Community 'now living in fear' after reporter gets it wrong: Checkup caller
Jeff Yates is an investigative reporter with Radio-Canada. His most recent investigation uncovered a series of news sites that report on local Quebec issues and claim to be based in Canada, but are part of an ad revenue scheme run by a man in Ukraine. In our discussion around separating real and false news, host Duncan McCue spoke to Yates about this model of fake news: stolen content published without attribution.
During their conversation, Checkup received a call from Moaied Alpalidi in Montreal who shared his community's recent experience with a different form of false news: a reporter who got it wrong. The story alleged that members of a Montreal mosque had requested that female construction workers be barred from a nearby work site. But the report by TVA, a major Quebec news outlet, was proven false soon after it was reported.
However, as both Alpalidi and Yates say, "the retraction is not as popular as the story."
Duncan McCue: Tell me about the fake Quebec news sites that you uncovered. What were they called? What did they look like?
Jeff Yates: I found a half dozen websites with names like the Sherbrooke Times, the Quebec Post, the Quebec Times — they were sites trying to pretend to be newspapers in Quebec. So when you click on the About section, they'd say that they are Quebec provincial newspapers and they would run stories local stories about Quebec. But in fact these were not real newspapers, so they would steal articles from French media in Quebec and do a rough translation with Google Translate and then republish them on the website, so that they would look like a legitimate news media from Quebec. And that is how they would try to get clicks from people on the Internet.
DM: The stories themselves weren't fake and they were taken from real news sites, but they just didn't have attribution. How popular were they? Were they getting those clicks?
JY: It's kind of difficult to estimate the traffic because a lot of these articles would go offline very quickly, because the newspapers from which they stole the articles would flag them and send them cease and desist letters. So it's difficult to determine how popular this is, but my feeling is it wasn't that popular. But the person behind this did manage to make money. From what I could gather, these websites could have generated up to $1,300 a month — which does not sound like that much money, but the person behind the website is based in Ukraine. For someone in Ukraine, $1,300 a month is considerably more than for a Canadian.
DM: You tracked him down. What did he have to say about why he was doing this?
JY: This person is a 38-year-old Ukrainian man. He has these Quebec sites, but he also has another half a dozen websites in Russia and in Ukraine, where he does basically the same thing. So [he will] steal Russian content and translate it into Ukrainian and vice versa. So [he] basically told me that he lives off of these websites. The money from his websites allows him to stay at home and take care of his daughter. So he doesn't have to have a regular job and he actually told me that he made more money than his wife, who is a radiologist. It was all about money basically.
DM: Why would someone living in Ukraine want to make a fake news site about Quebec?
JY: I asked him the question, but he didn't really answer. He did tell me that he tried making fake U.S. media sites a couple of years back and those didn't catch on. I think the intended audience for this is not people in Quebec. I think it's people from outside Quebec. People from Quebec, we know our news media. So when we see the Sherbrooke Times, we know that's not a true newspaper. But someone from Great Britain or China who's looking for news in the English language on the web might not realize that these are not real websites. In fact when I looked at the most popular articles that were shared on social media from these websites, we saw that it was people from outside of Quebec sharing them, you know. So one of the most popular was, a Belgian singer shared one of these articles that was written about him. Another one was shared by a British politician from the UKIP party. So these people didn't realize that these aren't real media because they don't know news media in Quebec. I think the intended audience is people from outside Quebec who maybe don't have as good of a grasp of English. They are just trying to go after clicks.
DM: So there is a lot of impact, obviously, for real news media in Quebec who are producing these stories and then essentially getting their work plagiarized. Was there any any other kind of impact that you could see in terms of spreading these stories?
JY: I talked to the president of the The Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists, which is our organization, and he told me he was quite concerned about this. It's already hard for news media to produce news. All news media are having trouble financially and making news costs a lot of money. You have to pay journalists to write these stories and report them — and when someone comes along and steals that and makes money off of it, it's unfair. Plagiarizing stories cost nothing, so it's all profit. You don't spend any money, you don't have to hire journalists or anything — you're basically just copying and pasting. This type of stuff could hurt news media.
DM: You spoke to Google about this. What did Google have to say?
JY: Google announced about a year ago that they would try to stop fake news sites and the deceitful sites from using their Google AdSense platform, which is the platform they use to have ads on the site. So when I contacted Google to find out why these fake news media were allowed to have Google ads on them, Google responded very quickly and said: "You know, we're going to delete their Google AdSense account. So the Google ads are no longer on the site and presumably, this will put a big dent in the site's finances because if you take the ads out then you know there's not much you can do to get money.
DM: You're an investigative journalist, Jeff, I mean it took you a while to get to the bottom of all of this. What would you say it says about the fake news environment?
JY: People are trying to actively deceive readers on the internet to make money. What I would say is people have to take a bit of time to check what they're reading before sharing it on social media. On the fake news websites from Ukraine, if you take 30 seconds to look at the articles, it's obvious that it's not a real news site. The English is horrible; there are mistakes everywhere. The problem is that people act too fast on social media. They automatically share stories that they find interesting, but take a bit of time to try to look and at least read the article before sharing it.
Moaied Alpalidi: Just wanted to share with you our bitter, recent experience with fake news. It happened in the earlier this week. A journalist from a big chain in Quebec, TVA, reported a fake news story. This report was spreading so fast. It went all the way to the National Assembly in Quebec where the premier ordered the labour minister to start an investigation. Within 48 hours, the investigation proved that nothing was true and these were false allegations.
DM: For those outside of Quebec, can you tell us a little bit about what the story?
MA: There was a construction site near two mosques and the reporter's story alleged that someone from a mosque requested that female construction workers be excluded from the work site. The information was shared with the news organization through Facebook and the reporter confirmed the allegation with a false witness who was on site. I don't know where she got that witness.
- Quebec TV network issues apology for now-debunked mosque report
- No evidence any Montreal mosque asked women be barred from work site, construction board finds
- ANALYSIS | Montreal mosque story shows how dangerous myths can be in era of fake news, far right
DM: The station, TVA, did ultimately admit was an error. What impact did it have on your community?
MA: When they first reported this story, everyone will hear it, but when they say, 'Sorry, the story was not true,' maybe 30 per cent of the people will hear that. So the rest of the community, especially the right wing, the racists, the people who are pushing this bad news, they are still hammering our community with hate messages and threats. The whole community is now living in fear all because of a one-minute report by a reporter who did not verify the content.
DM: That's a really good point and I want to throw that back to Jeff Yates. I know you have done a lot of work on on this and obviously have seen the climate that this story was reported in.
JY: This was an unfortunate incident in Quebec. As Moaied said, TVA issued an apology for the the the story. Thankfully all the other news media in Montreal had extensive coverage about this not being true. Immediately there were already doubts being thrown up about this now.
What's unfortunate is that the retraction is not as popular as the story which is incorrect. But what's really concerning is that I've seen the story start to pop up in the U.S. or in English Canada after it was retracted and people keep talking about this story even though it's been retracted. I've even seen people arguing that the retraction was forced and that the media are working together to cover up this story because you know it makes people uncomfortable, even when TVA itself apologized and said this story is false. Some people are saying that the retraction is false.
It becomes very difficult to manage the situation once with an error like that. Ironically, people trusted the news station when they came out with his story, but then they stopped trusting the news station when they issue a retraction and say that it's not true.
All comments have been edited and condensed. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh.