How Misinformation Spreads

What a too-good-too-be-true story shows us about the modern news business.

False information about Greta Thunberg and Andrew Tate.
Image created by Ben Dreyfus

In the closing days of 2022, there was an amazing case of instant karma. The former kickboxer, alleged sex abuser and human trafficker, alt-right celebrity, and alpha-male inspiration for a lot of sad people Andrew Tate decided, out of nowhere, to go after Greta Thunberg on Twitter. It was an exchange that did not go well for him.

The saying goes that if you come at the King (or in this case Queen) you better not miss. Thunberg immediately proved this saying true with her response:

yes, please do enlighten me. email me at sm*************@ge******.com

https://twitter.com/GretaThunberg/status/1608056944501178368?cxt=HHwWgIC-ua3R-9AsAAAA

This “clap back” (as I am told the kids call it these days) immediately set Twitter on fire. It took Tate about 24 hours to respond, posting a 2-minute video of himself, in a smoking jacket and with a stack of pizza boxes in the foreground, basically saying “I’m not a loser, you’re the loser.”

People who care about being alpha males declared victory and this is where the entire thing should have ended. Instead, this is where the story takes a turn to the weird.

Less than 24 hours after posting his response to Thunberg, Tate and his brother, were arrested by authorities in Romania, where they were staying, on charges of sex trafficking. How did Romanian officials track down Tate (who they apparently had been planning to arrest for a while)? According to news organizations on Twitter, it was because of the feud with Thunberg:

This story quickly spread and was covered by a LOT of news outlets including the Daily Beast and the New York Post. It was the perfect story, a literal case of Instant Karma. Even Thunberg herself got in on the action, pushing the knife in a little deeper by tweeting:

(note to self: never feud on Twitter with Thunberg)

The only problem… like most too-good-to-be-true stories, it wasn’t true. The first person I read who pointed this out was independent journalist Ben Dreyfuss. In fact, Dreyfuss went so far as to post a really wonderful, publicly available substack post detailing the entire affair-de-pizza-box. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. For the tl;dr types, here’s the key part:

No Romanian journalist reported that the cops found him because of a pizza box in a reply to Greta Thunberg.

But there are lots of stories in the US and Britain claiming that. Why? Well, they’re all basically citing each other. But if you dig through the citations you eventually come to the Daily Star which cites an American Twitter account.

“According to Alejandra Caraballo, a writer and clinical instructor posting on Twitter: “Romanian authorities needed proof that Andrew Tate was in the country so they reportedly used his social media posts.”

Its source is a Romanian newspaper article that I linked to above.

It does not say that at all. At least not in the Google Translated English version. 

What it says is:

Sources close to the investigation stated, for Gândul , that shortly after the completion of the computer expertise, the authorities waited for the right moment to catch the Tate brothers, who were always out of the country.

After seeing, including on social networks, that they were together in Romania, the DIICOT prosecutors mobilized the special troops of the Gendarmerie and descended, by force, on their villa in Pipera, but also on other addresses.

Unless Google is missing some Romanian language nuance, this sentence does not say that the police were tipped off by a social media post to his whereabouts, let alone that it was by his video with Greta Thunberg. It says they confirmed it in multiple ways at least some of which involved social media.

This makes sense if you think about it for five seconds. Andrew Tate owns a house in Romania. (It was searched earlier this year as part of a related investigation into sex trafficking.) Like other countries in the world, I imagine the Romanian police know how to check credit card purchases and flight records and train passenger manifests and they probably knew when Tate was in Romania. 

Dreyfuss goes on from there to unpack things further and ultimately turn this into an excellent media critique:

I am prone to defending journalists when they fuck up because I’m a journalist, or at least I was, and I know how easy it is to fuck up. And I guess I still have some sympathy here because these writers were on a deadline and moving fast, but it doesn’t take a lot of work to see that this Greta angle, which is tantalizingly clicky, is bullshit. It took me 8 minutes or so on my iPad. 

And like thousands of people online who read about this today, my initial instinct wasn’t to dig into it. It was to take the Daily Beast’s word for it. Only prompted by a follower with a conspiracy theory did I think to look further. 

And that’s how misinformation spreads.

It’s not all nefarious. It’s not all disinformation.

I am very much on Team Dreyfuss here. First of all, tweets like the one from Pop Base and stories like the NY Post one, are still available and are telling the disproven story. But, more importantly, from a “news business” perspective, this entire story highlights the issue of shrinking newsrooms and the loss of investigative reporting I was writing about here last month.

In my posts on George Santos, both the initial and the follow-up one, I argued that one of the reasons that it took so long to reveal his lies was that they were not reported on by the right paper. While a local weekly newspaper had discovered irregularities in Santos’s backstory, no one from other news organizations was apparently reading them. As a result, things went unnoticed until the New York Times report, and then everyone jumped on the investigation.

The Tate/Thunberg story was one that media folks were following and covering due to the original exchange. So the moment that news of Tate’s arrest hit, outlets were there to keep the story going, looking for any scrap of information. And due to their interdependence on each other’s reporting, the moment one outlet decided to run with Alejandra Caraballo’s tweet, the rest followed suit.

As Dreyfuss said, this wasn’t for nefarious reasons or a desire to mislead. And still, the results of the various structural constraints on newsrooms (not to mention the speed of the media they are using to circulate reportage) led to the spread of misinformation.

And that remains a big issue we are going to continue to live with–leading to critical stories being missed (in the case of Santos) or misinformation being spread (in the case of Tate).

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Crime, Entertainment, Law and the Courts, Media, Popular Culture, , , , , , , , ,
Matt Bernius
About Matt Bernius
Matt Bernius is a design researcher working to create more equitable government systems and experiences. He's currently a Principal User Researcher on Code for America's "GetCalFresh" program, helping people apply for SNAP food benefits in California. Prior to joining CfA, he worked at Measures for Justice and at Effective, a UX agency. Matt has an MA from the University of Chicago.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The reason the “sources” all cite each other is that very few news outlets have investigators any more. Most are just repeating news distributors like the Associated Press or Reuters with very little real reporting going on.

    I don’t actually fault them for it but we should understand that’s what today’s “news” is.

    ReplyReply
    17
  2. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:
    I completely agree Dave. That was a point I explored more in those other two posts.

    And like most newspapers, Newsday’s staff has been shrinking for decades. As far as I can tell they only have one or two reporters dedicated to Nassau county politics. And, in addition to covering the Congressional District, those two reporters are also expected to cover the County government (including the Executive and Legislature) as well as local governments in the county’s two cities, three townships, and sixty-four incorporated villages.

    All of this means that the Newsday Nassau County political staff necessarily needs to go after “low hanging fruit”–stories that lend themselves to the pressures of feeding the beast: writing a set number of articles a day or week. This is not an environment that allows most reporters the time to make those calls or do the type of desk research that’s necessary to uncover the type of facts we have seen in the Santos case.

    And I think I should be connected those dots a little more directly in this article… so I’ll go back and add that into the main body.

    ReplyReply
    2
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    And why journalism today has become some guy/gal sitting in their apartment publishing ‘news’ on the internet. Few if any, news organizations maintain national, and international bureaus that are staffed and covering a region. The BBC and NYT’s are two that I can think of, but there maybe others. Some have developed relationships with reliable ‘stringers,’ many of whom are well established, knowledgeable and reliable, independent, reporters. NPR is a good example of that.

    But there continues to be a shrinkage in the number of on-site reporters for events throughout the world, with that reporters, reporting be disseminated through multiple outlets.

    ReplyReply
    3
  4. grumpy realist says:

    The spreading-like-wildfire is also because the reinterpreted story is so good. It’s one of those stories that even if it isn’t true, sounds like it should be true.

    Don’t be an ass and people won’t be so inclined to spread stories showing that you got instant karma. I predict that no matter how many earnest stories correctors-of-the-press put out, “Andrew Tate finally captured via un-recycled pizza box when attempting to be a brat against Greta Thunberg” is a meme that will never die.

    ReplyReply
    5
  5. Kathy says:

    @grumpy realist:

    The odds that a criminal under police investigation who is also a social media troll, would be taken down by the cops shortly after a trolling bout are like sky high. If sportsbooks took bets like this, they’d offer a $100 payoff on a $250 bet.

    So the Instant Karma(TM) was kind of baked in.

    As to misinformation, people tend to remember the first thing they hear or read, even after being corrected. Sometimes even if the correction happens right away. It takes an effort to mark the first erroneous info as erroneous, and supplant it with the correct info.

    ReplyReply
    1
  6. Modulo Myself says:

    But the story has stopped spreading. Misinformation is what happens when a story is disproved and then keeps on going and going and going. What happened here is that social media does not favor thinking in private for a few days and then writing, and the NYPost has never favored thinking at all, so the story ends up going viral before anyone has looked into it. And given what Andrew Tate looks and acts like most people, without thinking (especially if they had no idea who he was beforehand) would laugh their asses off at the idea that he gave up his location with a pizza box in a tweet aimed at proving he wasn’t at all affected after being owned by a teenager. Then they would think about it and say wait a minute. Social media doesn’t favor that impulse.

    Also, the guy has been accused of sex trafficking, and it seems pretty credible. (Oddly, Tucker Carlson thinks he’s a great guy. Go figure!) The pizza box story is the least of his problems.

    More importantly, there’s no market for actual investigative journalism. It requires money and long periods of work. That’s why Substack types make their money from screaming about the liberals and social media. You can do that daily, weekly, monthly. The old model of long-form investigative journalism was the Shawn-era New Yorker, and they were basically subsidizing their writers in hopes of getting a piece or two a year.

    ReplyReply
    4
  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    Or basically. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    ReplyReply
    3
  8. Andy says:

    In my former profession, we called this “circular reporting.” It’s a sign of laziness, a lack of analytical skill, and a lack of professionalism. That the journalism profession doesn’t seem to care about such errors is very telling – and this isn’t the first one.

    I’ll just repeat my jeremiad against Twitter. It’s a mind cancer that has turned much of journalism into a high school clique where status-seeking is paramount. Look at what it’s done to its new owner.

    As for Santos, it wasn’t just a problem with bad journalism, although the various problems and defects of contemporary journalism is an important aspect. We could perhaps expect, given the state of the GoP, that the party did not do any due diligence in vetting the candidate, but it’s also weird that the Democrats apparently did no opposition research. It’s not like Santos’s lies were cleverly hidden. Instead of pouring money into the black hole of the Val Demmings campaign, they could have spent a tiny part of that learning about and exposing Santos.

    This is just another example of something frequently discussed here – how weak parties are as institutions.

    ReplyReply
    4
  9. Jen says:

    I’d also point out that since “including social media” was listed as *a* factor (and not *the* factor), the story is likely not completely false, but does not rise to the level of the legend.

    Authorities have a bunch of information and then use elements at their disposal including, say, watching his cell phone and see a public post that matches up, and can say definitively “that’s our guy” is not the same as “hey, aren’t those local pizza boxes? Let’s go get him!” But, it does use his stupid decision to post publicly.

    In short, ill-timed and ill-considered social media posts do contain useful information for authorities. Just ask the Russian soldier who left geotagging on his photos.

    ReplyReply
    3
  10. Jen says:

    @Andy:

    “…but it’s also weird that the Democrats apparently did no opposition research. It’s not like Santos’s lies were cleverly hidden. Instead of pouring money into the black hole of the Val Demmings campaign, they could have spent a tiny part of that learning about and exposing Santos….”

    I have said repeatedly that the Democratic candidate in that district failed miserably at doing basic campaign 101, so I’m in agreement on the failure to do opposition research.

    However, it is not the fault of the national committee, nor the DSCC, or even the Democratic House Campaign Committee. It is the responsibility of each individual campaign to do their OWN opposition research.

    I cannot emphasize this enough, and I get that most people have not directly worked on campaigns, but it needs to be understood–national committees don’t do this type of scut work on a regular basis. They don’t have the resources or the personnel to research every opponent (this is most certainly true in Republican politics, where I have ancient but actual experience).

    ReplyReply
    4
  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    In fact, Dreyfuss went so far as to post a really wonderful, publicly available substack post detailing the entire affair-de-pizza-box.

    Can we call it “The Dreyfuss Affair”? 😉

    ReplyReply
    1
  12. Scott F. says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Also, the guy has been accused of sex trafficking, and it seems pretty credible. … The pizza box story is the least of his problems.

    This needs to be stressed. The Tate pizza box story strikes me as much less as a case of misinformation than a case of missing the point.

    And Greta owned the guy with her first clap back , so the back and forth that followed with the pizza box video was merely post-mortem twitching.

    ReplyReply
    2
  13. Matt Bernius says:

    @Andy & @Jen:
    As I brought up in my Santos follow-up one thing that came up in the aftermath of the NY Times story was a number of political researchers calling the Democrats out on their bias towards funding polls instead of research (even at the local candidate level). As I said at the time, while I cannot verify if that is the case or not, it generally struck me as feeling like it’s probably true.

    ReplyReply
    1
  14. Mikey says:

    I was afraid it was too good to be true.

    The timing was still exquisite, though.

    ReplyReply
  15. de stijl says:

    I used to date a reporter for the Des Moines Register (the only daily in town and by far the biggest paper in the state).

    This was in 2007-2008. I knew her for probably six months before we started dating. We hung out at the same places and ran into each other constantly. Mainly at The Royal Mile and Java Joe’s.

    Her beat was local politics. This was when newsroom winnowing and outright gutting was happening – the Gannett-ification of local newspapers. She was spead ludicrously thin. A few years back the local politics beat would have been four or five reporters. In 2007, after the Gannett buy-out, it was her alone. She was it. She even pitched in on police beat stories because they’d understaffed that radically.

    BTW, a reporter job at the DM Register is a plum gig. Every four years big name reporters show up en masse to report on the lead up to the Iowa Caucases. Every morning they read the Register. Every day big name rockstar reporters hit up the local reporters for contacts / tips / leads. It is utter mayhem. A sea of speculation disguised as reporting.

    I got to know her boss who was an old school curmudgeonly cuss. He was a hoot! A perpetually pissed off guy. He was fucking awesome!

    The downsizing of the newsroom came to a head for her. San Diego folks were offering better money and a better job. She took it. Good on her!

    BTW, reporters get paid shitty money for the work they do. Like, shockingly low.

    ReplyReply
    1
  16. Jen says:

    @Matt Bernius: Ah, I’d missed your Santos follow-up piece (holidays were busy).

    What is interesting to me is Judd Legum’s observation that this research is considered entry-level by the Democrats. As I noted, my campaign experience is on the other side, and there are entire firms built up around sophisticated and detailed opposition research. Republicans do prioritize this, and even if the basic research is considered a slog, it’s a high priority. And candidates frequently invest a considerable amount of money in it.

    ReplyReply
  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    Good story. A great example of how stuff spreads.

    AND, I keep wondering, “Who is this Andrew Tate character? Should I know? Should I care? It doesn’t seem like it… Also, why is a guy with an English name living in Romania?”

    ReplyReply
    1
  18. JohnSF says:

    “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”

    ReplyReply
    1
  19. Andy says:

    @Jen:

    Thanks for sharing that detail – I do not know much about such things.

    But as an outsider, it really seems crazy to me. You have parts of the party pouring buckets of money into hopeless campaigns, while basic stuff is neglected or is completely left up to the candidate. I’m ignorant of political campaigns, but it just seems obvious to me that they should rest on a foundation of polling data to understand where the electorate is as well as opposition research to understand what an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses are.

    @Jay L Gischer:

    AND, I keep wondering, “Who is this Andrew Tate character? Should I know? Should I care? It doesn’t seem like it… Also, why is a guy with an English name living in Romania?”

    I had never heard of him before all these stories came out. That’s another problem with the journalist high-school clique on Twitter. No one outside of Twitter addicts and political hobbyists gives one single fuck about a Twitter spat or takedown. In terms of the real world, such things are completely inconsequential. Yet they get “reported” as news and often misreported, which just boosts the stupid even more. But I guess it gets clicks which seems to be what a lot of journalism prioritizes at this point.

    ReplyReply
    3
  20. Jen says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    @Andy:

    The only reason I have an even passing knowledge of who he is is that I’ve done work that requires some global/UK-based media review. He used to be all over the tabloids there.

    There are plenty of “internet famous” people who are covered far more extensively by the British tabloids than US-based media. I vaguely recall some legal spat between two footballer’s wives that was everywhere over there. I couldn’t tell you their names if my life depended on it, but I’m guessing that the average Londoner would know.

    ReplyReply
    2
  21. Matt Bernius says:

    @Jen:

    What is interesting to me is Judd Legum’s observation that this research is considered entry-level by the Democrats. As I noted, my campaign experience is on the other side, and there are entire firms built up around sophisticated and detailed opposition research. Republicans do prioritize this, and even if the basic research is considered a slog, it’s a high priority. And candidates frequently invest a considerable amount of money in it.

    Someone said exactly that in one of the conversations that were built off of Legum’s initial tweets. It’s a fascinating difference between the two parties. And I honestly don’t see that changing any time soon.

    ReplyReply
    1
  22. JohnSF says:

    @Andy:
    I’m fairly sure I came across something re. Tate a few years back in an English newspaper.
    Probably The Times Saturday edition, or The Sunday Times; I often get those in print.
    Nasty little sh!t; dodgy family background; martial arts fighter; quite smart; reputedly “criminal adjacent”; half Brit/half American; got onto a UK “reality TV” show Big Brother in 2016.
    Not come across the name since AFAICR since; until the twitterstorm re. Thunberg.

    Anyway, never mind Thunberg (though it’s still hilarious).
    What Tate may really come to regret is making a video saying he moved to Romania because it’s police and legal system was more “accessibly corrupt”.
    Oopsie.

    (Personally betting Romanian police keep asking him if he’d like a pizza)

    ReplyReply
    2
  23. Modulo Myself says:

    I suspect that handing off op research to entry-level staff would not get you the ability to verify employment at, say, Goldman Sachs. Maybe I’m wrong–but companies don’t voluntarily give info. They would to a reporter if there’s a story, but some 20-something calling from a random candidate’s office in Long Island? Who would they even call, unless a higher-up in the party gave them a contact?

    They should have caught him on twitter lying about his mom dying. That was a direct contradiction and should have been the aha moment re: the rest of his lies. But most opposition research looks for bad things, not banalities about mom which are contradicted later on.

    ReplyReply
  24. Gustopher says:

    Given all the other wildly false things people believe in — angels, fairies, the laffer curve, the goodness in the hearts of man — I’m going to keep believing this. It’s harmless, and it makes the world a better place.

    What’s the point of living in a post-Truth society if you don’t enjoy it?

    ReplyReply
    3
  25. MarkedMan says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Maybe I’m wrong–but companies don’t voluntarily give info

    I can’t speak for Goldman Sachs but any company I’ve ever worked for will confirm employment for a former or current employee with just a phone call to HR. It’s part of a standard reference check for former employees and lenders also do it to confirm current employment when you are applying for a loan.

    ReplyReply
    2
  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF:

    (Personally betting Romanian police keep asking him if he’d like a pizza)

    And then telling him he can’t have one if he says “yes?”

    ReplyReply
    1
  27. Modulo Myself says:

    @MarkedMan:

    But they have the consent of the employee or the applicant, I think. I just looked through old emails and saw a form with the last four digits of an SSN and the employee’s signature asking for verification.

    A random person asking might be a different story. For example, it could be someone stalking that employee.

    ReplyReply
    1
  28. Thomm says:

    @MarkedMan: yup. As I said before, a car/truck buyer with bad credit gets more vetting by a lender and originating dealership than was done here. Hell, the big 3 would have caught this guy out (job verification, address verification, and income verification). It’s kind of a disgrace to be honest.

    ReplyReply
    1
  29. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    And then telling him he can’t have one

    As if they’d be so uncivil. 😉

    I mean, I would, but as is well known, I’m an evil-minded bastard at the best of times. 🙂
    “More stale garlic bread, Mr. Tate? Eat up, it’s good for you.”

    ReplyReply
  30. Modulo Myself says:

    @Thomm:

    But you have to consent to have your credit run and have your income verified. The bigger tell should have been that he doesn’t appear to own any property. Someone supposedly rich should have had his name down somewhere—especially if he lived in NYC. Granted he could have said it was only owned property through LLCs, but that opens up another avenue of inquiry.

    The thing is that he is a con man who was broke. But at a certain point he went from stiffing roommates and living in a dump in Queens to appearing rich enough so that more money could flow into his campaign, which he then used to appear richer. The con started with however he got people to give him money, and you have to wonder exactly how that happened.

    ReplyReply
  31. Monala says:

    @Andy: Santos’s opponent Robert Zimmerman and the DCCC did do opposition research, but they had a hard time getting anyone’s attention:

    It’s hard to fully comprehend what went wrong for Democrats in this race. Zimmerman raised slightly more than Santos did. The Democrat did spend a total of $22,000 over three payments on Deep Dive Political Research, an opposition research firm, per FEC filings. (This organization did not respond to a Vanity Fair interview request.) Local news organizations did raise questions in their coverage of Santos. One column in The North Shore Leader noted the eye-popping increase in Santos’s net worth from less than $5,000 to more than $11 million over a period of two short years. The piece even quoted an anonymous Republican leader as saying, “Are we being played as extras in ‘The Talented Mr. Santos’?” And the DCCC’s research memo on Santos outlined many of the allegations made in the Times report. … Zimmerman says his campaign “was unrelenting in getting people’s attention” but that, ultimately, “I think part of the problem, quite frankly, was everyone saw this as not a competitive seat. They didn’t see the Republican tidal wave coming in New York, and so they didn’t focus on the race.”

    link

    ReplyReply
    2
  32. Monala says:

    @Jen: his opponent did do opposition research. See my reply to Andy.

    ReplyReply
  33. Monala says:

    @Modulo Myself: the Netflix series “Inventing Anna” tells the story of the fraudster Anna Delvey, who convinced quite a few wealthy people to give her lots of money.

    ReplyReply
  34. Modulo Myself says:

    @Monala:

    I know who Delvey is. I didn’t watch the series but I remember when she was busted. But it doesn’t seem like Santos was spending the money which was supposedly his. He lived in a dump in Queens and yet somehow was loaning his campaign 700K.

    I think there’s something else going on with Santos. He’s a con man and a front who was following orders.

    ReplyReply
    2
  35. Jen says:

    @Monala: Then his campaign didn’t use it correctly.

    Having a trove of opposition research that is that rich and not having it land is an error in strategy and tactics.

    This:

    Zimmerman says his campaign “was unrelenting in getting people’s attention” but that, ultimately, “I think part of the problem, quite frankly, was everyone saw this as not a competitive seat. They didn’t see the Republican tidal wave coming in New York, and so they didn’t focus on the race.”

    …is a bit hard to buy into. Republicans did do better in New York than expected, but if Zimmerman was “unrelenting in getting people’s attention,” what, exactly, was he putting in front of them if all of this is a surprise?

    If it was just a surprise to people outside of the district, that’s one thing. It happens all the time because who TF cares what’s going on in another district if you can’t vote there? But if this information was a surprise to the people IN the district after the election, that means Zimmerman was either using the wrong channels, or not spending his money wisely.

    ReplyReply
    1
  36. Modulo Myself says:

    @Jen:

    I think there are 2 stories here. One is that he’s a pathological liar. The campaign didn’t seem to get him on the fact that nothing about his life was true. Two is the money, and they were on the trail there. There’s obviously something very fishy about this guy’s alleged wealth. Politicians might be corrupt, but this is a different beast. This is like a guy the mob finds to be the name on a company.

    And yeah, lots of people saw the NY tidal wave coming. Some NY Democrats were actually, in my opinion, hoping for a red wave, because they all saw that as a way to get Cuomo back in. Hilariously, the party they set up lost the House for the Dems.

    Santos’ money seems to be traced to Florida and a bunch of sleazy yacht/insurance fraud types, and I wonder how deep DeSantis is with them.

    ReplyReply
    1

Speak Your Mind

*