Romanian Website Owner Involved in the 'Fake News' Scandal

Inc.com published an article claiming that Ovidiu Drobota, 23, the owner of the Romanian conspiracy theory website, Expunere.com, published fake news favoring Republican candidate Donald Trump.

*

According to the Buzzfeed investigation cited in Inc., another one of Drobota’s websites, EndingTheFed.com, was identified as the source of four of the ten most viral fake news stories that made the social media rounds during the American election’s final three months.

One of the stories even claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump.

EndingTheFed’s audience is sizeable, reaching 3.3 million unique monthly visitors (mostly through Facebook).

Drobota, in an interview with Inc.com, said that he used to be a hacker but has now changed his approach.

“I heard about Donald Trump in October 2015 and I liked him. I liked that he was an outsider, and thought I could play a part in helping him win the presidency by creating a website. That’s when I launched endingthefed.com. I do regret publishing fake news, those articles have been erased, but I didn’t know the stories were fake when I first published them.”

He insists he’s simply a fan of Trump’s and denies any ties to Russia or WikiLeaks.

*

Here are some of the most viral fake news stories published on Drobota’s websites.

Megyn Kelly's Firing

Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, moderated an August 2016 debate where she confronted Trump over the disparaging remarks he made towards women on his Twitter account.

“There was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her, wherever”, Trump later said in a CNN interview, as evidence that Kelly was biased against him when she asked the question.

This Washington Post video offers a timeline of the Trump/Kelly feud:

On the weekend of the 27-28th of August, Drobota’s site published a story which purported that Fox News had fired Kelly over her hidden agenda, namely that she supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The story then showed up on the “Top Trending News” section on Facebook.

What makes this particular item even more interesting is that it made it to the top of Facebook not long after the company had fired their in-house news editors following accusations that they’d been favoring “liberal” content. The algorithms that replaced the editors had no problems pushing it to the top of the pile.

Pope Francis’ Endorsement

Two months later the following headline made waves: “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement”. It was presented as a unique announcement, the first time a Pope had endorsed a U.S. presidential candidate.

The post was widely shared on Facebook, and, according to businessinsider.com, the story garnered 961,300 engagements (the number of times it was liked and shared).

The news about Obama cutting VA Funds

In May 2016, the story alleging that Obama cut 2.6 billion dollars out of the veterans’ association benefits budget and then allocated $ 4.5 billion towards immigrating Syrian refugees was found to be composed of half-truths and was mostly false. It still garnered 1.7 million engagements on Facebook.

Drobota is also connected to various websites with obscure ownership details

PressOne first ran into Ovidiu Drobota in the Spring of 2016 while investigating the Euro-skeptic "Gândeste România" video posted by Gandeste.org (“Think”).

As soon as the video was posted on Gandeste.org, Drobota added it to his YouTube channel, promoted it on expunere.com, and on the site’s Facebook page. At the time, his own Facebook profile indicated he was CEO and Founder at expunere.com, details that have since been removed.

We contacted him at the time, in regards to the video and he identified himself as the online marketing manager for a recently established political party, The New Romania Party (PNR), a party that describes itself as, “right of centre, built on liberal principles, democracy, social justice, solidarity, respect, and competence.”

The PNR founders have their own websites as well. One of these is exclusivNEWS.ro, whose editor in chief is also the party’s leader. Their editorial staff, based in Alexandria, is comprised of a correspondent and three reporters. Exclusivnews.ro redirects visitors to another news site, recentnews.ro, where Drobota’s name comes up as a writer on the site.

Drobota was also the protagonist of a 2015 protest, started by a story about illegal logging posted on e-bihoreanul.ro. In the story he says that he is a computer science student in Oradea and is passionate about the environment.

Following the story’s posting on Facebook, the protest brought out 2,000 people in Oradea and 25 other protests were announced countrywide.

Name holders of these sites constitute "personal data"

The content on expunere.com, as well that of similar ‘publications’, is often taken from a growing number of websites which claim to expose various hidden truths about Romania. It is hard, however, to track down the owners of these sites.

Eugen Staicut, head of the Romanian Top Level Domain (RoTLD) department at the National Informatics Research and Development Institute (ICI), was able to provide a detailed response to the situation:

“Contact details for a .ro domain owner have not been made public since 2008 when a new domain registration system was put in place.

Requests for information with regard to the identity of domain owners have to satisfy the criteria outlined in Law 557/2001, article 5, sections 1 and 2. These outline the legitimate grounds for the information requested by the third party. A series of documents are necessary to establish the legitimacy of the requests. Furthermore, the domain registrar is not responsible for the content on .ro registered domain; that responsibility falls entirely upon the domain owner who is bound by legal terms and conditions of the registering authority.”

Some conspiracy theory websites

Over the past few years, a slew of websites with anonymous owners are busy publishing fake news, articles taken out of context, and other materials that claim to prove various intrigues against Romanians.

For example, there are some who claim that Hitler lived well after the end of the Second World War, or that the planet is led by an extraterestrial species.

Some claim that our country’s history has been falsified in order to hide the true origins of the Romanians. Finally, another category of “news” contains altered or truncated news taken from legitimate sources.

Some examples: expunere.com, stiriextreme.ro, fluierul.ro, cocoon.ro, nationalisti.ro, gandeste.org, cyd.ro, criterii.ro, caplimpede.ro, meritocratia.ro, vremuritulburi.com, certitudinea.ro.

Given the proliferation of websites that promise to unveil hidden truths, the Supreme Council of National Defence (CSAT) has included propaganda among threats to national security.

We therefore sought clarification on the matter from the country’s Presidential Administration and, by way of reply, we received an official definition of the term ‘propaganda’.

“In its modern definition, propaganda meets the following criteria:

  • It is planned, premeditated, sponsored by a particular entity, such as a person (a political leader, for example), an institution (either private or public), or an organization;
  • It is disquieting;
  • It seeks political objectives;
  • It can be disseminated in a variety of ways including censorship, or authoritarian behavior towards the target audience;
  • It is exclusivist in nature. It doesn’t avoid, nor admit, other points of view. It is firmly based on lies, dishonesty, half-truths, or truths taken out of context;

In modern society’s current state, where the progress of technology and information intersect in an unprecedented dynamic, the new media methods of disseminating and processing information (mainly through social media) prioritize the speed of delivery, often to the detriment of the content’s quality and/or objectivity and without due diligence on the quality of sources.

This lack of focus (on quality) can also be explained through the improvement of manipulation and disinformation methods by certain entities – such as PSYOPS, CIMIC initiatives. These are all favorable grounds for the creation and dissemination of propaganda in its intended, detrimental scope.”