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Why this Italian ‘journalist’ can’t stop making fake Twitter accounts

A famous person joins Twitter, falls for a death hoax, and is so disgusted that she quits the site entirely. “The full twitter experience,” as one Twitter user quipped, displaying an image of the entire Twitter history for the “official Twitter account” of scholar and social critic Camille Paglia. Except the perfect, three-act play displayed in that viral tweet was incomplete: As it turns out, the account was a hoax created by Italian “journalist” Tommaso Debenedetti.

That phrasing I used is deliberate. Twitter is full of hoaxes, but Debenedetti’s have their own style and even their own catchphrase. As soon as someone confirms that the account is fake, Debenedetti tweets that the account was a hoax, created by him. Although not all of his accounts find viral success before being found out, he said in an email that he “spread[s] fake news every day!

Most of Debenedetti’s hoaxes don’t go to very great lengths to fool its audience. So a lot of them are easy to identify, particularly if you’re familiar with how he tends to write in English (not always grammatically sound). When they work, however, Debenedetti can claim a victory in his stated mission: to expose weak links in the media. If a major U.S. outlet like USA Today is fooled into sending out a Twitter alert for Cormac McCarthy’s death based on an “announcement” from one of Debenedetti’s obviously fake accounts, that says a lot.

Debenedetti used to write for small Italian papers, until people started to notice the pesky fact that many of the “interviews” with literary and intellectual luminaries that he’d published were completely made up. He was outed as a fabricator in 2010. Soon afterward, he started pretending to be other people on Twitter. Before going public with his new hoaxing identity in 2012, Debenedetti briefly passed himself off as a series of foreign politicians, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Previously: meet the Internet’s ‘greatest liar,’ whose Twitter death hoaxes have fooled millions

The Paglia account spread pretty far across Twitter before a journalist, and later Debenedetti himself, confirmed it was a hoax. Another one of his — an account pretending to be author and notorious Twitter hater Jonathan Franzen — didn’t get quite as far before it was found out, and Debenedetti was forced to confirm it was fake.

No matter. On the same day that he tried to fool Twitter into thinking that Franzen had joined its ranks, he also claimed credit for @PMMorocco, a fake account for the newly appointed prime minister of Morocco. On the condition that I not reveal the handles right now, Debenedetti also linked me to a handful of accounts for Russian officials that he says are his. He says he has 13 active fake accounts just for government officials across the world.  The ones he showed me had only a couple of tweets each and, at most, hundreds of followers. Right now, they’re not fooling very many people, if they’re fooling anyone. But their potential to do so, under the right circumstances, remains.

He has had a few minor successes with Americans, particularly as President Trump announced his Cabinet picks. He set up @officialWLRoss for Wilbur Ross, now the commerce secretary. The account was tagged in multiple tweets from verified accounts that should have known better (the account is now suspended, and Ross has since joined Twitter as @WilburRoss).

“It’s so interesting for me to discover personalities that are not on Twitter and create an account,” Debenedetti said. “I did something similar in 2012 with a Philip Roth account and in 2013 with a Bob Dylan account. And last summer with Don DeLillo.” What makes these choices amusing for him is the distance his subjects keep, in reality, from the social media platform. As the New Republic wrote in its debunk of his DeLillo hoax, “Don DeLillo isn’t on Twitter and will never be on Twitter.” Same with Paglia and Franzen.

Internet hoaxes and fake news suddenly became a major, general-interest issue since the last time Debenedetti spoke with us at any length about what he does. So I wanted to know whether he felt any good or bad had come out of that collective panic about misinformation on the Web. He said: “The war against fake news is a good idea, but the reality of social media will remain the same.”

“Social media and fake news are the same thing, but now some people believe that social media are more reliable, believe that the war against fake news is successful, and the effect is that more people is fooled by hoaxes,” Debenedetti said in his email. “It’s incredible, but the war against fake news is a real opportunity for hoaxers.”