Someday soon, the reading public will miss the days when a bit of detective work could identify completely fictitious authors. Consider the case of “Alice Donovan.” In 2016, a freelance writer by that name emailed the editors of CounterPunch, a left-leaning independent media site, to pitch a story. Her Twitter profile identified her as a journalist. Over a period of 18 months, Donovan pitched CounterPunch regularly; the publication accepted a handful of her pieces, and a collection of left-leaning sites accepted others.
Then, in 2018, the editor of CounterPunch received a phone call from The Washington Post. A reporter there had obtained an FBI report suggesting that Alice Donovan was a “persona account”—a fictitious figure—created by the Main Directorate, the Russian military-intelligence agency commonly known as the GU. Skeptical of the Russia link, but concerned about having potentially published content from a fake person, the CounterPunch editors pored over Donovan’s oeuvre, which spanned topics as varied as Syria, Black Lives Matter, and Hillary Clinton’s emails. They found her to be not only suspicious, but also a plagiarist: Some of the articles bearing her byline appeared to have been written instead by another woman, Sophia Mangal, a journalist affiliated with something called the Inside Syria Media Center.
The ISMC’s “About” page claimed that the group, ostensibly a cross between a think tank and a news outlet, was founded in 2015 by a team of journalists. But as the CounterPunch editors dug further, they realized that Sophia Mangal was also a fabrication. So, it seemed, were the others at ISMC whom they tried to track down. CounterPunch published a January 2018 postmortem detailing what its investigation had found: articles plagiarized from The New Yorker, the Saudi-based Arab News, and other sources; prolific “journalists” who filed as many as three or four stories a day, but whose bylines disappeared after inquiries were made to verify that they existed; social-media profiles that featured stolen photos of real people; lively Twitter accounts that sycophantically defended the Syrian dictator and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad. The ISMC, it seemed, was a front. Its employees were purely digital personas controlled by Russian-intelligence agents. [Continue reading…]