Story Killers: inside the deadly disinformation-for-hire industry
Journalists investigating disinformation are threatened, jailed and in extreme cases, like that of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, killed. Forbidden Stories gathered more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets to expose the inner workings of the global, secretive world of disinformation mercenaries.
In India, journalist Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of a renowned non-profit fact-checking website, Alt News, was arrested in the summer of 2022. He had recently tweeted on controversial comments by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) spokesperson about the Prophet Muhammad. But the arrest, arising from a complaint concerning a 2018 Twitter post Zubair had written, was widely considered as retaliation by authorities for his work debunking false claims and disinformation on religion and caste, among other topics.
Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose publication Rappler was first to expose President Rodrigo Duterte’s “troll armies” manipulating information around his 2016 presidency, has since faced online attacks and prosecution. (In January 2023, Ressa was acquitted of four tax evasion charges; three more criminal charges remain.)
Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro, one of the first journalists to investigate the Russian troll farm—or Internet Research Agency—became the victim of a Russian-based disinformation campaign. Trolls attacked her on Twitter; sent smearing emails to colleagues and politicians; and submitted official complaints against her and her outlet, Yle. In one instance, Aro received a text message from someone impersonating her dead father claiming he was alive and “observing [her],” she wrote.
Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh reported on disinformation for her eponymous outlet, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. In September 2017, she was planning to publish an editorial titled “In the Age of False News,” in which she denounced India’s “lie-factories.” The piece revealed how a local news outlet spread a virulent rumor, which the BJP and other right-wing individuals further disseminated. But she was killed before it was published.
Over five years after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to pursue the work of threatened, imprisoned or assassinated journalists, gathered more than 100 journalists from 30 media outlets to pursue the work of Lankesh—the first time such a large journalist consortium has investigated the global, secretive world of disinformation mercenaries.
For over six months the consortium, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, traced disinformation narratives back to their original sources. From India to Saudi Arabia, via Israel, Spain and the United States, the consortium investigated small-scale, artisan-like efforts to promote a foreign state’s propaganda to surgical, professionalized black-ops. We tracked companies that sell services to influence opinions, manipulate elections, destroy reputations and erase the truth. We scrutinized the mechanics of the business of disinformation.
The disinformation industry, which threatens global democracy, is often invisible yet burgeoning and profitable, our investigation shows. According to a report by the Oxford Internet Institute, in 2020, at least 81 countries resorted to organized manipulation campaigns on social media.
As states increasingly rely on disinformation-for-hire services and mercenaries proliferate, journalists face deadly consequences. One in four journalists killed in non-conflict zones between 2017 and 2022, was the target of disinformation campaigns or received direct threats through social media networks leading up to their death, Forbidden Stories found after analyzing data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Named Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jamal Khashoggi, Rafael Emiro Moreno and Gauri Lankesh, such journalists originated from nearly every continent.
To Maria Ressa, the counterpoint to online attacks and their intended chilling effect is to speak up. “They use free speech to pound you to silence. I refuse to be silent,” she told a member of our consortium.
Story Killers media partners:
The Guardian and Observer, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, ZDF, Paper Trail Media, Die Zeit, Radio France, Proceso, OCCRP, Knack, Le Soir, Haaretz, The Marker, El País, SverigesTelevision, Radio Télévision Suisse, Folha, Confluence Media, IRPI, IStories, Armando Info, Code for Africa, Bird, Tempo Media Group, El Espectador, Der Standard, Tamedia, Krik.
The Story Killers project was published in concert with two big data case studies by the International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) Online Violence Project, a partnership between ICFJ Research and University of Sheffield computer scientists. The ICFJ-led team provided research expertise and data insights to Story Killers partners.