Career trickster fools media into announcing ‘death’ of filmmaker Costa-Gavras

Loic Venance, AFP file picture | Oscar-winning Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras arrives at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017 in Cannes, southern France.

One of the internet’s most notorious hoaxers on Thursday tricked media all over the world into breaking news on the death of Costa-Gavras, forcing the Franco-Greek filmmaker to deny his death publically. FRANCE 24 takes a look at how it happened.


All the red flags of a fake news story were out there: The Twitter account announcing Gavras’s death wasn’t verified, the government ministry allegedly relaying the news wasn’t reachable, and there wasn’t more than one source confirming it. Nevertheless, Tommasso Debenedetti, an Italian former journalist-turned-hoaxer and professional trickster, once again managed to expose the media’s Achilles heel – the need for speed – and had journalists jump the bandwagon before they had nailed down the facts.

So how did they fall for it?

It all began with a tweet from the twitter handle @MZorbaGR, purporting to be that of Greece’s new Culture Minister, Myrsini Zorba. At 2:51pm on Thursday, a first post from the account read: “URGENT. I receive now from Paris the news of the death of Greek film director and producer Costa Gavras. Official note to be released soon.”

Gavras, 85, rose to world-wide fame with the French-Algerian thriller “Z”, for which he won an Oscar in 1970.

Exactly 20 minutes after the first announcement, another tweet from the same account followed, saying: "This account is a fake, created by the Italian journalist Tommasso Debenedetti." Zorba’s “profile photo” was then replaced by that of Debenedetti, and the twitter handle renamed to @TDebNews.

But by then it was too late. The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and FRANCE 24 were just some of the international newsrooms to have fallen into the trap, forcing them to issue embarrassing retractions, explaining just how and why they were tricked into wiring a fake news story out to the world.

One of the main reasons behind the blunder was blamed on the Twitter account itself. Although it did not carry the all-important blue verification tick mark, Zorba had only been named culture minister the day before, so some reporters surmised that it made sense that her Twitter account had not yet been verified.

‘Gavras in great form’

Alexia Kefalas, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Greece and one of the journalists who refused to relay the news without first double-checking the facts, said the account was a major point of confusion as the news broke.

“The Twitter account was in her name, and we didn’t know whether it was her private account, or if it belonged to her as a government minister,” she explained.

“The news shocked the Greeks, and especially the media which immediately wanted to verify the information, to see if it was official from the culture ministry itself.”

“When the culture ministry didn’t respond, many [journalists] – myself included – phoned Costa-Gavras, who turned out to be in great form, thought it was funny, and who suffers absolutely no health problems whatsoever,” she said.

The speed at which the fake news had already spread across the globe, however, prompted Gavras to deny the rumours of his death publically, telling Greek broadcaster ERT that it was simply “a joke in bad taste”.

Seasoned hoaxer

Debenedetti, the suspected engineer behind Thursday’s fake news stunt, is not a newcomer to the business of trolling the media with fake news stories.

In 2010, The New Yorker revealed that Debenedetti had fabricated more than 60 interviews with high-profile figures such as American authors Philip Roth and John Grisham, politician Mikhail Gorbachev and spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. He then published the accounts in provincial Italian media.

After initially denying any wrongdoing – insisting that the interviews were indeed real and that the subjects of his stories simply had problems recalling the conversations they had had with him – Debenedetti finally confessed to Spanish daily El Pais, admitting that the interviews had never taken place.

In his 2010 interview with the Spanish newspaper, Debenedetti explained that although he had initially set out to be “a serious and honorable cultural journalist”, he had struggled to get his work published. He finally saw no other way to make ends meet than to make his stories up.

He later mocked the newspapers that had published him, recounting, for example, how regional Italian newspaper La Nazione had believed in his fabricated “exclusive” with Nobel literature prize-winner Sir Derek Walcott, whom he claimed to have interviewed under a table in Saint Lucia during the devastating earthquake in Haiti of 2010. “Didn’t it seem strange to them?” he asked.

Since then, Debenedetti has made a name for himself as somewhat of a career hoaxer, regularly setting up fake Twitter accounts to announce the “deaths” of celebrities such as JK Rowling, Fidel Castro, Pope Benedict XVI and, most recently, Czech-born French author Milan Kundera.

In an interview with news agency AFP in 2013, Debenedetti was quoted as saying that "death works well on Twitter”, adding that "unfortunately, journalism works on speed. False news spreads exponentially".

His intention, Debenedetti insists, is to bring attention to "the fragility of social networks”.

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