Despite Ottawa's widespread efforts to prevent online disinformation from distorting the election campaign, a website based in Buffalo, New York, has been freely posting viral stories about Canadian politicians that have no apparent basis in fact — and there’s nothing the Canadian government can do to stop it.
Since the beginning of the year, the Buffalo Chronicle has published unsigned articles based on unnamed sources that allege backroom dealings at the highest levels of the Canadian government. Several of the stories have been deemed false or unsupported by news organizations, including the Agence France-Presse, which was contracted by Facebook to debunk fake news.
The website is run by Matthew Ricchiazzi, 33, an Ivy League graduate who has sought office in several New York state elections but never got his name on the ballot.
A BuzzFeed News–Toronto Star investigation has confirmed that Ricchiazzi once offered to publish positive or negative coverage of political candidates for a fee. He also placed ads on his website for individuals and businesses that had never heard of him.
Ricchiazzi would not agree to an interview before next week’s election. However, in a reply to emailed questions, he wrote: “We report in good faith and would never knowingly publish a falsehood. We are confident in all of our reporting to date, and believe it reflects a fair articulation of information obtained from confidential sources.”
Among the apparently uncorroborated stories published by the Buffalo Chronicle is one alleging former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci “insisted” that former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould be kicked out of the cabinet. Another claims the former CEO of SNC-Lavalin and his wife fled Canada to avoid being arrested on bribery charges.
The website found real success with its report earlier this month that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau paid more than $2 million to suppress a report about sexual misconduct. Despite being debunked by the Star, Snopes, and the Agence France-Presse, that story and its follow-up generated close to 100,000 shares, likes, and reactions on Facebook.
While the Buffalo Chronicle has been publishing stories about politics in western New York since 2014, a shift to sensational Canadian content earlier this year has brought Ricchiazzi success on social media. Eight of the Buffalo Chronicle’s 10 most popular articles on Facebook are about Canadian subjects and were published in the last eight months. Collectively, they were liked, commented on, and shared on Facebook more than 200,000 times by accounts with a total of 4.4 million fans.
Facebook has refused to take down the Buffalo Chronicle posts. “Misinformation as a whole does not violate our community standards,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We don’t have a rule that says that everything you post needs to be true.”
This week, Ricchiazzi and the Buffalo Chronicle have had their Twitter accounts suspended. However, the posts remain online.
Earlier this year, the Canadian government passed reforms to the Canada Elections Act that ban certain false statements about candidates during an election.
The office of the commissioner of Canadian elections declined to address any specific examples of potential breaches of election law. Spokesperson Michelle Laliberté acknowledged, however, that “there may be limits to the enforcement action that could be taken against individuals residing outside of Canada.”
Michael Pal, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said it’s clear the law applies to foreigners, “but there’s not a lot that can be done.”
“We have to start facing up to what does it mean to have media from across the border violating the law,” he said. “How do we deal with that?”
Ricchiazzi did not answer a question about who wrote the articles about Canada. He told the Star and BuzzFeed News that “there were primarily three individuals who contributed to those reports.”
He said he kept their names off the stories because “many of the folks who write for me would lose their jobs immediately upon it being discovered.”
Ricchiazzi said his involvement in politics does not affect his ability to report news.
“I feel absolutely no need to maintain neutrality, and think that critical journalism with an honest perspective is indeed better journalism,” he said.
In the past, Ricchiazzi has offered to skew his coverage in exchange for cash. In a 2010 email obtained by BuzzFeed News and the Star, he asked if a local political candidate wanted to purchase content in the City Politic, another website he runs.
“Fees are as follows: positive articles about your candidacy are $200; negative articles about your opponents are $400; and an editorial endorsement is $300,” the email read.
Asked about the email, he said: “The value proposition was not appropriately articulated (and wildly underpriced).”
Ricchiazzi has denied that these kinds of transactions continue, but on at least two occasions he has accepted payments from groups that support candidates and provided them with positive coverage.
Earlier this year, Ricchiazzi received $6,000 US from a political committee formed to elect Peter A. Reese for Erie County executive, according to campaign finance disclosures. At the same time, the Buffalo Chronicle published three stories supportive of Reese’s legal battle to be added to the ballot. No disclosure of the payments is mentioned in the pieces.
“Peter Reese retained me as a consultant for a very short period of time,” Ricchiazzi said. “Those fees were not in exchange for advertising or content.”
Last year, Ricchiazzi received $2,000 and the Buffalo Chronicle received $1,000 from a political committee supporting Joel Giambra’s run for governor of New York, according to election records.
The website posted at least five articles supporting Giambra’s candidacy, including one headlined: “Giambra, a Proud Moderate, Seeks the GOP Nomination With a Bold Plan.”
Ricchiazzi said the payments were “for consulting services rendered.”
Aside from its content, Ricchiazzi’s site appears to mislead readers when it comes to its ads. While ads for a local pizzeria owner and Frank R. Bayger, a retired New York State Supreme Court judge, appeared on the Buffalo Chronicle, both people said they had never heard of the site.
“Whoever is doing this, it could be harmful to me. I cherish my reputation. I’m a very active trial lawyer,” Bayger said.
Asked about the ads, Ricchiazzi said that he pays for the Buffalo Chronicle out of his own pocket and gives most of the ad space away for free.
“Some of the advertisements that appear may have been sold through third party advertising sales agents,” he said. “Given that I don’t charge for ads anyways, I wasn’t too concerned with it.”
BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star are investigating the ways in which political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals are influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election. This report was published as part of that collaboration.