Feb 2, 2021 - Economy & Business

Journalist identities hijacked to spread fake news

Illustration of a microphone with a fingerprint at the top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Bad actors are hijacking journalist names, photos and bylines to help give credibility to fake storylines or hoaxes on the internet.

Why it matters: Even when platforms try to police this type of content, memes and fake stories often still circulate indefinitely, making it hard for victims to fully recover from the hoax.

Driving the news: Joe Gould, a Congress and Industry reporter for Defense News, tells Axios about how his identity was hacked to fuel a right-wing meme conspiracy that the incoming Defense Secretary planned to outsource U.S. defense systems to China.

  • Gould received more than five dozen emails last weekend asking him if a meme that featured an article with his byline on Telegram was really written by him. It wasn't.
"My credibility as a journalist was hijacked."
— Gould

Gould later found that the meme was rapidly spreading on bigger platforms like Facebook. Frantically, he started to search for the meme using key words noted in the fake article and to contact people who posted it to try to get them to take it down.

  • Many were distraught that they had been duped and grateful to Joe for reaching out. "People were thanking me for good journalism," Gould said. "People out there just want the truth."
  • Eventually, Defense News’ lawyers contacted Facebook. The tech giant did try to take the memes down, but many are still floating around the platform. Some are labeled and others are not.

The big picture: These types of identity hacks have become more common in recent years. As tech companies get better at detecting fake accounts, bad actors have to hijack real identities to give disinformation legitimacy and to avoid detection.

  • A New York Post reporter had his identity hijacked last month. It was used to tweet out pro-Iranian regime propaganda from a fake Twitter handle, per The Daily Beast.
  • Twitter suspended the account, which tweeted a mix of the reporter's real articles on Iran with the propaganda to better disguise the malpractice.

Between the lines: Gould tells Axios that it's been nearly impossible to get the meme wiped off the internet, especially as it continues to pick up steam on less visible channels like Telegram, where the virality seemed to take off.

  • The origin of the meme is still unknown. But the theme that the Biden administration is secretly helping to aid China is a theme that's tied to fringe-right misinformation circles during the election.

Be smart: The democratization of the web means that any bad actor has the power to completely shift a narrative, or wreck a person's reputation, with a single meme.

  • The vulnerability of big internet platforms to be weaponized to spread such falsehoods, after they are typically seeded on less visible channels, is a problem that Silicon Valley hasn't fully figured out. But platforms like Facebook are trying to get ahead of it by asking journalists to register for additional account protections.

The trend also represents a misguided fear around things like deep fakes. Situations like these support data that shows that the vast majority of misinformation and disinformation don't involve manipulated media, but rather, manipulated context.

The bottom line: Anyone with perceived institutional expertise is a target, especially journalists and commentators, or even academics and researchers.

  • "We weren't ready for it," says Gould. "We probably need to take a step back and ask 'How do we handle this if it happens again?"

Go deeper: Election influence operations target journalists

Go deeper