaceful. She looked at me with despair when I refused.
“What you have to understand is that some of the big-name journalists, all do this. They all make up their foreign reports.”
“Martin, what you have to understand is that some of the big-name journalists, all do this. They all make up their foreign reports,” she said before laughing.
We shouldn’t worry about the three Middle Eastern agencies, in particular the two Saudi outlets already have an atrocious record on parodying journalism.
But we should be concerned for the larger media outlets out there like CNN and how they must be being played by such nefarious, well oiled operations. We should also not indulge ourselves with the notion that it is only the UAE, which is blazing a trail on disinformation, with Saudi complicity.
What there needs to be is much, much more regulation in the West, for scrutiny by editors to ensure that they verify who they are working with. The regulation could be voluntary, but it needs to come. It should also be noted that Reuters does actually practice a vetting process for freelancers. It’s high time all media outlets did the same and exposed those who don’t comply.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.