The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the Internet’s ‘greatest liar,’ whose Twitter death hoaxes have fooled millions

This profile was originally published on June 29, 2016; we plan to re-publish it every time Debenedetti pulls off another widely publicized stunt. In this week’s edition of Debenedetti tomfoolery, the Italian hoaxer tweeted, from a fake account for Japanese publisher Shinchosha, that novelist Haruki Murakami had died. Debenedetti confirmed to the Post by email that he was behind the account and that Murakami is, to our knowledge (!), still alive.

The original story follows.

You would think that after two decades, Tommaso Debenedetti would have tired of hoaxes. He’s had a pretty good run, after all — the New York Times, Nicolas Sarkozy and many others have at one point fallen for his jokes.

But no, Debenedetti just can’t stop. It’s like a compulsion — or a calling. In his most recent stunt, the latest of dozens, the 47-year-old Italian created a fake Twitter account for the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, from which he tweeted the “news” of the death of author Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy is alive, of course — just like the pope, Fidel Castro and J.K. Rowling before him. This did not prevent a number of Twitter accounts, including those of Joyce Carol Oates and USA Today, from repeating that he was dead.

“This story reveals the terrible situation of media,” Debenedetti told The Washington Post by email. “The account was not reliable and was created minutes before the news of the death, but a lot of important sites believed it. Incredible!”

That is incredible — or disheartening — for a whole lot of reasons we won’t get into here. But it’s nowhere near as incredible as Debenedetti himself, a Stephen Glass-level fabricator who somehow parlayed his deceptions into something like success.

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A longtime public school teacher living in Rome and the son of a famous Italian literary critic, Debenedetti spent some time in his 20s pitching reviews and interviews, trying to make his own name as a journalist. When that didn’t pan out, Debenedetti started making stuff up: mostly interviews with literary and political giants, such as Philip Roth, Noam Chomsky, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama. The first one he remembers, from 2000, was an “interview” with Gore Vidal.

Because Debenedetti wrote for small local papers, and in Italian, he was able to carry out this scheme undetected for several years. Alas, in 2010, an interviewer from La Repubblica asked Roth about something he’d “told” Debenedetti months earlier, at which point the whole thing unraveled.

You’d think public opinion would turn against Debenedetti at that point. He lied and cheated, things the reading public does not not typically adore. But Debenedetti framed his inventions as a social experiment and a form of activism against the incompetent media. In fact, far from giving up on the game, he just took it to Twitter.

“I like being the Italian lie champion,” he said in 2010, when he gave his first post-outing interview to Spain’s El País. “I believe that I have invented a new genre, and I hope to be able to publish new fakes.”

Can an Internet hoax ever really be ‘art’?

Debenedetti, to his credit, is a master of his craft. He has said that he spends a lot of time researching the subjects of his hoaxes, reading their books and studying their lives, in order to post his announcements from credible accounts and get their tone right. (Of McCarthy he says: “McCarthy is an important but reclusive author, and his life is a mystery. McCarthy is not publicly exposed. For this reason, he can be a victim of a hoax.”)

Debenedetti is also savvy about changing the names and images on his many accounts in order to make them appear older and better followed than they actually are. When he wanted a Twitter hoax for the Indian politician Sonia Gandhi, he just switched out the photo on Kim Jong Un’s account. Voila!

Between 2010 and 2012 alone, he successfully trolled the Twittersphere into believing he was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Swedish writer Henning Mankell, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Spanish Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev.

That last account was particularly effective: When Debenedetti used it to tweet that Assad had died on Aug. 6, 2012, the price of crude oil skyrocketed.

And yet Debenedetti wasn’t done. There were so many more hoaxes to try! He claims to have sent a fake photo of (now-deceased) Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to a number of photo agencies, where it was mistakenly picked up by El País — the very paper Debenedetti gave his first interview to. Recently, Debenedetti created fake Facebook profiles for Pope Francis and the author Almudena Grandes. He purportedly made a blog for Umberto Eco.

“I’m not bored,” he told The Post. “I continue to create hoaxes because any day, any week, people believe and journalists all around the world publish my fake news as true.”

That may not be entirely accurate. Before the McCarthy hoax, Debenedetti had been going through something of a dry spell. He had one hit in a similar death hoax regarding the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, but that circulated only in the Spanish-language media. This was not Debenedetti and Vargas Llosa’s first tangle: Debenedetti once “announced” the author’s engagement to an eager tabloid audience. And Vargas Llosa included a meditation on the hoaxer in “Notes on the Death of Culture,” his 2015 essay collection.

“He really is a hero of our times,” Vargas Llosa wrote — in a tone that suggests it’s not a compliment. “He excuses his behavior with the nice paradox: ‘I lied, but only to tell a truth.’ What truth?

“That we live in fraudulent times, in which any offense, if it is amusing and entertains enough people, is forgiven.”

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