During the coordinated airstrikes in Syria launched by the United States, France and Britain in response to a chemical attack on civilians believed to be carried out by the Assad regime, Twitter users rushed to find reliable sources of information about the attack. Unfortunately, many of them were tricked by Arturas Kerelis, a scammer pretending to be an authority on the situation.
Tweeting from his verified account, Kerelis fired off more than 50 tweets with the hashtag #Syria over the course of the evening. While he never explicitly claimed to be located in the country, many users appeared to believe Kerelis was on the ground in the war-torn country, capturing footage and passing on information as he was gathering it.
Kerelis' tweets racked up thousands of retweets and likely reached millions of people. But Kerelis was not in Syria. The footage and photos he tweeted were not his own, and in many cases weren't even of Syria. As software researcher Asher Langston pointed out, Arturas Kerelis is actually Arturas Rosenbacher, an internet grifter who has made a habit of using trending stories and events to get attention and fame.
Rosenbacher first gained attention for hijacking an attempt to hack the iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner. According to a ZDNet story documenting the incident in 2013, Rosenbacher promised $US10,000 ($12,878) to the winner of an existing bounty program looking for flaws with Apple's TouchID sensor.
He's since made a career out of pretending to be something that he's not. He's created a huge collection of fake accounts that he operates. He posed as Mircosoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Twitter, an "official" Google account called Google Startups, and as a CNN employee.
Over the years, Rosenbacher has maintained an impressive, always evolving, and almost entirely fake resume. He has claimed to be a Google employee working for their research and development team, a member of WikiLeaks, and the creator of the iPhone game TapTap Revenge and the founder of Tumblr.
When he was arrested for driving under the influence in Hillsborough County, Florida, he told the police he was a co-founder of Twitter.
According to his Twitter profile, he currently works in television and film production and is a former fellow of the nonprofit group Organising for Action. According to his LinkedIn, he works as an independent contractor with NBCUniversal, Warner Brothers, Disney, Fox, and Showtime. He provided some evidence of these claims with Gizmodo via Twitter.
But in short, Rosenbacher is a bullshit artist.
He was back at it again while more than 100 missiles rained down on Syria. Armed with a blue checkmark next to his name that is too often mistaken for a sign of legitimacy and a mostly fake and purchased Twitter following of more than 130,000, Rosenbacher began sharing photos and videos that he claimed to be taken during the airstrikes from his account, @arturaskerelis.
Most of the information Rosenbacher shared was false, or at least not legitimately acquired by him. Many of his tweets were broken English translations of other tweets. Most of the videos and photos he shared were not even of Syria.
One depicted an attack on the Ukrainian city of Luhansk that took place over three years ago.
Because information moves fast, most of what Rosenbacher posted was shared without question. People retweeted the footage, and eventually, news sources started asking for permission to use his content. At one point, Kerelis tweeted that all of the media he shared could be used by "any news sources worldwide."
Some news organisations took him up on that offer: Heavy.com embedded tweets from Kerelis in its coverage, as did conservative outlets the Daily Caller and Twitchy. MSNBC aired footage of the attack in Ukraine that Rosenbacher tried to pass off as legitimate.
What a goddamn fraud. pic.twitter.com/XA2g44AcpZ
— Asher Langton (@AsherLangton) April 14, 2018
Hey @MSNBC, the video you just broadcast as being from today's #SyriaStrikes in Damascus was actually filmed in the Ukrainian city of Luhansk over three years ago. https://t.co/3tpK4Yc4Sx pic.twitter.com/tDmvjAs8N3
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) April 14, 2018
It's easy to accidentally share false or unverified information in the middle of a hectic, confusing moment. The fact that Twitter can't decide what its "verified" badge is supposed to represent has lent credibility to everyone from white supremacists to scam artists like Rosenbacher doesn't help.
News organisations that are increasingly low on bodies in their newsrooms are supposed to act as gatekeepers but can get lazy in the rush to be first to report.
The era of fake news has no end in sight.
In a direct message on Twitter, Rosenbacher told Gizmodo he never claimed to be in Syria and said it was unfair of people to assume he was there. According to Rosenbacher, he was just copying photos and videos with geotags located in Syria and reposting the content on his account.
"I never said I was in Syria period," he said. "It's bullshit people assumed, not fair or cool. Anyone who asked me if I was there I said no, and told them I was using Tweetdeck to post the images and videos coming out of Syria."