A hoax press release published on a website that falsely claimed to belong to Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff fooled international media and appears to have connections to Russia, BuzzFeed News has found.
The website used the address adamcshiff.com instead of the authentic adamschiff.com, and claimed that the member of Congress met with Saudi Arabia’s US ambassador and promised to sponsor a bill recognizing the Armenian genocide. That meeting never took place and the hoax press release and the site that hosted it have since been deleted.
“The website is fake, and the meeting described is completely false,” a spokesperson for Schiff said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “There was no such meeting and Rep. Schiff has never discussed these issues with the Saudi government. Rep. Schiff will take appropriate steps to report this effort to spread disinformation.”
The misleading URL was registered on April 24, the day marking the Armenian genocide, and the fake press release was published on April 26. The next morning, a Russian translation of the release was published by a blog called pravosudija.net, and that version was emailed to a handful of mostly Russian news outlets by a person credited with the translation, Sofia Verner. The email was also sent to BuzzFeed News.
Recognition of the Armenian genocide has been a long-standing political issue for the US — former president Barack Obama promised to recognize it while he was in office, but never did. Schiff has campaigned for recognition for over a decade despite it causing a strain on relations with Turkey. Schiff has also become a target for President Donald Trump, who has called for the congressman to resign. This year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also cosponsored a resolution to recognize the genocide.
The fake release was written in stilted and grammatically incorrect English, but that clue to its inauthenticity disappeared when translated. As a result, news websites across Russia and Armenia wrote about a meeting that never happened, including the Armenian edition of US-funded Radio Free Europe which removed the story without a correction. RFE issued a retraction after this article was published.
The registration information of the fake Adam Schiff website was hidden and the site itself contained few clues as to who was behind it.
"I have long been concerned that foreign actors would attempt to influence our political process not only by releasing hacked materials, but also by spreading disinformation masquerading as the real thing," Schiff said in a statement. "If confirmed, it appears that a foreign actor used a fake version of my campaign website to spread a fictional story about a fake meeting. We are continuing to learn more about this incident and have made appropriate inquiries.”
This isn’t the first time a fake story originating on a deceptive website in English was quickly translated into Russian and published on pravosudija.net. A report from BuzzFeed News two years ago found that the blog was the first to translate false articles that were published on fake websites masquerading as the Guardian, the Times of London, and Al Jazeera, among others.
At the time, Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist who runs a website that debunks misinformation in Russia, told BuzzFeed News the goal of the scheme appeared to be to generate false, damaging stories about the West that could be picked up by Russian media and fed to a domestic audience.
"It was clearly intended to be picked up and translated by Russian domestic outlets and presented as 'Western media report that...,' per usual pattern," Kovalev said.
After reviewing this latest example including Schiff, Kovalev said, “Looks like a cheap, low-key, effective fake news strategy, exactly the same as was used with the fake Guardian website.” The fake site also did not run any advertisements, which also suggests the motivation was political rather than financial.
Kovalev said it’s unlikely the fakes are the work of Russian intelligence because of how unsophisticated the translated posts are. And although state-run media outlets were among the first to pick them up, one later apologized and retracted the story it ran based on the fake Guardian article from 2017.
As with that previous example, it appears a fake identity may have been created to help spread the false Schiff press release. The name of the translator, and of the person who emailed it to journalists, is listed as Sofia Verner. Although she has a Twitter and LinkedIn account, both are sparse, and there are no VK or Facebook accounts that match Sofia Verner’s identity. Emailed questions from BuzzFeed News went unanswered at the email address in her name.
The fake Armenian press release is also not the first time Verner tried to spread a hoax website. She previously emailed a translation of a false story placed on a website masquerading as the Prague Monitor. She also sent out a translation of a false story planted on Odyssey Online, a website that enables anyone to upload a post.
The fake Prague Monitor website used a similar URL tactic to the other fakes: instead of ending in .com, it ended in .net. “Poland: US Ally to Keep Russia at Bay, Control Europe,” read the fake headline. The article claimed to be an interview with the Polish ambassador to the Czech Republic, published in February. It too was fabricated, and was soon picked up by Russian-language media without scrutiny.
The article published on the Odyssey Online used a different tactic but also revealed a connection to the same network. Rather than create a fake website, someone created a fake Facebook profile for a real Daily Mail journalist, Jemma Buckley. The profile has only two images and no activity. They then used the fake profile to place a story in the Odyssey titled “Secret Mossad MI6 co-op against Moscow disclosed.”
That story was then translated into Russian and published on pravosudija.net. Soon, controversial commentator Israel Shamir shared it to his 7,000 Facebook followers and the Russian government–aligned Pravda.ru printed it as fact.
The fake Jemma Buckley profile did not respond to several messages from BuzzFeed News.