It's important to distinguish between wacky media outlets ("Did Elvis Join The Taliban? Yes, Says Bigfoot") and reliable mainstream news ("Experts Question Bigfoot's Elvis Theory"). The latter are supposed to do some double-checking whenever a guy in a powdered wig claims to have invented a time machine. But every so often, something like The Wall Street Journal will throw everything to the wind and publish an exclusive interview with Ben Franklin, Chrono-Lord. That may seem cartoonish, but the real failures of the media get even stupider than that. Look at how ...
Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari was a Syrian-American woman who started a blog about life as a lesbian in Syria. And as her country collapsed into civil war, her posts began to attract media attention. She did interviews with major outlets like the Associated Press, while The Guardian declared her a "heroine of the Syrian revolt," and a reporter prepared to put themselves "at personal risk" trying to arrange a face-to-face interview. CNN even published an interview in which Amina claimed Syria was undergoing a "sea change" on gay rights, in contrast to every other Syrian it quoted.
But tragedy struck when Amina was abducted by government thugs. This turned her story into worldwide news, covered by giants like The New York Times, the BBC, The Atlantic, Daily Beast, and Al Jazeera. Which turned out to be the last thing Amina wanted, since she was in truth a 40-year-old white American man named Tom MacMaster. Don't you hate it when you're going about life as a gay girl in Damascus, happen to glance at a mirror, and realize you've been in Wilco the whole time?
MacMaster was a failed novelist who claimed he adopted the Amina persona so people would take him seriously when he got into online arguments about Syria. It's kind of like how Martin Shkreli turned out to be a 12-year-old from Iowa who got into cryptocurrency flame wars. MacMaster started blogging as Amina to "improve [his] creative writing ability." He improved so much that he was trying to sell the rights to Amina's "autobiography" when the hoax fell apart. Critics said the book was riddled with racist stereotypes, as well as an unnecessary number of explicit sex scenes. It's also unclear why improving his writing required starting an online relationship with a woman in Canada.
One of the first outlets to feature "Amina's" writing was a popular lesbian news site called Lez Get Real, which was run by a deaf lesbian woman named Paula Brooks, whom MacMaster publicly apologized to. Except the post-hoax scrutiny revealed that Brooks was another straight man named Bill Graber, who had also been pretending to be a lesbian (the fake deafness was to dodge interviews). Graber said he invented Paula because "I thought people wouldn't take it seriously, me being a straight man." Hard to argue with that, given that "it" refers to a lesbian website.
James Scott ran a cybersecurity think tank called ICIT, which stands for something far too boring to spell out. In 2018, BuzzFeed noticed that he seemed to get a lot of love, with YouTube and Instagram comments like "I'm completely floored by how brilliant he is ... This man is without a doubt the most dangerous man on the planet" and "It breaks my heart to see the anguish and pain in James' face. The pressure he is under, I can only imagine; Advising to the White House for the past three polar opposite administrations, CIA, MI6, NSA ... the things he must know, the secrets he keeps."
The accounts providing him with thousands of retweets also spammed memes of his quotes, complete with dramatic black-and-white photos of the man. So who was this mysterious super genius? And why did he look like a bankrupt life coach who tries to start conversations in Starbucks by claiming he could have been in P.O.D. if he'd wanted?
The publicity helped ICIT get taken seriously in Washington, where top military officials attended conferences that introduced Scott as "one of the guys that's in there at the highest levels of the government advising on these issues." A retired general and NSA head gave testimonials for his website, which was also incoherently raving against the "Corporate Nation State censorship collective." Even NASA was lining up to hear what he had to say -- even though, again, he was an unqualified idiot with delusions of grandeur. Go ahead and insert the Trump joke of your choice here.
In December 2015, writer Rachel Brewson published a personal essay on xoJane wherein the self-described "giant liberal" explained how she "had the best sex of [her] life" with a hardline Republican named Todd. Now, that might sound suspicious, since no one in history has ever had sex with a man named Todd, but she published a follow-up a few months later. It described how their relationship had floundered over Donald Trump, and then how they dramatically broke up at a party where he called Clinton supporters "ugly feminazis."
The two pieces gained significant media attention, because surely by mid-2016, there was nothing more important to report on. Rachel and Todd even did a sit-down interview on Nightline to discuss their relationship, as couples who dramatically break up love to do.
Slight problem: Rachel Brewson wasn't a real person. She was a fake writer created by an all-male internet marketing team to promote a website called Review Weekly, which cycled through a variety of shady monetization scams. ABC interviewing her was like if Meet The Press sat down with the one woman dermatologists hate, or if Barbara Walters interviewed horny singles in your area.
Review Weekly was owned by Charlie Katz, who made his fortune running a Nevada moving company so dodgy that he was once questioned by the Senate. Katz hired a team of the sleaziest marketing guys this side of a Juul commercial. They initially relied on paid affiliate traffic to boost the site, but somewhere along the way, they decided to create Brewson and other fake writers to drive "free traffic."
The "Review Weekly staff writers" would write guest pieces for sites like Thought Catalog and Elite Daily while aggressively linking back to Review Weekly. xoJane was supposed to be a step above those outlets, and Nightline is supposed to be an entire ladder above them, but neither noticed that "Rachel Brewson" used author photos of two different people on the two essays. The person who appeared on TV was an actress hired for the occasion, and "Todd" was just someone's brother -- not even an actual Todd!
In an interview with Jezebel, Brewson's unrepentant creator insisted that he wasn't fooling "real people who matter," and claimed that he has other fake characters still active on the internet. And we'd look into that, but we just landed a big interview with the woman who runs Yemen's hottest gay bar.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Dodgers were for sale, and based on his many media appearances, it seemed Josh Macciello was a top bidder. On ESPN Radio, LA's most popular sports hosts assured their listeners that Macciello had provided proof that he owned $20 billion in gold mines. One of them literally said, "It's not a hoax. Believe me, this guy doesn't get on the air without passing a vetting process. We're not gonna risk our reputations." Well there was no way that statement could come back to haunt anyone.
In reality, anyone who has ever been sneezed on by a Migo owns more gold than Macciello. An LA Weekly investigation revealed that his billions in "mines" amounted to a one-page estimate of how much some gold sands might be worth. It was provided by a Portland real estate appraiser, even though checking attics for mold is a skill that doesn't really translate to large-scale mining evaluations. Oh, and minor detail, but that appraisal was supplied to the owner of the sands, who was a reclusive sovereign citizen type who was definitely not named Josh Macciello.
We should point out that this video was posted by Macciello, who we're getting the impression may be a tad into himself.
Macciello apparently got a copy of the paperwork while trying to scam the owner, then used it as evidence he was a serious bidder. The not-so-artful dodger later switched to claiming that the deal would be funded by $10 billion sitting in a Hong Kong bank account. But those documents had been nabbed from Michael Jackson's disgraced former financial manager, who was apparently using them in an entirely different shady scheme to solve the world's energy crisis by zapping human sewage with electricity.
So that's all very weird, but the point is that Macciello, a random nobody, got huge amounts of press simply by emailing the media and saying he was going to buy a MLB team. ESPN sent a reporter to his house, who noted it was unimpressive, but somehow concluded "In other towns, with other social graces, someone who has hit it as big as Macciello claims he has might show off a little more. Something sprawling with a big fountain out front. But in Los Angeles, those that have the most to spend generally tend to stay out of view." Sure, like how David Geffen lives in the Rowland Heights Motel 6, and Michael Eisner sleeps in local libraries and showers at the Y. Sadly, Macciello was exposed before he was able to scam himself into the MLB owner's club, because baseball's rules ban any truly hilarious shenanigans.
In 1905, Japan crushed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. The cruiser Dmitrii Donskoi escaped and fled north, pursued by Japanese battleships, until the captain deliberately sank the ship somewhere off Korea. Skip ahead to 2018, when South Korea's Shinil Group announced they had discovered the wreck, releasing underwater footage to prove it. Even better, the ship had apparently been carrying a fortune in gold, worth up to $133 billion today. It sounded like the setup for a Clive Cussler novel, except it became a worldwide sensation even among people other than middle-aged uncles. It was taken at face value by major outlets like Newsweek, CNBC, The Independent, and UPI.
Then Shinil, which had only been incorporated a month before, started selling a cryptocurrency backed by the value of the gold they'd supposedly found. Thousands of people rushed to buy millions in crypto. At this point, we'd like to pause and admire the sheer imagination of the guy who, when surveying the myriad cryptocurrency grifts across the web, thought "These need more sunken tsarist treasure!"
Shinil Group was of course a fraud that hadn't discovered anything. There's also no evidence that the Dmitrii Donskoi was carrying any gold, because why would anyone ever say "Before we send this ship to do battle on the high seas, let's load 200 tons of our nation's wealth on board"? Did Russian soldiers march into World War I with Faberge eggs instead of grenades? Should the opening of Enemy At The Gates have included the line "We only have one rifle for every two of you, so everyone else just throw these Ilya Repin paintings at the enemy"?
But wait, it gets dumber! The shipwreck had already been found back in 2003. And this wasn't even the first time someone has pulled this kind of scam! In 2000, a South Korean construction company was about to go bankrupt, so desperate executives claimed they'd found the ship, sending their stock price skyrocketing. Apparently, if you're ever in financial trouble in South Korea, you can just shout "I found Rasputin's jewels!" to buy yourself some time.
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