Russia's answer to ‘The Onion’ A team of satirists embraces ‘fake news,’ taking far too many journalists along for the ride
In late June and early July, the Russian media started buzzing with an unusual number of especially bizarre stories. One day, foreigners were being lured into a fake Lenin mausoleum. Another day, a pharmacist was caught poking holes in the condoms sold to tourists. The source of these wild tales turned out to be a fake news website that calls itself the Panorama news agency. Over the past six months, it’s established itself as Russia's very own The Onion.
Panorama appeared in late 2017, though its editors would have you believe the agency was launched in 1822 “as the personal courier-news service of Count Sheremet von Rabinovich.” The real founders, who have authored some of Panorama’s most popular fake stories, hide behind the pseudonyms Boris Gontermakher and Vitaly Mann.
On June 27, the Kremlin-supported television network Russia Today ran a story claiming that Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblowing former director of Russia’s national anti-doping lab, had tried to kill himself. In the report, RT cited its own Telegram channel, which in turn quoted the vice president of the Russian division of the International Committee for Human Rights Protections, Alexander Ionov, who supposedly got the information from colleagues in the United States.
Reports about Rodchenkov’s supposed suicide attempt spread rapidly across the Russian media, showing up on news websites and TV channels. The country’s two main networks, Pervyi Kanal and Rossiya 1, both aired segments about it. A few hours later, however, Rodchenkov’s lawyer, Jim Walden, denied the story completely. RT then acknowledged: “It appears Ionov’s statements were unfounded.”
Internet users soon discovered that Ionov’s comments repeated details from a story titled “Rodchenkov Hospitalized With Nervous Breakdown,” written by Boris Gontmakher and published on Panorama on June 19. Both Ionov’s remarks and Gontmakher’s story claimed that Rodchenkov had been found unconscious next to six empty boxes of sedatives, before paramedics supposedly brought him to a psychiatric ward.
On July 2, Gontmakher wrote about a pharmacist in Nizhny Novgorod who was allegedly fired for selling pierced condoms to soccer fans visiting from abroad. A few local publications picked up the story, and so did several major outlets like Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, and Life. Part of the reason so many journalists believed the report was the website Bloknot’s decision to repost the original story without a hyperlink to Panorama’s satire disclaimer.
Vitaly Mann, another Panorama author, wrote on June 4 about scammers who supposedly brought foreign tourists to a fake Lenin’s mausoleum rigged up in a rented Moscow apartment. The story made the rounds on social media and joke websites, but a day later the news agency TASS decided for some reason to refute the report, citing an anonymous source in the police department.
Gontmakher told Meduza that Panorama’s “newsroom” currently comprises seven people, but new authors have been joining the project, as its audience grows. The website’s founders, he says, “work in the field of journalism,” and they copy edit the content submitted by the other editors who lack this experience. Gontmakher describes Panorama as “a hobby,” saying that everyone involved is contributing in their spare time.
The site’s fake stories have been fooling Russian journalists almost since day one. In December 2017, the newspaper Novye Izvestia believed that there was a campaign to strip Russia’s School Olympiad of its medal in physics, and Lenta.ru ran Panorama’s report about how an Icelandic soccer fan named “Gundermurd Sigurdflorbradsen” supposedly complained about Russian cities’ difficult-to-pronounce names.
Thanks to the fake stories published by Panorama, more than a few groups have found themselves unexpectedly in the public hot seat. For example, the official newspaper of the truck manufacturer Kamaz had to deny that an unmanned vehicle destroyed one of the company’s factories; the actress Liya Akhedzhakova had to tell people that she never called for the demolition of Lenin’s tomb; and law enforcement agencies across Latvia had to field questions from the publication Delfi about their alleged decision to deport several Russian balalaika players supposedly arrested during a concert in Ventspils.
On April 1, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that news about a man in Chelyabinsk destroying his neighbor’s car in protest against Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats “is a fake from Panorama,” but the newspaper still called the local police department and asked if they knew anything about the incident. The newspaper was informed that “the incident” never took place.
Gontmakher told Meduza that Panorama’s writers used to get excited when the news media picked up their stories and ran with them. “Back then, it was pretty rare and amusing,” he says. The mood has shifted, however, and Gontmakher’s team no longer thinks these mistakes are so funny. When fake news finds its way to well-known Russian media outlets, he says, “it makes you wonder about their approach to working with information.”
Panorama’s main purpose isn’t to mock the Russian news media, and the project’s founders say it is first and foremost about grotesque humor that satirizes modern realities. Gontmakher says he and his co-conspirators take inspiration from “Reutov TV” (a show that aired on MTV Russia from 2010 until 2013, parodying the work of regional television stations). “If we can teach both the media and the readers — and this is probably even more important — to be more careful and to verify all information, then that will be great,” Gontmakher says.
Here’s a taste of some of Panorama’s recent headlines:
- Locals in Vladimir celebrate the millenium of the founding of the first gay club in Ancient Rus
- Auto inspector makes daily discoveries of 30-50 thousand rubles in trash can near his office
- Russian motorists entering Belarus will be tested on their knowledge of the correct name of the country
- Polish journalists blame their soccer team’s defeat on Senegal’s sorcerer-coach
- At sinkhole site, officials in Khabarovsk will build underground parking lot
- FIFA demands that television networks broadcast more footage of feminist soccer fans
- LGBT activists in Houston disrupt a demonstration for the rights of American Indians