January 29, 2017, 12:01 am, The Sunday Times
The man behind one of America’s biggest “fake news” websites is a former BBC worker from London whose mother writes many of his stories.
Sean Adl-Tabatabai, 35, runs YourNewsWire.com, the source of scores of dubious news stories, including claims that the Queen had threatened to abdicate if the UK voted against Brexit. The story was shared more than 23,000 times on Facebook.
His site was also instrumental in spreading a conspiracy theory before the US election, which falsely claimed there was evidence connecting Hillary Clinton to a paedophile ring in Washington.
After his website and others linked the fictitious child-sex ring to a harmless pizzeria in the city, a man armed with an assault rifle turned up at the restaurant to “self investigate”.
Adl-Tabatabai told The Sunday Times he condemned the actions of the gunman, who was later arrested, but insisted that “Pizzagate” “warranted proper investigation” and stood by his site’s reporting.
YourNewsWire.com has now been blacklisted by a number of fact-checking bodies, including the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force, a Brussels unit that debunks Russian propaganda. It criticised the site for publishing “fake media stories that support Russia’s policies”.
One story published on the site this month warned of a “plot by the US Deep State to assassinate president-elect Trump, blame the incident on Russia and then allow President Obama to continue in power under ‘martial law rule’”.
Joel Harding, a former US intelligence officer and Kremlin propaganda expert, said YourNewsWire.com was “used by the Russians as a proxy site to spread disinformation”, whether its owner was aware or not.
“YourNewsWire.com is one of the biggest,” Harding said. “He’s prolific. He really is very good, in that he produces a lot of high-volume stories that are actually picked up by a lot of others, cited and referenced.”
Adl-Tabatabai claims the site is a legitimate news organisation, and said any alleged links with Russia were “completely baseless”.
The entrepreneur came from humble beginnings, living with his parents into his twenties in a small terraced council house in Barnet, north London. After working as a television producer for the BBC and MTV, he took a job helping to run the conspiracy theory site of David Icke, a former BBC sports presenter who claims the world is secretly run by alien reptiles in disguise.
Adl-Tabatabai made his first appearance in the mainstream media in 2014, featuring in articles as one of the first gay men to marry in the UK. He now operates out of a luxury apartment block overlooking a golf course in his husband’s home town of Los Angeles.
His site carries a mixture of conspiracy theories, real news stories, such as last week’s Supreme Court vote on Brexit, and demonstrably fake news, including a recent report that the Queen had been “placed under house arrest”.
His mother, Carol, a holistic medicine expert, is one of his main contributors, with thousands of articles under her name. She said that although some of her pieces are “a bit weird” and “maybe a little satirical”, she is “giving people food for thought”.
The spectre of fake news is one of the greatest threats to our media
Another prolific writer on the site goes by the name of Baxter Dmitry. The photograph next to the author’s name was in fact that of a Latvian computer programmer, who told The Sunday Times he was not Dmitry and his identity had been stolen. The photograph has since changed to a picture of a different man.
Adl-Tabatabai said: “We don’t produce ‘fake news’. What this all really seems to be about is an attempt by certain mainstream publications to conflate independent news organisations such as ours (and many others) with the small handful of genuinely fake news sites mostly run from Macedonia.”
This weekend Google banned YourNewsWire.com from its advertising platform after receiving questions from The Sunday Times about the site. It joins more than 200 other publishers banned by Google from receiving advertising revenue since October.
The ban comes as the Commons culture, media and sport committee is about to launch an inquiry into fake news. “I think that the spectre of fake news is one of the greatest threats to our media, and that the platforms that distribute it have a social responsibility to help combat the sources and major distributors of fake news,” said Damian Collins, the committee’s chairman.