Hugh Linehan: Death hoaxes aren't admirable, but they can be useful

For years Tommaso Debenedetti has been using Twitter to hoodwink the media with fake stories

It’s not good to lie. Fake news is a scourge. And it’s very bad form to spread false rumours that people have died. So why do I find myself harbouring a sneaking regard for Tommaso Debenedetti, the veteran Twitter hoaxer who has, over the years, fooled various august media institutions into reporting the deaths of (to take a random selection), Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, JK Rowling, Pedro Almodóvar and Pope Benedict?

This week, RTÉ Radio One's flagship news programme Morning Ireland fell for it when, just before 9am on Tuesday, it broadcast sad news from the literary world: "Just in the last few minutes Faber Books has announced that the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has died suddenly at the age of 67 and that an official announcement is to be released later this morning," we were told.

But a few minutes later, Ryan Tubridy was correcting the record. “The truth of the matter is it seems he is not dead,” said Tubridy. “We kind of double-checked it upstairs and sure enough it seems the news has come from a fake Twitter account.”

In a statement later that day, RTÉ News said it had “robust procedures for verifying information that appears on social media. Unfortunately, on this occasion, an unintended error was made. We’ve since rectified and removed all reference to the item from broadcast and elsewhere . . . We apologise – and hope this helps to limit any confusion caused.”

For many people in media, it was a case of “there but for the grace of God, go I”. Publishers and broadcasters have struggled at times over the past 15 years to cope with the firehose of apparently compelling but often false information spewed out every minute by social media. The urge to be the first with breaking news has been tempered by the professional embarrassment of getting it badly wrong.

At this stage most, like RTÉ, have put strong systems in place to guard against this sort of thing happening. This week’s incident will no doubt lead to some refresher courses in Montrose.

The Ishiguro tweet was the latest in a very long line of hoaxes perpetrated by Debenedetti, a Roman schoolteacher and failed journalist who spent 10 years faking “interviews” for Italian magazines with figures such as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Philip Roth.

After getting caught, he claimed – with some justification – that the fact he’d got away with it for so long was a damning indictment of low standards at the publications themselves. Following his exposure as a fraud, he moved on to the even more fertile pasture for lies and dissimulation that is Twitter.

His modus operandi involves setting up multiple false accounts impersonating well-known people with a view towards accumulating thousands of unsuspecting followers, which gives those accounts a spurious legitimacy. Then he switches the account name to, for example, Faber and Faber, to post his fake story, hoping it will be amplified by credulous users and picked up by mainstream media.

“On Facebook you are limited by access to ‘friends’,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “But on Twitter you can be sure people will follow you and it is being used as a real-time source of information without checks.”

Another Nobel-winning victim of Debenedetti, the author Mario Vargas Llosa, wrote about the hoaxer in his 2015 essay collection Notes on the Death of Culture. “He really is a hero of our times,” Vargas Llosa observed drily. “He excuses his behaviour with the nice paradox: ‘I lied, but only to tell a truth.’ What truth? That we live in fraudulent times, in which any offence, if it is amusing and entertains enough people, is forgiven.”

Indeed. But the world has moved on from handwringing about sole eccentrics on Twitter to more deep-seated concerns about bots, troll armies, deepfakes, election interference and algorithmic-driven psychological manipulation. Debenedetti’s glory days, when he fooled the likes of the New York Times, USA Today and the Guardian, and even caused a spike in world oil prices with a 2012 tweet about the supposed death of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, are long behind him. He hasn’t scored a significant hit on a major news outlet in years.

Mistakes will always get made, but no self-respecting newsroom will now rely on unverified social media posts alone before publishing or broadcasting a story.

In his own small way, Debenedetti may have contributed to that shift, in the same way that hackers cause organisations to understand and address their own IT vulnerabilities.

And a momentary flub in the closing minutes of a two-hour live radio broadcast is an embarrassment but hardly an outrage. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of credible journalism have been greatly exaggerated.