Whether it’s tabloid-like narratives spouting lies about British royalty or false claims about U.S. politicians that have serious repercussions, many of the major fake news stories over the past year share a common denominator: a site accused of being a Russian proxy called YourNewsWire.
YourNewsWire looks like your typical run-of-the-mill fake news site, except its reach has earned it the attention of a European Union agency named the East StratCom Task Force, which was “set up to combat Russian propaganda” and has classified YourNewsWire as a “proxy” for Russia. Sean Adl-Tabatabai, one of the publishers of the Los Angeles-based site, has acknowledged his admiration for RT (formerly Russia Today), the Russian propaganda news outlet that YourNewsWire often uses as a source. Conversely, pro-Kremlin sites like the Centre for Research on Globalization often cite YourNewsWire, demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between Russian propaganda and the fake news industry. Adl-Tabatabai thinks of reality less as something to be reported on and more as a moving target that can be dictated by altering perceptions. “When you say facts are sacred, I would argue that no they’re not,” he said earlier this year.
Such a casual commitment to the truth is likely what has fueled YourNewsWire’s greatest hits, which range from tabloid-like fluff, like a story claiming a dying former MI5 agent confessed to killing Princess Diana, to much more damaging false political narratives with real-life consequences, like the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. YourNewsWire played an important role in pushing that narrative, which inspired a gunman to open fire inside a D.C. family pizzeria in an attempt to “self-investigate” false claims that Democratic figures ran a pedophilia ring from its basement. These insidious false political narratives have also included making up a quote by a deceased former Haitian government official to suggest the Clintons had something to do with his death.
YourNewsWire’s fake political news stories often go viral, spreading like wildfire among far-right internet users. The outlet was behind a story baselessly linking last weekend’s Texas church massacre shooter with anti-fascist protesters, and it similarly exploited the Las Vegas, NV, shooting by falsely claiming the gunman was “an Antifa member who was also linked with ISIS.” On another occasion, the fake news site reported that actor Morgan Freeman had called for the imprisonment of former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. YourNewsWire has also jumped on the recurring Russian tactic of attacking philanthropist George Soros, once claiming that the newly elected Austrian chancellor had banned Soros’ foundations from Austria, while plagiarizing entire phrases from legitimate publications.
Facebook has verified the site’s page on its platform, which allows YourNewsWire to reach vast, unsuspecting audiences under a veneer of legitimacy. Irresponsible right-wing media figures like Fox’s Sean Hannity have helped bolster that undeserved reputation by tweeting out a false story from the site, showing that his ideological shilling gets in the way of even the most basic due diligence, as at least one such narrative “could have been disproven by a quick Twitter search,” according to CNN’s Brian Stelter. And while churning out demonstrably false narratives day in and day out has reportedly cost the site 60 percent of its revenue after Google AdSense dropped it, the ad network Revcontent still allows YourNewsWire to monetize clicks, giving its publishers financial incentives to continue pushing bullshit to gullible right-wing audiences.