If The Buffalo Chronicle was sent to us as a test, a latter-day media-literacy exam in the era of fake news, we have failed pretty badly. A please-see-me-after-class kind of failing.

Over the past month, the Western New York-based website has begun publishing a slew of Canadian stories.

One reported that the Bank of Montreal wanted a deferred prosecution agreement over bribery charges it was facing. Another hot tip reported that the NDP was courting ex-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to helm the party. Another scoop proclaimed former puisne justice of the Supreme Court Frank Iacobucci was behind both the proposed deal for SNC-Lavalin and Ottawa’s decision to buy the Kinder Morgan pipeline. And, most recently, a crackerjack exclusive reported that Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould was arm-twisting Google to “curtail political criticism” of the Trudeau government by instructing “Google News to limit Canadian access to foreign press.”

These stories, totalling eight at last count, have been shared thousands of times on Twitter and Facebook.

Ex-Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella; Newstalk 1010 host and former Rob Ford chief of staff Mark Towhey; former Alberta cabinet minister Donna Kennedy-Glans; Senator Nicole Eaton; Members of Parliament Larry Miller and Todd Doherty — all promoted the stories on their social media pages. Former Dragons’ Den mogul Brett Wilson tweeted out one Buffalo Chronicle story to his 182,000 Twitter followers, gushing that it “only need to be 10% true” in order to prove that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was presiding over a “reign of terror.” (He added that he believes it to be “100% true.”)

Trouble is, 10% true might be optimistic.

It’s fake news.

The Buffalo Chronicle, until February, did no independent reporting on Canada, instead running news stories from the Canadian Press. The vast majority of its content is local coverage of Buffalo.

It was amid the unfolding SNC-Lavalin scandal in Ottawa that the Chronicle started running bold exclusives about Canada — stories that do not carry bylines, cite no named sources, and do not try and back up any of the claims found within.

Certain assertions are verifiably false. The Bank of Montreal, for example, is not facing criminal charges over the Trans Mountain pipeline, as one story attempts to suggest.

Other allegations — that the RCMP has begun interviews on the SNC-Lavalin affair, that Minister Gould threatened regulation of Google if they didn’t stop negative coverage of the prime minister, that Iacobucci was hiding lobbying meetings — are outlandish and attributed only to anonymous sources, if attributed at all. They have not been backed up by any other reporting because, indeed, the allegations appear quite made up.

Nevertheless, the Chronicle’s writing has begun to pop up elsewhere. Spencer Fernando, a former political staffer who now runs an eponymous blog, cited the Chronicle’s reporting on his site. The Centre for Research on Globalization — a conspiracy-minded site which has been specifically singled out by NATO researchers as being lousy with pro-Kremlin propaganda — also used the Chronicle’s stories in one of its own articles.

It’s not hard to cook up bad information. Come up with a name that sounds like a reputable newspaper. Use a free WordPress template. Republish some photos from the Canadian Press. And then, in a story, roughly summarize other outlets’ reporting, before adding in dashes of nonsense. Voila, you have The Buffalo Chronicle.

I reached the owner of the site, Matthew Ricchiazzi, to ask for details of their reporting, but didn’t receive much. Ricchiazzi says he agreed to keep his writers’ names secret — he says he has two contributors in Canada — and that, while he hasn’t independently verified much of their reporting, he is very confident it is all accurate.

Ricchiazzi is a failed municipal candidate in Buffalo — he couldn’t get enough valid signatures to run for mayor in 2009, and was later rejected as a school board candidate. And he’s gotten in trouble for his work on The Buffalo Chronicle before.

In 2012, Ricchiazzi had a hand in spreading a homophobic mailout targeting a Republican state senator who voted in support of gay marriage. Last January, a Rochester-based company had to issue a statement specifically calling out a story on the Chronicle’s website as false. The website lists the outlet’s corporate name as “The Buffalo Chronicle Media Group,” and yet I haven’t been able to find any corporation registered under that name in New York State.

Many of the names listed on the Chronicle’s website as staff members either haven’t written for the site in years, or deny knowing anything about the operation. The Chronicle’s website has reported that a former municipal Green Party candidate, Terrence Robinson, was its managing editor. Elsewhere, it lists him as its city hall reporter. When reached by phone, Robinson didn’t even know the Chronicle had a website — he thought it was a Facebook page.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Robinson told me. He laughed when I told him that the page lists his email address and phone number. “Oh my god,” he said, adding: “It’s some cover.”

Today, Ricchiazzi lists himself as a consultant with Enkindle Strategies — a company which has no web history to speak of, and does not appear to exist apart from its mention on Ricchiazzi’s LinkedIn page.

On Sunday, I decided to start working up a story on the Chronicle. I pitched a column about the weird saga to the The Globe and Mail (which ultimately passed) and reached out to Ricchiazzi for comment. I wanted to know the names of his so-called reporters, whether he could even try to back up some of the outlandish claims he published, and whether he had been paying the Canadian Press for their photos and stories.

Ricchiazzi replied that he would “under no circumstances” respond to a request for comment from any publication that would “allow for the State-sponsorship of its journalism or journalists” and refused comment on my questions. Ricchiazzi then threatened legal action if I published anything suggesting he refused comment.

On Monday morning, Ricchiazzi published a story — written in the same tone and voice as the previous articles — claiming I was a Liberal operative and suggesting I had attempted “political intimidation and extortion.”

The publication’s bizarre reaction aside, it wasn’t exactly difficult to figure out that the Chronicle was an unreliable outlet. All the details I’ve recounted here are relatively easy to find out with a basic amount of Googling. The politicians and social media denizens who amplified the nonsense reporting did none of this. Because the stories suited the political bent of those happily clicking “share,” the conspiracy theories were unleashed.

Just the article alleging Minister Gould was behind a cynical play to censor the media racked up more than 14,000 shares on Facebook, and hundreds of tweets. Ironic, isn’t it, that Gould is the minister responsible for combating fake news and misinformation in Canada’s political arena.

The whole affair is a perfect parable of the harms of misinformation online. While much has been made, rightly, of the dangers posed by the Kremlin’s media-manipulation machine, we should be equally vigilant about our own media illiteracy.

That a failed political candidate like Ricchiazzi has proven himself capable of duping thousands of people — including two members of parliament — goes to show that we’re a long ways off from inoculating ourselves against the scourge of fake news. The allure of damaging one’s political enemies can be more powerful than the need to share accurate information. That base instinct, sadly, doesn’t appear to be changing.

The one heartening thing in this whole affair is that several of those public figures, including both MPs, removed links to the stories from their social media accounts and apologized for sharing the fake news.

But The Buffalo Chronicle’s ability to play so many people as rubes also comes at the tail end of more than a decade of furious brow-beating of the mainstream media, from all sides. Conservatives call the newspapers and public broadcaster front groups for the Liberal agenda, bandying about a proposed newspaper bailout package as evidence of this. Leftists dismiss major media outlets as bagmen for the corporate elite. Even Justin Trudeau’s defenders have recently taken to alleging a conspiracy of journalists to kneecap the prime minister.

It has fomented such distrust in the national media that, when someone notices brave and fearless reporting from a little outlet like The Buffalo Chronicle, the reader is inclined to trust it — maybe even, as some did, sharing the link with the question, “Where’s the mainstream media on this?”

If we are to remain so heavily invested in partisan bloodsport, so hostile towards the professional journalism class, and so unwilling to do a basic amount of research to check into online news, then perhaps we deserve all the fake news we get.

Justin Ling writes regularly for a variety of Canadian publications and is the co-host of Canadaland’s OPPO podcast. He is also the host of CBC Podcasts’ Uncover: The Village, premiering April 2.

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