Ghosts in the Propaganda Machine
MEDIA, 8 Jan 2018
Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank - CounterPunch
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
5 Jan 2018 – Is this what online journalism looks like in the era of Russiagate fever? A fake writer (read Alice Donovan) catfishes CounterPunch and a dozen other online websites. A handful of her articles are published over a two-year period. The FBI is tracking her and believes this writer, whoever is behind the moniker, has some ties to Russia. What kind of ties and how deep do they go? We aren’t sure. No evidence is presented, perhaps because there isn’t much, or perhaps because the NSA and the FBI are also spying on actual journalists and editors right along with the alleged imposters. The Washington Post calls for a quote on the FBI’s allegation and runs an article a month later on Kremlin operatives “burning across the internet”.
More panic ensues.
But only one troll was named in the Washington Post piece, Alice Donovan — our suspected interloper. Prior to the Post’s article, we found out Donovan likely was not who she claimed to be and was a plagiarist to boot. We apologized for our screw-up and issued a lengthy investigation into the whole Donovan ordeal and the challenges of vetting writers in the fast-paced world of cyber-journalism. The story ends there, or does it?
For the record, what you are about to read isn’t typical fare here at CounterPunch. We aren’t in the business of investigating the legitimacy of other independent media outlets, their editors, their contributors or even their motives. In the muddy trenches of online journalism, we often find sympathy and camaraderie with others trudging the same difficult terrain. We strongly believe in the tenets of a free and unfettered press. We’d much rather save our energy to cover the issues we face day in and day out; environmental degradation, corporate and political corruption, war, abuses of power and all those brave souls fighting back. Even so, for better or worse, we are still journalists, and when a story begins to reveal itself, we have no choice but to dig deeper and follow the trail where it leads us.In our quest to unravel the identity of the now infamous Alice Donovan, we realized she wasn’t only a fraud, she was also a quack journalist. Many of Donovan’s stories were in part plagiarized, none more flagrantly than an article titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike On Assad’s Forces Was Not Accidental.” It took a few quick searches to uncover the original source of the piece, which was ripped off entirely from a writer named Sophie Mangal, whose article by the same title was published at The International Reporter on the exact same day Donovan submitted the piece to CounterPunch under her own byline.
We were slightly familiar with Mangal, who claimed to be an “investigative correspondent” and editor at an obscure site called Inside Syria Media Center (ISMC), which publishes both in Arabic and English. Mangal occasionally goes by Sophie with an “e”, yet her Medium author page lists her name as “Sophia”, and at ISMC, often simply “S. Mangal”.
Emails from Mangal had arrived two or three times a week over the past twelve months, piling up in our inboxes. Nearly every piece she wrote, it seemed, was submitted to us for publication. We passed on all of them, but many were picked up by Global Research, International Reporter and Veterans Today. The piece Donovan stole, however, was never submitted to CounterPunch by Mangal. No doubt the same article pitched by two different authors on the same day would have raised a red flag.
When we realized Donovan had plagiarized Mangal we immediately reached out to her via email to 1) confirm she indeed wrote the piece in question and 2) apologize for making such a big mistake.
Mangal quickly responded to our query. “For sure, it’s my article. It was originally published on the website of Inside Syria Media Center. Actually, I don’t know Alice Donovan and who this person is,” asserted Mangal. “Besides, I wonder why my article was published on CounterPunch by that name though copyrights belong to me. I would be quite grateful if you publish my articles with the reference to me in future instead of others suspicious persons who steal my intellectual property.”
We decided to remove the article entirely from our site and issue an apology to Mangal for the error. By now Alice Donovan had vanished, so all we could do was assume she was a plagiarist, if not something more sinister. Mangal accepted our apology and even continued soliciting her work to us in the weeks to follow.
Even so, we believed something in Mangal’s awkward response to us was fishy. First, the English in most of her submissions was fractured, especially for someone who claims to have attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a “Media and Journalism” major. Second, as noted, Donovan’s pilfered piece was emailed to us around the very same time that Mangal’s story was being posted to the International Reporter site. How had Donovan seen it, cribbed it and sent it to us so quickly? Breaking her normal pattern of submitting her pieces to multiple venues, Donovan sent the plagiarized piece only to us and not to some of her other typical outlets. Why? Had someone screwed up? Hit the wrong send button on the wrong email account? In search of answers, we began looking more closely at Mangal’s blizzard of submissions, dating back to December 22, 2016.
It didn’t take long before we realized why we had passed on them. Most of Mangal’s writings embraced a rigidly narrow view of the war in Syria. The crux of her works read like regime-sponsored press releases. There was no nuance to the writing and few told the story from a war victim’s perspective. Virtually all exalted Russia’s military prowess and the tenacity of the Assad regime, as if she was embedded within the Syrian Army. Embedded reporting has its place, naturally, but were Mangal’s numerous dispatches from inside Syria actually “reported”? And how was it being done? Who were the nameless “Inside Syria Media Center sources,” which were referenced in so many of her pieces? Moreover, Mangal’s prose was unusually brittle and dull. Even if you are open about your bias, why render your war reporting in such boring sentences?
We receive submissions from writers from across the globe, so we are used to awkward sentence structures, but this was something different. Wasn’t Mangal an English-speaking editor? Wasn’t she a reporter who attended a top-tier journalism program in the United States? What was this Inside Syria Media Center all about? We had never heard of it before. The site claims to be an “independent medium that contributes to peace in Syria,” but would a truly independent outlet openly express their admiration for Assad with a #WeLoveYourBashar and #StillMyPresident on its Twitter page? You don’t hear that kind of unbridled sycophancy from Sputnik and RT.
— Inside Syria MC (@Inside_Syria) December 25, 2017
Fortunately, we thought, Mangal wasn’t exactly a ghost, like our friend Donovan. She was an editor at an actual news site, no matter its agenda, and was widely published across the web, with over 55 articles at Global Research alone. She had an active Facebook page. She even interviewed one of our writers via email about the prospects of a Syrian constitution. Most importantly, we thought, she was communicating with us.
As we noted in our piece on Alice Donovan, something else struck us as odd with Mangal. Both writers used a MAIL.com account for their initial emails to us. Out of the past 3,000 submissions to CounterPunch only four writers used MAIL.com accounts, that includes Donovan and Mangal. What this proves isn’t clear, but MAIL.com is notorious for providing a service where one can quickly produce a number of email accounts without any verification on one platform from one location. It is also one of the few email services which masks the IP address of the sender. A hacker’s delight.
By now we suspected something was up with Alice Donovan and we became suspicious of how Donovan had interacted with Mangal. Donovan had plagiarized verbatim an entire piece by Mangal and lifted passages from another. In both instances, Donovan’s submissions to CounterPunch arrived shortly after Mangal’s pieces had appeared on other sites. How did she have access to Mangal’s stories so quickly? Was Syria the key to unlocking the ultimate mystery of Alice Donovan? Couldn’t we just talk to Mangal and figure this all out? Were we just being paranoid?
We repeatedly attempted to schedule a chat with Mangal via Skype. Four times to be exact. Mangal initially emailed to say she couldn’t speak via Skype because she was in the mountains of Syria with a bad internet connection — hey, but thanks for the gesture, she said.
Yet, here she was, emailing us and dispatching her work across the web. She was even sending photos along with her pieces. How poor could her internet connection be? Activist and scholar Dr. Hawzhin Azeez spoke with CounterPunch Radio host Eric Draitser for an hour from war-torn Syria last year and we have writers in Syria who are able to communicate with us when needed.
We weren’t buying Mangal’s evasions. In the midst of the Donovan saga, Mangal had somehow sparked our intrigue.
Over the course of 2016 to 2017, we published a total of five articles by the intruder Alice Donovan. We aren’t proud we didn’t catch on and realize she wasn’t the living and breathing New Yorker she claimed to be. But despite the Washington Post’s assertion that Kremlin trolls are invading, by all accounts Alice was a rather insignificant and benign presence. Before the Post and our own exposé dropped, Donovan enjoyed fewer than 50 Twitter followers. Her articles weren’t widely read or shared.
However, Mangal, unlike Donovan, had a much larger online footprint. She had published dozens of more pieces and was an editor of an outlet with nearly 13,000 Twitter followers. In virtually every way she seemed more relevant than Donovan as an online journalist.
While it’s nearly impossible to prove who’s really behind an ambiguous online persona like Mangal’s, it is rather easy to break down one’s text and check for accuracies, influences, patterns and quirks. We couldn’t prove Alice Donovan was or was not a Russian huckster (we didn’t take the FBI’s word for it, see the ordeal of Wen Ho Lee), but we were able to unmask her as a plagiarist, which in journalistic quarters, at least, is a more grievous offense.
Could we accomplish something similar with Mangal?
On various websites, Sophia Mangal has been described as “a woman with a passion for Syria, the Church and justice,” as an “American patriot,” and as “a young University of North Carolina media and journalism grad.” But was she any of these things?
Mangal, much like Alice Donovan, seemed to have appeared out of thin air. There are no tracks of her days as a college student. There are no podcast appearances, radio or video interviews promoting her work as a reporter, almost de rigeuer activities for contemporary journalists. ISMC, which maintains its own YouTube channel, has posted many videos from Syria, yet none feature any of their writers, either interviewing anyone or being interviewed. In the Age of the Selfie, there’s only the one noirish photograph of Mangal, much of her face obscured behind large sunglasses. In her bio, Mangal claims to have “monitored” the European refugee crisis after leaving UNC, where she drew “parallels between the Syrian conflict and the Balkan problem.” If so, there is no evidence of her reporting on these issues, either before or after joining ISMC.
The first online trace of Mangal we could find is from November 2016, when she authored an article titled “Syria ISIS-Daesh Terrorists’ Financing Schemes Unveiled”, which was published at ISMC and Global Research, among others. That’s a pretty eye-popping story to break for your debut as an international correspondent. Even Seymour Hersh started out as a lowly beat reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago.
CounterPunch did not receive the “terrorist financing” submission, but we were approached by Mangal on December 21, 2016, with a piece that attempted to discredit Bana al-Abed, an eight-year-old Syrian girl, who, with the help of her English speaking mother, became a Twitter sensation during the battle for Aleppo. Assad-friendly writers were quick to push back against al-Abed’s version of events and her growing popularity. Mangal’s piece mimicked these talking points and wasn’t exceptionally groundbreaking, so we passed.
No doubt there were grounds to be suspicious of al-Abed’s overnight rise, but the counter-propaganda campaign was equally as shallow. In retrospect, the fact that Mangal was writing about the alleged fake identity of al-Abed (she had a habit of trying to expose fakers) — who is a very real girl now living in New York — is a bit comical. It seems Mangal has done her best to vanish, while al-Abed is still promoting herself and her family’s plight in Syria.
It’s unclear to us when Mangal became an editor at ISMC. Her first submission to CounterPunch that identified her as co-editor landed in February 2017. She appeared to remain an editor until we attempted to talk to her via Skype. After our last attempt to schedule a conversation on December 15, her name was suddenly removed from ISMC’s contact page, though it remains on the contributors page (see below.) Around this time, Mangal also deleted her Facebook page. Soon after our piece on Alice Donovan was published on Christmas Day, which named Mangal as the victim of Donovan’s cut-and-paste theft, Mangal’s name was scrubbed from the bylines at ISMC for every article she had written. Over the course of 2017, Mangal regularly published one or two pieces a week. Then the submissions and publications on other sites abruptly stopped. Her last published story at Global Research appeared on December 15.
What was going on? Mangal’s pieces weren’t being removed, just reassigned to a simple “ISMC” byline. But wasn’t Mangal the one who had been wronged by Donovan? We were confused. Rare for a “media center,” ISMC lists no physical address or phone number on their contact page. Were ISMC’s offices located in Chapel Hill? London? the Netherlands? Austria? Virginia? Damascus? There’s no clue. So we were forced to drop an email to the site’s chief-editor, Mariam Al-Hijab. After several attempts and days of waiting, we threw in the towel. No response.
It was certainly strange. First, Mangal wasn’t responding and now her co-editor wasn’t communicating either. So we reached out to ISMC’s other most prolific writer, Anna Jaunger, who is so astoundingly productive that she regularly churns out 3 or 4 stories a day. We noticed her pace of filing dispatches increased after Mangal faded away.
Again, we heard nothing. We sensed a pattern developing.
We decided to analyze a report Mangal had just dropped titled, “New Trends of A Resurgent Syrian Economy”, which claimed to have been written in collaboration with a writer named Anan Tello.
Coincidentally, Tello wrote a similar article with a few of the same paragraphs for Arab News. Tello’s was certainly the better of the two pieces, but whole sections appeared in Mangal’s version as well. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to realize Tello was an actual human being. She’s widely published and has an active, personal online presence. She was willing and eager to talk.
When asked if Tello knew Mangal, or had worked with her on the piece, she was emphatic, “I spent more than a week working on [that piece] for Arab News, and I worked on it all alone.” Tello explained, “The people I interviewed, as well as my editors, know that I worked on the piece alone … What [Mangal] did is outrageous and unacceptable. How could I have ‘cooperated’ with someone I’ve never spoken to in any way, never heard of and with whom I never had any kind of correspondence?”
Alice Donovan plagiarized Sophie Mangal and now Mangal ripped off Anan Tello? What the hell are we dealing with here? It compelled us to take a closer look at Mangal’s work, even though we had never published it. Sure enough, like Donovan, she had lifted lede grafs from other writers, most recently from a piece in The New Yorker.
Here’s Mangal’s lede in a piece at ISMC on December 12, in “WH Recognized Assad as the Only Power Capable to Restore Syria?” (Mangal’s byline has since changed to ISMC):
“The Trump Administration is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled Presidential election, in 2021, according to U.S. and European officials. The decision reverses repeated U.S. statements that Assad must step down as part of a peace process.”
Here’s Robin Wright for The New Yorker one day earlier on December 11, 2017, in “Trump to Let Assad Stay Until 2021, as Putin Declares Victory in Syria” (Mangal’s theft in bold):
“Despite the deaths of as many as half a million people, dozens by chemical weapons, in the Syrian civil war, the Trump Administration is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s continued rule until Syria’s next scheduled Presidential election, in 2021, according to U.S. and European officials. The decision reverses repeated U.S. statements that Assad must step down as part of a peace process.”
It was obvious. Mangal, like Donovan, was a journalistic klepto. The plagiarized was herself a plagiarizer.
Mangal also collaborated with journalist Sarah Abed, who writes for Mint Press News and edits The Rabbit Hole. Abed tells CounterPunch she never met Mangal in person and only communicated with her by email during their various collaborations. Mangal and Abed never spoke on the phone or via Skype and Abed says she hasn’t heard from Mangal for at least six months.
We also looked into Anna Jaunger’s work. She is even more prolific than Mangal. Jaunger’s first story for ISMC, “The Strange Logic of US Coalition Mistakes in Syria,” was published on October 27, 2016. Over the next 14 months, Jaunger’s byline appeared on more than 500 hundred stories–or about 1.25 stories every day. The ISMC archive for her articles is 56 pages long, at 8 to 10 articles per page. That’s an impressive clippings file for many journalists to amass over a decade, but Jaunger produced that many pieces in little over a year’s time. While many of the pieces are short rudimentary reports, others are more in depth. Her articles detailed troop movements, battle casualties, weapons shipments to rebel forces and intelligence estimates; they charted secret money networks, exposed covert operations, and analyzed US and European political debates and strategies. Stories that would take seasoned war correspondents days, even weeks, to report, flew off of Jaunger’s keyboard almost daily. How did she keep it up? Where was the information coming from?
On her Twitter page, Jaunger describes herself as an Austrian journalist working (“I love my job!”) for ISMC. Her work has been published by Global Research, Off Guardian, Information Clearinghouse, Dissident Voice and many other media outlets. We discovered she presents something of a façade as well. The profile photo on Jaunger’s Twitter page is actually a photograph of a woman named Anna Buxton from London, which was lifted directly from an employee directory at a company called LaSalle Investment Management. Apparently, Jaunger’s seven lucky followers didn’t question the authenticity of the snappy photo.
Of course, it goes without saying that all of this absurdity raises serious questions about the legitimacy of ISMC. Who is behind the project? We aren’t certain, exactly. But it’s been a fruitful endeavor. Altogether, Mangal and Jaunger have published hundreds of articles that have appeared all over the web. How do they pay for the site and ISMC’s three staffers, who supposedly travel frequently to Syria and back from Europe and the States? We couldn’t tell. Unlike most independent media outlets, they don’t ask for donations, don’t list an address or phone number and offer no biographical information about their editors and writers.
Tom Ginsberg, a respected international law professor at the University of Chicago participated in an interview with ISMC last February on the proposed Syrian constitution. We reached out to see what he knew about the site.
“I had not heard of them before,” explains Ginsberg, whose interview with ISMC was conducted via email. “When the interview came out, a friend from the region told me they had some kind of pro-Assad bias … I never actually spoke to a human being on the phone.”
We attempted to look under the hood of the operation to see if we could find a leak. The url “insidesyriamc.com” was registered to Barna Robert from Noord-Brabant, Netherlands on September 16, 2016. Who is Barna Robert? We couldn’t track him down through the email or phone number listed on the site’s registration page. (Like Donovan and Mangal, Robert used GMX.com as his email client, which functions the same as MAIL.COM, both of which are owned by United Internet.) It’s an unusual name. There just aren’t that many Barna Roberts in the world. (Or Robert Barnas for that matter.) We were only able to a locate a handful online, including a Hungarian body-builder who died in 2013, a Romanian soccer player and a Hungarian mathematician.
But a now-deleted Facebook page listed a Barna Robert as being from Aleppo, Syria, currently living in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. If that’s the same Barna Robert who registered the ISMC website, he lives just a two-hour drive from Sophie Mangal’s purported home in Wake County, NC. We searched for phone and property records for Mr. Robert in Carolina Beach and came up empty.
Inside Syria Media Center appears to have initially shown up as a Facebook group called “Syria: Look Inside!”, which is now also called Inside Syria Media Center. It is unclear when the name was changed. The group was created in February 2016, about a month before ISMC was operating online as a media project. Once ISMC went live, it was hosted on WordPress and later transferred to “insidesyriamc.com”, as noted above. One of the first individuals to promote the Facebook group was a journalist named Said Al-Khalaki, who also wrote some of the earliest content for ISMC and is an administrator for the Facebook group. Al-Khalaki did not respond to a request for comment.
Strangely, after we attempted to reach out to Al-Khalaki, his bylines at Inside Syria Media Center were also changed to the generic “ISMC”. (Here’s a piece by Al-Khalaki that appeared at Veteran’s Today and also at ISMC. Note the byline discrepancies.) Al-Khalaki’s online work dates back to at least 2013.
A records inquiry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mangal’s alleged stomping grounds, could not verify that either a “Sophie” or “Sophia” Mangal had ever graduated from or even attended the university. A search of the UNC General Alumni Association rolls also proved fruitless. We also searched the archives of The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s school paper, and found no trace of Mangal. As far as we can tell, she’s never written for the paper. Erica Beshears Perel, General Manager of The Daily Tar Heel, says after a quick search she couldn’t find a record of Mangal over the past ten years but cautioned that hundreds of students join her staff every year.
A month ago, we plunged down a rabbit hole in pursuit of Alice and emerged in a house of mirrors, populated by at least one phantom writer (Donovan), vanishing bylines and stolen texts that had proliferated across the web. Why does it matter? From bitter experience, we’ve learned that the price of the deception will be paid by the anti-war media, not the ghostwriters. The architects of COINTELPRO themselves couldn’t have devised a more insidious way to discredit the anti-war movement. This time, however, the wounds may be largely self-inflicted.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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