Two websites claiming to be the pages for newspapers located in Quebec are the latest in a series of fake sites first uncovered by Radio-Canada in 2017.
The Koz Times and the Gal Post are nearly identical to a half-dozen fake newspapers run out of Ukraine that were identified in 2017. A majority of the sites’ codes are identical to the original sites, and Koz Times was previously hosted on the same IP address as one of the original sites. The Gal Post also shared a unique Google AdSense account ID as one of the previously identified sites.
Because they’re new — both sites were created in 2018 — the sites were able to earn revenue using AdSense, even though Google had disabled the original sites’ accounts after CBC inquired about them two years ago. The Ukraine-based creator of the sites, who previously spoke to Radio-Canada but requested to not have his name published, did not respond to recent emails requesting comment.
Google would not comment on specific cases, but a spokesperson said that the company has “strict policies that govern what kind of content we place ads on and what kind of content we allow in our news corpus, and if we find a website that violates our policies, we take immediate action.” After CBC News reached out for comment, the sites no longer had active Google ads displayed or embedded in the their code.
Even a quick glance at the Koz Times and the Gal Post reveals the similarities between previously identified fake sites such as the Sherbrooke Times; they share nearly identical design layouts.
Both sites purport to be located in Quebec City and list the same address — a private residence in the city’s Montcalm neighbourhood. Identical phone numbers are listed on the sites’ contact pages. Some of those numbers are disconnected, while others are for a local bank branch and another private residence. CBC News reached the owner of the private number, who said they were not associated with the site.
The sites also have extensive mastheads with staff titles and names. On the Koz Times’s site, there are even staff photos. But a search revealed the photos aren’t of the named persons. A photo for “Milie Owen, Creative Director,” for example, is actually of a model named Ksenia Novachuk.
Like the other sites in the network, stories published on Koz Times and Gal Post are rough translations or rewrites of real news stories from other outlets, including the CBC. One story posted on The Gal Post on June 12 appeared to be a rewrite of a CBC News story on a Canada Revenue Agency investigation into tax fraud. Another story, posted on the Koz Times site, appears to be a translation of a story from a Quebec City French-language daily, Le Soleil.
By lifting content from legitimate sources and hosting ads on the site, these fake newspapers are able to generate revenue with little effort. In a previous interview with Radio-Canada, the creator of the sites said he was able to bring in up to $500 a month through advertising — six times what his wife earned as a radiologist.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design in New York City, said sites like these are akin to pollution.
“It’s polluting the information space for fraudulent money,” he said.
Carroll added that platforms like Google have a responsibility to make it harder for fraudulent sites to earn revenue using its tools, in order to prevent the spread of disinformation.
“Platforms incentivize [fraud] — they almost induce it — by creating a self-serve, automated platform that is frictionless,” he said.
But Joshua Braun, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, noted that chasing down bad actors can be a cat-and-mouse game, and even if Google disables an account, those sites can usually find other advertising platforms to generate revenue.
“There’s a whole other tier of companies that are less discerning who are fighting for the scraps in this market,” Braun said. “They’ll accept pretty much anything.”