CounterPropaganda · Fake News · Information operations · Information Warfare

Sean Adl-Tabatabai on being in the eye of the ‘fake news’ storm

Edited highlights: founder and editor of Your News Wire Sean Adl-Tabatabai photographed at home in LA David Harry Stewart

Full disclosure: I had a small number of UK reporters contact me regarding my blog: “Russian Proxy “News” Site Exposed: YourNewsWire“, asking for my opinion, doing research on Sean Adl-Tabatabai.  I simply can’t remember if this reporter spoke with me or not. 

It’s been 18 months since I wrote that blog and I still stand by my findings. 

What mystifies me is how he can be allowed to keep the banner: “News. Truth. Unfiltered.”, when it is neither truth or news.  

Quite frankly I hope it’s unfiltered.  I once cleaned a cow stable and I know what that filter looked like when it was full. 

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With “millions of readers”, Sean Adl-Tabatabai’s site is at the heart of the fake news row and has been accused of trying to destabilise democracy. He tells Richard Godwin about his ‘alternative’ reality


Sean Adl-Tabatabai doesn’t look much like a Russian propagandist. He doesn’t come across much like your average alt-Right agitator either, with his neat Burberry polo shirt and his overwhelming nimbus of aftershave. And if you call what he does “FAKE NEWS”, he gets a little defensive.

“I define my job as overseeing and editing an alternative news website — that’s what I do,” says the founder-editor of Your News Wire as he squints into the sun on the roof of his apartment in Los Angeles. He regrets the fact that Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s long-suffering spokeswoman, has given “alternative facts” a bad name. “What I mean is that we cover stories that the mainstream media isn’t covering.”

Stories such as: “George Soros Orchestrates Devastating Plan to Kill 100,000 Haitians”. And: “Autism Rates in California Skyrocket Following Mandatory Vaccine Bill”. And: “Nicole Kidman Sent For ‘Reprogramming’ After Supporting Trump”. Stories that report from a looking-glass world where Hillary Clinton is connected to elite paedophile rings in Washington pizzerias, where climate change is a hoax, where Trump is mobilising US troops to counter a Chinese “Pearl Harbor-style” attack on California. All under a banner of “NEWS. TRUTH. UNFILTERED.”

Stories that have had Adl-Tabatabai, a former MTV producer from north London, accused of being part of a deliberate campaign to destabilise Western democracies with disinformation. His site has been blacklisted by an EU task force set up to combat Russian propaganda, and cited as one of the main reasons that Trump would win (or more accurately, Hillary Clinton would lose) the US presidential election.

Adl-Tabatabai, 35, lives in a Hollywood-Gothic apartment complex that you can imagine Philip Marlowe staking out in a Raymond Chandler novel. There’s something guileless about him. He actually seems to believe the stuff his site publishes — or at least, to relish its textures and its tremors, like a teenager who’s got a little lost inside a role-playing game. He lives with Sinclair, his American husband — they signed the register in Camden at one minute past midnight on the day that David Cameron legalised gay marriage. Their apartment is filled with art, and I can’t help but notice a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker too. “Most of my friends — and I would say, me too — are liberals,” he says. “I’m not some member of the alt-Right trying to stir up racial hatred or homophobia or anything. I’m just … very open to ideas.”

He believes that the war on fake news is “ridiculous — it’s just ridiculous”. “The mainstream media is the sole reason for Trump’s victory. They ignored the public. They didn’t have their finger on the pulse. And I think what’s happened since with this whole ‘fake news’ debate is sour grapes. Instead of fixing the problem, they’re trying to blame someone else.” And there’s a certain truth to this; a recent Stanford University study concluded that the influence of sites such as his was marginal compared to the might of, say, Fox News. However, it did also note the “stunning and dismaying consistency” with which the participants of the study failed to tell the difference between advert, news and conspiracy.

(David Henry Stewart)

As for the idea that he’s an unwitting stooge of the Kremlin: “It’s so weird.” Does he read Russia Today, the Moscow-sponsored news network? “I love Russia Today!” (Of course he does — it’s one of his most cited sources.) You are aware that it’s Russian propaganda, right? “Well, the BBC is British propaganda. It’s the same thing.” It’s not the same thing. Britain has a free press, Russia does not. British journalists are not censored for criticising the Government, Russian journalists are. Publicly funded is not the same as state broadcaster … I could go on. “I just think there’s some hypocrisy there,” he pleads. What about his article that claimed the Queen would “flee Britain” if we didn’t leave the EU, since World War Three was on its way? This particular story featured direct quotes from Her Majesty, apparently overheard by a BBC employee: “One is making the necessary preparations to abandon ship … A violent storm is coming, the likes of which Britain has never seen.”

“I knew you’d mention that one,” he sighs. He justifies it by telling me he put it in his CONSPIRACIES section, where the most wackadoo content ends up. (A distinction that wouldn’t trouble someone who came across the story on a Facebook news feed of course.) “It was a BBC employee who emailed the website. The information he was giving us was so far-fetched, it was not something I could present to my audience as 100 per cent verified fact. But I did investigate and discovered that this person could have been party to that information. And I could say: ‘Someone is claiming this, make of it what you will.’ I can’t say whether that was real or not.”

Between clickbait, sensationalism, exaggeration, satire, trolling and agenda-driven reporting, there is a whole dreamland of grey. Adl-Tabatabai claims kinship with Info Wars, whose creator Alex Jones promoted the idea that 9/11 was an inside job. (Trump’s a fan.) But his dafter stuff isn’t much different from, say, US supermarket tabloids such as the Weekly World News — or the BIZARRE sections of our own much- vaunted press, which relish UFO stories and celebrity reincarnations. “People are so hysterical now, there’s this idea that anything weird must be wiped from the web because readers are crazy,” says Adl-Tabatabai. “No one’s saying The Sun or the Express or the Mail should be banned.”

Adl-Tabatabai had what he describes as an “average childhood”. His father is an accountant of Iranian origin; his mother Carol is an “alternative health” practitioner; he grew up in a council estate with a brother and a sister and attended an all-boys Catholic school. He wasn’t academic but a teenage role as an extra on Grange Hill excited his interest in the media — and when he left school he found a job as a runner on Top of the Pops. (Presumably this is where his faith in the BBC began to erode … the stars were MIMING! It’s fake pop, folks!) He later took a course in media studies — “It was a pile of s**t really” — and worked his way up through various TV production jobs. But it was a meeting with David Icke — the former BBC presenter who announced that he was the son of God on Wogan in 1990 — that he describes as “the biggest step” to what he does now.

Adl-Tabatabi was working on a pilot for a conspiracy theory show on MTV and had been tasked with duping Icke into making a fool of himself again. “He was actually a really decent guy with a few wacky ideas — and I thought, no, he doesn’t deserve this.” He tipped off Icke — who was grateful. When he was sacked from MTV, he worked for Icke for years as a web designer and producer. Icke has since turned on his amanuensis (“WHY ARE YOU FILLED WITH SUCH HATRED SEAN ADL-TABATABAI? What is your motivation? And who benefits?”) But Adl-Tabatabai remains respectful. “He’s just misinformed. That’s fine. What I liked about him was that he was fearless.”

He reflects that his mother’s approach to medicine may have made him more open-minded. “A lot of people dabble in strange theories. It’s not confined to this small subsection of ignorant people. Believing one or two things that another person doesn’t think is legitimate doesn’t mean that they’re thick.

“You can be really passionate that these are the facts — but someone else can come along who’s equally as passionate.” But it doesn’t matter how passionate you are — the facts remain the same. “When you say facts are sacred, I would argue that no they’re not.”

Adl-Tabatabai does have some regard for facts. As editor, he says he spends around 30 minutes fact-checking all the stories he publishes. “If a story is particularly complex it can take a lot longer.” He produces most of his “news” from a Macbook Pro on a glass desk next to a butterfly palm beneath a circular sunburst mirror. On a typical day he writes four or five stories personally, and puts up about 15 on the site. There are four or five regular contributors, including Baxter Dmitry (a Milo Yiannopoulos fanboy whose Facebook profile is taken in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg) and his mum, Carol. They tend to be paid commission, so the more clicks a story gets, the more cash the site generates — thank you Google! He makes an OK living, he says, but the overheads are high and it’s all a bit harder since people started to worry about fake news. Still, the site receives between three and five million hits per month and he’s delighted to say it has celebrity fans: “Roseanne Barr loves us … And Elijah Wood. And who’s that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey?”

What was the last story he rejected? He thinks about this one for a while. “There was a story about Hillary Clinton dying in hospital and having a body double and here’s the proof … I considered it. People like that stuff. We’d covered a lot of her illness. But it just felt a bit cheap and nasty and there was no real merit to it.”

Follow Richard Godwin on Twitter: @richardjgodwin