Vasil Manev is a student in Computer Science and an aspiring columnist, studying in Heidelberg, Germany.
Network of Pro Communist Fake News in Bulgaria
Heidelberg, Germany -
To start this article/confession I would like to give you all a backstory on what happened last week and why this piece has been written. Last week EUScoop published this article, and I was the author. It is a really controversial article and represents, quite frankly, the very essence of what EUScoop isn't and aims not to be - fake news. Being the author I deeply regret that mistake of mine, as it was an embarrassing moment for the company. Let me explain how EUScoop works. We are a small Bulgarian company that is constantly looking for the most relevant stories in Bulgaria or concerning Bulgaria, which we then write in the English language so as to provide foreign businessmen, expats, and other people with an interest in Bulgaria with current information. Our goal is to use as many sources as possible and present stories that are both objective in tone and factually accurate.
Well, last week I did not follow these simple rules. Or should I say - I didn't go to the bottom of things and thus I accidentally spread a fake news story. I read an article allegedly exposing Bulgaria's PM's connection to the Paradise Papers and exposing him of having 3.8 billion in an offshore bank account. The offshore account wasn't even the story - it is perfectly legal to own one -the highlight of the story was the amount money. And that was the biggest lie. As my main source, I used a site "aptly" called The Bulgarian Times. I referenced keywords from the Bul-times article online and found various other sites such as Pod Oko, Slife, Informiran that had already covered the story two to three days before we ever published it (please keep those names in mind). At first, we did not see anything wrong with the piece and decided to post it, naively assuming that the sources would be legitimate.
And that's where it got interesting.
Upon publishing the article we decided to actually backtrack our sources (too late, we know). Meaning that we would look at the end of each article for the sources used and follow them to their place of origin. Every website had its own sources but what we managed to discover at the end was really interesting. We believe the name of the source of the fake news to be called "Minaha godini" (this translates to "years have passed"). Our only problem with this source was that although named it was never actually linked in any of the articles. So we weren't able to find/read it ourselves.
Having realized our grave mistake we updated the article and admitted to having published fake news and we promised you tо get to the bottom of things. Well, we did. We investigated these outlets and realized that they've successfully created an echo chamber, where they cite each other as sources, making it impossible for people to trace the origin of the stories they publish.
As a matter of fact, EUScoop got dragged into this mix of fake news storytelling. One of the sites that we used as a source for writing the controversial piece in the first place decided to backlink to our article. During the weekend Informiran.net put out an article called "GERMAN MEDIA Exclusive" linking to our website, attempting to amplify the echo chamber effect. From the very beginning with the title, the news story is false - EUScoop is not a German media outlet, nor have we claimed to be. Nor is it based in Germany. We are mostly a team of Bulgarians, without a single German on the team, or corporate link to Germany. As the author, I just happened to be working from Germany and that's why I gave my actual location in the byline.
So, after we unwillingly became a part of the echo chamber we noticed that it is not only media outlets that have been trying to validate their points by using our article (which begins with a disclaimer) but also Facebook pages such as "Protest against the atrocities in Bulgaria". Our article has been shared in Facebook groups who are overtly anti-GERB (the party that won the elections in March and is currently governing Bulgaria) and anti-Boyko Borisov (Bulgaria's current PM).
I would like to present to you a timeline of how things happened:
The initial reports of PM Borisov being involved in the scandal popped up between November 6th and November 8th on websites such as Informiran, Bulgarian Times, Slife and Pod Oko.
Our article was published on November 9th
Later on, Informiran (one of the sites that initially spread the fake story) referenced us here without knowing that they were, in fact, one of our initial sources.
After thoroughly going through all of the publicly available data on the website of the ICIJ (including the list of public figures involved) we found that there is currently no data that connects PM Borisov with the Paradise Papers or any of the allegations made by many. But if that's the case - how did the fake news story come to life? And who came up with the numbers and the companies, where Borisov supposedly "holds shares"?
Additionally, since then a number of the sites have deleted their articles - for the benefit of the reader and anyone investigating the matter, we have provided archived links of the fake news in question so that they cannot try and hide from their mistruths.
This echo chamber is happening between online media outlets that mainly cover "stories" that are really anti-government and favor the Bulgarian Socialist Party in many ways. Mainly by crafting fake stories about the government and praising the way Socialists "stand up to the Man". We found this to be deeply concerning as it managed to mislead us, but worse than that - it is misleading people on a daily basis. People who seek confirmation of their own beliefs and views and are unwilling to validate their sources. As any other person, we, the writers at EUScoop also have our political views. We've been critical of the Bulgarian Socialist Party on more than one occasion but we have also criticized the government, its decisions, and rhetoric. We will never let our political views get in the way of objective reporting.
I would like to apologize for the story I published. We have now developed a new policy on how we pick our sources. Our controversial reporting paid off in some sense as we managed to reveal this echo chamber that has formed online and we want to spread the word and prevent people for falling into the trap of fake news outlets. Sensational headlines, clickbait, and lies bring views but also destroy credibility. I realize that and I promise to never mislead our readers. As for the article - it will stay live on the website with the update attached to it. We have the dignity to admit our wrongs and will not run from responsibility. We would also like this to be considered an apology directly to Borisov, and we have left up the article in question as we will not hide from our mistake, but leave it up so others may learn from it.
As for the results, that is another somewhat disturbing topic.
We are indeed a small and new news website, so our viewership is quite low (we launched mere months ago). Prior to updating the article we received many hundreds of views on the article in question in around two hours which is considerably more than we typically get. Moreover, this article is one of our best ranked on google - if you search for "Bulgarian Prime Minister" the article comes up on the second page. Again, this is wildly out of line with our typical rankings in google (we only recently became result number one if you search for "euscoop"), which shows the power of fake news.
As the person who approved the initial article, I also share equal responsibility for not having verified the source of information. As mentioned the result of our embarrassing mistake was a review of where we find our information, and how we go about validating stories which have very substantial claims.
We have left the story up on EUScoop with a note at the beginning explaining that we believe it to be fake news, in order to reduce the damage caused by the misinformation we were accidentally responsible for spreading.