“Canada’s Prime Minister begs Nigeria President for one million immigrants,” reads the headline on an article published in April on the website CBTV.
The article claims that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had announced the creation of a new employment and migration program for immigrants.
But the program doesn’t exist. Trudeau never had any such discussions with the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari.
The fabricated story has been shared about 2,600 times and drew negative reactions from the Yellow Vests Canada Facebook group, which is attached to the Canadian arm of the Yellow Vests, a mass movement of protests in France against taxation and high gas prices.
The article also circulated on social media, including WhatsApp groups in Nigeria. It’s impossible to determine how many times it was shared on WhatsApp because the messaging app is encrypted and the conversations aren’t public. But AFP Fact Check — a service of the international news wire service that debunks online hoaxes — and the High Commission of Canada to Nigeria both felt compelled to deny the story.
Nigeria isn’t the only country that’s been targeted by the fake story. Identical articles were published on the CBTV site mentioning the Philippines, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Pakistan, Ghana and Uganda. In each instance the story text is identical — only the name of the country and the head of state who supposedly spoke to Trudeau were changed.
Another site called City News — which imitates a local Canadian news site — also published several of these articles. The site seems to be managed by the same person or people who run CBTV; a Radio-Canada analysis determined both sites share the same Google Analytics ID.
Tactics to confuse readers
These sites use the same visual codes as news media and sometimes even publish real news on their sties. According to Herman Wasserman, a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, this serves to confuse the reader.
It’s a popular tactic with the people who run fake news sites. In 2017, Radio Canada discovered imposter websites that looked like Quebec media sites but were actually based in Ukraine, and those sites used the same tactic.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) confirmed that the ministry is aware of the story.
“IRCC regularly surveys online disinformation. When false information is distributed, like in this case, we try to act quickly to provide the facts,” said Rémi Larivière. He said that the ministry published a tweet and posted on Facebook to counteract the story.
Where the one million figure originated
Even though the story is false, the one million immigrants figure does has some basis in reality. The federal government announced in 2017 that it wanted to welcome more immigrants over the next three years. The government planned to admit 310,000 immigrants in 2018, 330,000 in 2019 and 340,000 in 2020, for a total of 980,000 immigrants over three years.
That number includes the total number of immigrants Canada wanted to receive from all countries — not one country in particular.
Another false article on the CBTV website claimed that Trudeau “ordered “Parliament to approve visa-free entry” for visitors from certain foreign countries.
Again, the site published the same article repeatedly, changing only the name of the country and the head of state. Fiji, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Gambia were all targeted by the false story. In Sri Lanka, the article was even translated into Tamil.
If you write stories about immigration, it’s something that lots of Africans think about: immigration, becoming more mobile, having a better life. So this type of story is immediately attractive.– Herman Wasserman, media studies professor, University of Cape Town
Herman Wasserman, a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said it’s not surprising that Canada is the focus of articles that cater to an African audience, because many Africans aspire to immigrate here.
“If you write stories about immigration, it’s something that lots of Africans think about — immigration, becoming more mobile, having a better life. So this type of story is immediately attractive,” he said.
Wasserman said Canada also has a reputation of being more welcoming to immigrants than the United States, which makes these false stories more credible.
“Trudeau has a more positive and friendly image in the media than (U.S. President Donald) Trump. It’s well known that Trump is anti-immigration, that he wants to build a wall and that the United States is a hostile environment to foreigners,” he said.
African and Asian celebrities falsely reported dead
In addition to false news about immigration, these two sites also published hoaxes claiming real people had died.
Most of the supposed ‘victims’ are athletes, popular actors or other well-known figures from Africa and South Asia. In all cases, the stories stated they died while travelling in Canada, but the articles remain vague about the dates and the exact locations of their deaths.
“Man knocked down by vehicle in Toronto identified as Guyanese cricketer Shivnarine Chanderpaul,” reads one of the articles.
“BREAKING NEWS: [Nigerian actress] Patience Ozokowor and her daughter drowned in Canada,” says another.
Again, the sites published nearly-identical stories with only the name of the victim changed. In many cases, the people mentioned had to refute stories about their deaths on social media.
Wasserman said he believes that false news stories about Canada are easier for a foreign audience to believe.
“Canada is less well-known,” he said. “In Africa there’s less news about Canada than about the United States.
“If you say that someone has died in Montreal or Toronto, it’s not easy (for a reader abroad) to verify. But if you say someone has died in New York, people will say, ‘If it’s true, it would be all over CNN and we would’ve heard about it, so it’s not true.'”
Who is behind the site?
It’s not possible to determine the identity of the person who runs CBTV and City News because both sites were registered anonymously. They were created several days apart in April this year, and almost immediately started publishing fake stories.
IRCC also doesn’t know the identity of the people who are spreading the fake stories, according to Larivière.
The purpose of the sites could be financial, because they contain ads. The platform that places the ads that appear on CBTV, MGID, didn’t respond to questions from Radio-Canada about whether the company was aware its ads fund sites that spread disinformation.
In 2017, Google announced it would ban fake news sites from its ad platform, Google AdSense. Since then, many false news sites have turned to other sources of revenue.
The strategy of creating repetitive fake articles targeting specific communities to attract clicks and and shares on social media isn’t new. In March of 2016, a site created hundreds of articles about celebrities moving to small towns across North America.
One of the stories, shared numerous times on Facebook in Quebec, said that actor Leonardo DiCaprio had bought a house in Baie-Saint-Paul, in the Charlevoix.
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