There is a very small chance that you came across what appeared to be an Atlantic article about the war in Yemen in September 2017. The author, according to the byline, was Aria Bendix, a regular global-news writer. Every link in the story went to other Atlantic stories. It even included the module shilling lowbrow content slurry that used to appear on Atlantic articles, at the bottom of the page.
On first glance, that is to say, you might not have known that you were looking at a counterfeit story, produced as part of a global disinformation campaign that was recently unearthed by researchers at Citizen Lab, at the University of Toronto.
But that’s what it was, one of many such inauthentic articles created by an ongoing campaign called Endless Mayfly, which Citizen Lab describes as “an Iran-aligned network of inauthentic websites and online personas used to spread false and divisive information primarily targeting Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel” in a new report published Tuesday. The disinformation project put out 160 articles that targeted 20 legitimate news organizations, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Globe and Mail.
Once the articles were created, they were pushed by a network of Twitter bots. These bots tweeted the fake Atlantic story more than 2,700 times, using a Google URL shortener that would have initially masked the fact that the article was not published on TheAtlantic.com.
The fake story, which Citizen Lab preserved, is a fascinating artifact of our new disinformation age. The page exploits the open nature of the web’s underlying code, the frenzied nature of online news consumption, and people’s basic trust that a website is what it looks like.