USA Today wasn’t reporting on an unfolding Jon Snow situation — it fell for a prank. Someone pretending to be associated with publishing company Alfred A. Knopf had tweeted “URGENT. Author Cormac McCarthy dies for stroke at 82.” The newspaper ran with it before fact checking, or before it saw the follow-up tweet, in which @AKnopfNews admitted it was the work of an Italian journalist named Tommasso Debenedetti.
Debenedetti is a liar and a scammer. He loves Twitter impersonations and fraud. He’s a messy bitch who lives for drama, and he’s been perpetuating hoaxes for more than 16 years. Think of him as the Italian Jimmy Kimmel, except replace YouTube and twerk fails with owning The New York Times using a fake Umberto Eco letter. His prank track record is so girthy I’m surprised Ashton Kutcher didn’t name his firstborn Tommaso. I’m surprised Clooney and the rest of his 11s (Cloon Clown Crew) haven’t named a yacht after him. Debenedetti has been pranking since 2000, and he first gained notoriety by convincing a number of Italian newspapers into publishing entirely made-up interviews with famous English-language authors like Philip Roth and John Grisham.
While Debenedetti often carries out literary hoaxes, he has also impersonated politicians. In 2012, he created a fake Twitter account for Russian interior minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, and used it to insist that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had been killed.
“The hoax progressed like a real breaking news story, starting as a claim that Assad had been injured, before new ‘developments’ emerged. But unusual about this hoax was its impact. Zero Hedge reports that minutes after the tweets were sent, traders began to take notice. The price of crude oil soared as the financial world worried about Syria’s political future and the availability of oil,” Business Insider wrote of the surprisingly destabilizing prank.
“I have no regrets for my hoaxes,” Debenedetti told me via email. He said his favorite japes included carrying out death hoaxes for J.K. Rowling and Fidel Castro, and the time he created a fake Twitter account for then–Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and claimed that President Obama had called and offered Carter the role as Pentagon chief. Obama ended up nominating Carter — but Debenedetti’s tweet was essentially an informed guess that inadvertently broke the story.
Debenedetti says he’s out to expose how credulous the media is. And look, pranks suck, but I can’t be mad about Debenedetti’s shit-disturber mission. Now that his blueprint for lying on Twitter includes quickly fessing up that he’s lying, he is doing a crude but efficient job exposing what a bad look it is for media companies to publish first and ask questions later. Debenedetti’s death hoaxes aren’t clever — they’re very similar to hackers jacking the NFL’s Twitter account to proclaim Roger Goodell dead — but his recent habit of almost immediately revealing that he’s lying makes it clear that he’s out only to fool the deeply lazy.
Debenedetti has no retirement date. “My plan is to continue to create hoaxes and I will continue because journalists are very, very credulous. I don’t know why but [they believe hoaxes all the time]. It’s incredible, perhaps it’s terrible, but this [is] the reality of journalism in the era of social media. And it’s incredible that the big media believes [a] hoax more than local medias [sic]. … [In] 2011, The New York Times* printed my fake letter signed Umberto Eco. [In] 2012, The Guardian believed my fake account of Assad, and now USA Today published the fake death of McCarthy.”
[*The letter actually appeared in The International Herald Tribune (now The International New York Times), which is owned by the Times.]
Online hoaxes are so commonplace that BuzzFeed has a dedicated internet-hoax buster beat reporter. Sites like Snopes and Gizmodo’s Factually have been debunking fake news for years — but that hasn’t stopped major outlets from publishing before fact checking, again and again, even when a piece of internet news is Big Mouth Billy Bass–level fishy. (Remember Phuc Dat Bich?) As long as there’s an incredibly easy mouthpiece for scammers to spread lies — as long as the internet exists, basically — there will be hoaxes, and publishers falling for hoaxes.
“[It’s] terrible, incredible,” says Debenedetti about the media’s habit of continually publishing hoaxes. “But true.”