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In Russia, Fake News Sounds Real

RuNet Echo has on many occasions made note of the somewhat sequestered nature of the Russian internet, as well as the fact that many RuNet online media developments parallel anglophone counterparts. Now it seems there is one more website that can join Lurkmore, VKontakte, and Yandex in the ranks of such examples. This site is called FogNews [ru], and it has surreptitiously invaded the Russian blogosphere over the past year.

Fognews is the Russian version of The Onion. Many anglophone internet users are no doubt familiar with this satirical fake-news organization. Although most people know better than to take The Onion's pieces seriously, sometimes the satire strikes a little too close to home — such was the case recently when a Chinese newspaper took at face value an article declaring Kim Jung Un the “sexiest man alive.” In some ways, it's people taking such stories seriously that provides the most entertainment.

FogNews homepage. The main story reads: “NATO invades parallel worlds.” Screenshot, November 28, 2012.

Founded in the winter of 2012, FogNews comes complete with a hammer and sickle favicon, and has already managed to repeat some of The Onion's high points. First, there was an April article that announced Vladimir Putin's wife's pregnancy [ru], citing a radio interview. The news seemed plausible, since Liudmila Putina had been increasingly absent from the public eye in the months running up to the March 2012 presidential election.

This is probably why the satirical nature of the article and the website it was published on flew under the radar. The Moscow Times (published in English) referred to FogNews as an “an obscure news portal” which “published a report.” Article commenters were earnest in their their well wishes for Liudmila and hate of Vladimir. Noted Russian feminist Maria Arabatova blogged [ru]:

Молодец! Уважаю! [...] Всех желающих слить политическую агрессию на женщину, решившую забеременеть в таком возрасте, имея в анамнезе тяжелейшую аварию с переломом основания черепа, модерировать буду безжалостно.

Well done! Respect! [...] Anyone who wants to take out their political aggression on a woman who decided to get pregnant at such an age, given medical history of a fractured skull due to a serious accident, I will moderate pitilessly.

Needless to say, the news was patently fake. Since then, the cycle has repeated several times. Fake story is picked up by news sources that don't know any better and gullible bloggers disseminate it through sheer wishful thinking.

Such was the recent story [ru] that the venerable TV personality Vladimir Posner is emigrating from Russia, as a result of a media spat with a United Russia MP. In a fake quote reported in the story, Posner calls his detractors “monkeys” and refuses to live in the same country as them. The story was picked up [ru] by one of Russia's top bloggers, Natalia Radulova, who took it seriously until someone pointed out it was fake in the comments. Radulova used the “news” to make a larger point about a trend of people leaving Russia. Vladimir Posner, with his French citizenship, certainly fit the bill.

Another story [ru], this one reporting on new legislation that would force any blogger with over 1,000 readers to register for a mass media license, was picked up by at least three news outlets and managed to freak out a great deal of bloggers, according to Lenta.ru [ru]. Even though the Ministry of Communications came out with a statement [ru] disavowing the news, it is still up uncorrected on two [ru] of the sources [ru] that originally used it.

Perhaps the most evocative prank [ru] came in August, at the height of the Pussy Riot trial. According to FogNews the famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev paused his performance in London to deliver a scathing speech about Russian politics. The story came with the speech, and managed to fool quite a few people, including gossip columnist and controversial blogger Bozhena Rynska [ru]:

Сама речь, написанная якобы от лица Гергиева, была потрясающей. И я, не разобравшись, тут же поверила. Надо же, думаю, вот и у Гергиева, который кормился от власти, агитировал за Путина, есть своя точка невозврата. Надо же, какой молодец. [...] И страшно зауважала, даже расплакалась. [...] Любимый сразу сказал, что это фейк, что не дале, как вчера Гергиев дал лизоблюдское интервью [...] Короче, обломалась я и опять заплакала, теперь уже от обиды.

The speech itself, supposedly by Gergiev, was amazing. And without getting to the bottom of it, I immediately believed it. Wow, I thought, even Gergiev, who subsists on the government, campaigned for Putin, has his point of no return. What a guy. [...] And I felt tremendous respect, even started crying. [...] My beloved said right away that it's a fake, that as recently as yesterday Gergiev gave a lickspittle interview [...] In short, I got bummed out and started crying again, but now from resentment.

Stories like this cannot help but breed enemies. There is even a LiveJournal account, whoisfognews [ru], which contains a single post that alleges that FogNews is a pro-Putin publication funded by the government. Whoisfognews claims that the Ministry of Communications database lists FogNews as having been founded by the government. Unfortunately the Ministry does not publish information on permits issued after 2010, so it's not clear where the information comes from. Nevertheless, whoisfognews let's its opinion be known:

Теперь вы понимаете, почему РИА FogNews “прощают” то, за что любую другую газету уже давно бы закрыли [...] Теперь вы понимаете, почему на сайте нет рекламы, хотя с их трафиком они могли бы грести деньги лопатой? Зачем нужен FogNews? Ответ очевиден: чтобы люди перестали верить лживым СМИ и учились думать самостоятельно.

Now you understand why RIA FogNews is “forgiven” for things that would result in any other newspaper getting shut down [...] Now you understand, why the site has not ads, although with their web-traffic they could be pulling money in hand over fist. What's the purpose of FogNews? The answer is obvious: so that people stop believing the lying mass media, and learn to think for themselves.

Almost as a counter to this argument, the Chechen government is now threatening to sue FogNews [ru] for another plausible fake story. (This one feeds on Russian nationalism: “Chechnya abolishes housing and utility payments.” [ru]) Somehow the news that Ramzan Kadyrov could sue a satirical publication reads like satire in and of itself. Until real stories like this stop appearing, one can expect people to fall for fake ones. In the meantime, if you hear something preposterous-sounding from Russia, take a second to wonder whether it could have originated on the Russian Onion.

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