One of the top science articles promoted by Google News to Canadians last Sunday was awkwardly headlined “Are we Ready for Defending Earth from a Killer Asteroid?” The story was published by Advocator.ca, a website that says it “provides news on issues for affecting minorities in Canada.” It lists an office address in Gatineau, Quebec, and has bios with photos for six staffers on its website.
In reality, the site doesn’t have an office in Canada, the staff photos actually show actors who starred in a recent Ontario theater company’s production of Twelfth Night, and one of the people running the site appears to be based in Romania, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.
Advocator.ca is part of a network of more than a dozen websites that present themselves as Canadian news sources and use fake personas to publish content. They are connected to a larger group of roughly 50 live and offline sites that use at least 85 fake author profile photos. After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, Google said it had removed the network of sites from its AdSense advertising network, as well as from Google News.
“We can confirm that we have taken action against a network of sites that have violated our policies on deceptive practices and misrepresentation,” a Google spokesperson said.
Separately, the investigation found multiple Facebook pages presenting themselves as Canadian but that are actually run by accounts based in Kosovo, Israel, and the United States. In some cases, the pages and their associated websites spread false or misleading information, or promote visa advisory services to people wanting to immigrate to Canada. Two of the Facebook pages also tried to obscure their foreign origins after being contacted by a reporter.
The Facebook pages and websites identified in the investigation are not primarily focused on Canadian politics and as of now have not attempted to influence Canadians ahead of the fall election. But their existence shows how easy it is to masquerade as a reliable or authentically Canadian source of information, and to build up an audience and generate revenue with stolen and/or misleading content. It also highlights Canada’s vulnerability to media manipulation ahead of the October vote.
In addition to the “Canadian” websites run via Romania, the investigation uncovered two Facebook pages, “Canada Eh?” and “Toronto, Ontario News,” and two associated websites that are run by people in Kosovo and the United Kingdom. Another page, “Canada 1867,” is also run by three people in Kosovo. Then there’s the Facebook page “Live in Canada,” which has more than 2.5 million likes and is managed by two accounts based in Israel. The “Only in Canada” page has more than 1.2 million likes and is run by two people in the US.
Similarly, “Today’s Canada” has more than 45,000 likes and is run by six people in the US. Facebook displays the location of a page’s managers in the “Page Transparency” information box accessible from the front of each Facebook page.
The managers of “Live in Canada” and “Only in Canada” did not respond to questions. Craige Campbell is a former football coach in California who’s one of the managers of “Today’s Canada.” He also manages a page called “Today’s California.”
“Love to share the motivation and vision. Or connect in general,” he said in response to an interview request sent via Facebook Messenger. Campbell did not respond to a subsequent message.
These foreign-run Facebook pages typically share memes and videos about Canadian identity and humor as a way to generate engagement and grow their audience. As a result, pages and websites such as Advocator.ca and “Canada Eh?” can generate more engagement and better search rankings than the real Canadian outlets they plagiarize or aggregate content from.
The Advocator.ca story about a “killer” asteroid was a (poorly) rewritten version of a story first published by the Toronto Sun. But Google News ranked the Romania-run copycat higher than the original.
These foreign-run operations have also at times spread false or misleading stories about Canada, though not of a political nature. “Canada Eh?” and “Toronto, Ontario News” both received negative Facebook reviews after they spread misleading stories earlier this year.
A false story published on Canada-Eh.info in April claimed Toronto was under a boil-water advisory due to E. coli. It gained enough traction that Brad Ross, chief communications officer for the city of Toronto, felt the need to debunk it on Twitter.
“It is completely false. Toronto’s water is safe to drink,” he wrote. In a subsequent tweet, he said the “Canada Eh?” page “is full of garbage.” The story was later deleted from Canada-Eh.info, but still appears on its affiliated site, Toronto-Ontario.news.
“It’s disturbing and worrisome to know there are organized groups whose sole purpose is to spread lies and create unrest and, in the case of Toronto, needlessly worry residents about their drinking water,” Ross said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
When asked about the false information coming from its partner site and Facebook page, a person who answered a message for the “Toronto, Ontario News” page said, “We made some changes lately on our Page so thank you for your curiosity.”
BuzzFeed News also asked why they started the page. “As you can see in our Page most of the time we post news about Toronto, Ontario? Why are you asking?” they responded. The person managing the page did not respond to questions about why people in Kosovo are interested in running pages and websites about Canada. After being contacted, “Canada Eh?” and “Toronto, Ontario News” changed their “Page Transparency” disclosures to remove Kosovo as the location of managers. A Facebook spokesperson said they are looking into how these pages were able to alter this information.
Unlike those pages, at least one of the foreign-run websites, Debate Report, previously had a genuine Canadian connection. It was at one point run by Philip Hofer, an Albertan man, and had at least one Canadian contributor. Its trail of ownership shows how difficult it can be to determine who’s behind an online news source.
Hofer acquired the site from Ron Swerdfiger, a man based in Canada who said in an email that he sold the site, something he does frequently. Another site he ran, eCanadaNow, sold for $6,000 US, according to an online listing.
“I buy and sell domains. I currently don’t own any live functioning websites,” Swerdfiger said by email. “I have NO political affiliation or motivation.”
At some point, Debate Report changed hands again; it’s now run by a Romanian man who goes by the name Costea Lestoc.
“We are a full team of partners running different sites, debatereport isn’t really our main project,” Lestoc said in an email. He didn’t respond to subsequent questions about what other websites are in the network and where the content is coming from.
Overall, at least 85 photos of real people alongside fake names were used by the network tied to Debate Report. The photos are of tech workers, actors, support staff of different websites, and even a Dublin City Council member.
One real author who used to write for Debate Report before it changed hands is Jeff Wilkinson of Ontario. He said the new owners of the site kept publishing content under his name without his consent after he stopped contributing.
“If you go to the bio section of the website, it is my bio with my background, but not my picture and lately not my writing,” Wilkinson said over Facebook Messenger.
In an attempt to get his name taken down, he called the number listed on the website — but nobody picked up and the voice mailbox was full. He also sent a message through the site’s contact form with no success.
“It’s disgusting. Whoever is using my name has produced a whole slew of articles,” Wilkinson said.