„Finally Moldova is going to get rid of its biggest evil…”
„I hope it’s true, though I don’t believe”
„I’d be happy if this is true”
„May Lord listen to us”
„This is not quite real”
„It’s a fake!”
These are some of dozens of reactions to a post featuring the headline „Russian media: Oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been arrested and taken to the Russian Federation”, which Chisinau municipal council member Ruslan Verbițchi has shared. This fake news piece about Mr. Plahotniuc, and others about the COVID-19 pandemic, were published by a website called actual-news.site, one of 61 web portals which the Moldovan Information and Security Service (SIS) had blocked during the emergency period.
We’ve analyzed a great deal of data: domain names, IP addresses, servers, web visuals, Google AdSense accounts, and we’ve learned that the website actual-news.site is part of a project called „FAke NEws”, which is managed by a a great fake news creator who worked at a television station. Next month he was hoping to pocket 1,200 US dollars from advertising as people were going to read more fake news pieces of his brand.
In mid-June 2019, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc lost the power and fled Moldova.
While many wondered where the former chairman of the Moldovan Democratic Party disappeared, actual-news.site uploaded a false information under the headline „Russian media: Oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been arrested and taken to the Russian Federation”.
The post rapidly became viral and gathered more than 70,000 pageviews. Ruslan Verbițchi, a member of the Chisinau municipal council on behalf of the Dignity and Truth Party, contributed to the sharing effort via social media too. His effort on the Facebook was backed up by another 400 shares and gathered more than 40 comments. Some readers warned Mr. Verbițchi that he had encountered a fake news but his reply demonstrates that he didn’t care much about the content’s accuracy: “I shared for Plahotniuc’s trolls to worry a bit.”
Speaking to RISE Moldova, Mr. Verbițchi denied any connection with the website that had published the fake story but insisted that he shared it in order to provoke the trolls.
– Ruslan Verbițchi: Yes, I do remember. I probably shared it as a response for Plahotniuc’s trolls who were posting various crap about the Dignity and Truth Party. I was eager to see their reactions when someone distributes false messages about their leader.
– Reporter: And what is your conclusion?
– Ruslan Verbițchi: I’ve reached the conclusion that fake news isn’t good generally for the mass information of citizens. They influence their thoughts and the decision-making process in certain elections. […]
– Reporter: When you read and share such information do you care to learn what is the source?
– Ruslan Verbițchi: There are websites I trust, more or less. If you check with my Facebook account, you won’t see many fake news. […]
The same day it wired the fake news about Mr. Plahotniuc, actual-news.site also invented a piece about his son Timofei Plahotniuc, who allegedly gave up the fortunes of his father. Both pieces generated over 150,000 pageviews.
ACTUAL NEWS, RESSURECTED DURING PANDEMIC
In 2019, Actual News continued publishing misleading articles and then stayed quiet for some time. Until the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, creating panic among users in social networks.
„Is it quarantine or self-isolation? What is this mockery about? In such case the government must cover the leave at 75% of my salary for every month of quarantine!”, „It is high time for an uprise…”, „You’ve infected all hospitals, all doctors, and now you need quarantine? Resign straight away, you are not the one to lead the system”.
These are just a few reactions of readers to this piece of fake news. „Extended quarantine in Moldova until 10 June 2020”, claimed actual-news.site in mid-March. This post gathered over 34,000 pageviews and numerous reactions from readers.
Days later after this news piece the SIS blocked actual-news.site for the entire period of severe emergency in Moldova, which was enforced by Parliament between 17 March and 15 May 2020. After this period the authorities relaxed the conditions somewhat. Details, HERE
On 26 June we visited actual-news.site from an IP address located in Romania. The front page headline of a news published just one day ahead read the following: “COVID-19. The police unearthed 54 coffins full with stones… The virus does not exist!” we clicked on the headline and another page opened with the banner: “Share or click on Open!” we followed this instruction. The fake news piece landed on our Facebook page but yet we could not read the story.
We returned to the banner page asking for share on the Facebook. There was also an announcement via Google Ads. Only when we opened the announcement did we managed to read the story. Details, HERE
Fake news! A text of three phrases, with many grammar mistakes, with no reference to official sources, or details where or when the event occurred:
Politia a degropat 54 de sicrie in care au fost inmormantate persoane decedate in urma noului virus соrоnаvirus.
Ceea ce au descoperit iau socat: toate sicriele erau pline cu pietre.
Pe acest caz sa deschis un dosar penal, deocamdata nu se cunoaste cine sta in spatele aceste-i scheme. Oamenii legii urmeaza astabili toate circumstantele.
NOTĂ: text în varianta originală, preluat de pe actual-news.site
Police unearthed 54 coffins holding people who had died as a result of the coronavirus. What they discovered shocked: all coffins were full of stones. An investigation kicked off, but for now no one knew who was behind the schemes. Police were investigating the circumstances.
Note: the original was published on actual-news.site.
To back up the writings, two pictures were published – they showed coffins unearthed. In one picture, three persons in white full clothes opening a coffin was copied from a 2015 article on Romanian website botosaneanul.ro. The second featured a coffin with stones and was first published on www.antena3.ro, in 2013.
The author of the story “COVID-19. The police unearthed 54 coffins full with stones… The virus does not exist!” is “admin”, the website’s administrator. We clicked on “admin” but could not learn his name or location. This website with many Google Ads advertising banners does not provide any contacts or names.
Further on, we tried to find out who was hiding behind this website by verifying the technical details of many domain names. We’ve discovered a connection between them all and therefore found a red thread that has led us to the Fake News creator.
Actual-news.site is registered in Russia on 8 December 2018. A history extract from the website captures our attention about three important details. The first one: the organization which registered actual-news.site is called „FAke NEws”. Secondly: the person who handled the registration procedure indicated a contact number in Moldova. And the last: the email address for invoicing and the administrator’s email are the same – email@example.com.
Jurnal-stiri.site was registered on 11 January 2019. In this case too, the Registrant Organization is FAke NEws. Details, HERE
Jurnal-stiri.site published stories about false celebrity deaths, presumed terror attacks, non-existing accidents with dozens of dead, and unreal marriages of politicians behind bars. In March 2020 the SIS blocked this website too, for the duration of the emergency period.
Breackingnews.xyz also used the same email address firstname.lastname@example.org. It earned public recognition with a fake news related to COVID-19: „Romanians are granted 24 hours to leave Italy, a deadline imposed by the Italian Government”. Almost half a million people have read this false piece.
The content from breackingnews.xyz reached the ears of Romania’s minister of interior affairs, Marcel Vela. The official asked the National Authority for Communication Administration and Regulation (ANCOM) to block this website. „[…] Fake news has been disseminated via breackingnews.xyz with the purpose to seed panic and misinform”, says the ANCOM’s decision to block the website.
Many articles published by breackingnews.xyz were inspired by true events or facts. At the beginning of 2020 international media reported that a pizza delivery boy was risking to get locked for 18 years for spitting on a pizza before taking it to the client. That happened in 2017.
But on 15 March 2020, the fake news creator altered the headline, which read like this: „VIDEO!!! A COVID-19 infected delivery man spits on a pizza and then delivered it to the client. No he’s facing a jail term”.
The two stories – one true and one false – share the same video clip.
From the history extract about the domain name breackingnews.xyz we notice that the same email was used to register it: email@example.com, both for jurnal-stiri.site and actual-news.site. This time however instead of FAke NEws as the registrant organization we saw the name of a real man who handled the website’s registration – Corneliu Ababii, a young man who lives in Moldova, the hiding administrator of many fake news portals. Corneliu Ababii is a video editor at TV8, a television station.
In fact, if we read the email address before @ from right to left, we’ll realize it is related to Mr. Ababii’s surname – 8korneliu. The number corresponds to his birthday.
On his Youtube account, Mr. Ababii keeps a banner reading Real Life and in one of his clips about how to make money on the internet, there’s a folder on the browser’s bookmarks, named SPAM.
Mr. Ababii had spread many misleading news in various Facebook groups and Odnoklassniki, a Russian social network.
WEBSITES CONNECTED TO ABABII
Over the past four years Corneliu Ababii has launched dozens of websites for fake news. Many of those that went live in 2016-2017 – such as pro-sd.space, fn2s.info, efis-dg.space, ababix.info, societate.info – have been abandoned or discontinued. But others appeared instead while some of old ones changed the domain name from „.info” to „.site”.
One example is actualnews.info, which went live in 2007. It changed hands from Romanian owners to Panama, then Japan, and in 2017 Corneliu Ababii purchased it. He used actualnews.info to disseminate fake news. The domain was later abandoned and others registered it for an adult website.
In 2018, being inspired of the old web domain, actualnews.info, Mr. Ababii purchased another domain – actual-news.site – which during March through June 2020 published dozens of clickbait news.
Over the past two years, this writer of fake news also managed Portal-De-Stiri.site (which went live on 19 March 2019), Esti-informat.site (live since 8 May 2019), Ziarulmoldovei.site (since 2 July 2019).
And there’s more – we’ve carried out advanced research following two Google Adsense accounts connected to Mr. Ababii. We’ve identified 27 websites using the unique AdSense Publisher IDs: 6500032409964169 and 1583705269162573.
THE MAN BEHIND
– Reporter: We have found evidence that you are behind a number of fake news websites. Are you a journalist?
– Corneliu Ababii: No. All these are “finance goals”; means that it’s about Google AdSense advertising which generates income. I am working there at this moment and I take a share of profit. I am not writing those stories, I am only looking after the technical tasks. Others are writing that stuff.
I had started with quizzes, such as “What age you are going to die, how many children you are going to have”… A few boys helped me and then one of them made a proposal: let’s make news. I told them it would not work but let’s try. There are three of us working together.
– Reporter: Are they in Moldova?
– Ababii: Yes.
– Reporter: Are they journalists? What do they do?
– Ababii: No. One of them graduated from high school and tried to enroll at the Agricultural University, with little luck. He works at a furniture assembly firm which is very popular in the country.
– Reporter: What about the third associate?
– Ababii: He too works at a furniture firm, a different one.
– Reporter: How did you meet them?
– Ababii: We’ve known each other since childhood. I didn’t mean to partner with guys with higher education in this area. I tried with jobless persons who didn’t have a permanent occupation. With me, they can earn in one month as much as they earn the same money in 2-3 months where they work now.
– Reporter: Who is writing the stories? Your headlines attract many readers…
– Ababii: We are not relying on existing reality… seeing to capture as many pageviews as possible. Pageviews means money… We are forcing readers to click on advertising. One click in Moldova costs 2-3 US cents. If 100 out of 1,000 readers click on advertising banners, we earn around 3 US dollars.
– Reporter: Are you one of the writers?
– Ababii: Sometimes I would suggest an idea. For example, someone posted on the Facebook a picture of a stick under a protection mask. I added a screenshot, copied out the text, shared it over social media, and it grew…
– Reporter: Your target markets are Moldova and Romania, aren’t they?
– Ababii: Usually we work to attract users from the outside. Advertising is more expensive in Europe. We do it for Romanians abroad, in Romanian.
– Reporter: How much do you earn from those websites?
– Ababii: In July for example we received 400 dollars. Next month, if things go well, we expect to get 1,200 dollars.
– Reporter: How would you handle to work at your television station and manage the websites at the same time?
– Ababii: TV8 is my principal job…
– Reporter: Do your colleagues at TV8 know that you manage those websites?
– Ababii: No. I am trying to keep it secret and I hope you won’t tell them…
– Reporter: Are you a reporter or video editor?
– Ababii: Video editor. If you publish this stuff… my colleagues at TV8 will learn the truth and they won’t understand me; I could get fired.
– Reporter: So you manager more than 20 websites?!
– Ababii: Many of them have been blocked by the SIS, recently. However, they are still live outside Moldova and we use new VPNs to change the IP in order to enable their continued use.
– Reporter: What is your opinion about the SIS’ decision to block a part of such websites?
– Ababii: I think they are very bravo. Not just my websites have been blocked but also a number of political websites.
– Reporter: Has the SIS summoned you for an affidavit?
– Ababii: No, it has not. I think the SIS boys still need to analyze the entire situation in order to realize how I’ve done that, perhaps they listened to my advice.
– Reporter: Aren’t you afraid of your actions?
– Ababii: No, I have not done anything very much illegal… I once offered my services to the SIS but my poor academic performance at college didn’t help me with employment there.
– Reporter: Did you apply for a job there?
– Ababii: Not really. A gentleman from that agency had visited me at college…
– Reporter: I’ve noticed a lot of stories about COVID. Didn’t it cross your mind that those fake news pieces would leave a negative impact on readers, or would seed panic among them?
– Ababii: This… all we’ve done was for pageviews…
– Reporter: Is it legal to publish fake news?
– Ababii: It’s not illegal. In Moldova, the Criminal Code isn’t too sophisticated to a scale that would crack down on (harming) social media posts.
The Information and Security Service says in a formal comment for RISE Moldova that fake news writers may not be punished under existing laws.
SIS: Pertaining the prosecution of persons who are caught in similar activities, please mind that Moldova has not enforced any legislation that would provide for prosecution of people who disseminate fake news. The SIS has officially asked the Ministry of Justice to amend the Offenses Code for the purpose to set out a system of sanctions for the knowledgeable dissemination of false information.
UPDATE: TV8’s reaction to our article that reveals the activities of its employee.
Fact-checking: Dumitru STOIANOV