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'That's Ridiculous': Media Fall For Twitter Hoax That Nobel Winner Alexievich Died


Svetlana Alexievich (file photo)

An apparent Twitter hoax has duped major Russian and European media into falsely reporting the death of Belarusian author and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

Erroneous reports of the Russophone writer's death reverberated particularly across the Russian media landscape at around midday in Europe on May 18, with both state-run and private news outlets stating that the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner known for her explorations of human tragedy had died.

Amid the reports, Alexievich, 68, confirmed to RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she was, in fact, alive.

"Someone's impatient," she said wryly from Seoul, South Korea.

She added, "No, that's ridiculous," before changing the subject to discuss her efforts to help a Belarusian woman currently in a difficult situation.

The apparent source of the claim was a newly created Twitter feed purporting to be that of Francoise Nyssen, who was named as France's culture minister this week by newly elected President Emmanuel Macron. Nyssen formerly headed the Actes Sud publishing house, which was founded by her father and published Alexievich's works in French.

The account's first tweet was posted on May 17, and its initial tweet -- in French -- claiming Alexievich had died was only the fourth post to the feed.

An English-language tweet followed shortly thereafter, reading: "A terrible news. Svetlana Alexievich dies. No details."

Media outlets pounced on the tweet, pushing out headlines and news alerts with unattributed headlines saying that the author had "died."

Russian-language news outlets that ran with the story included the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the popular tabloids Life.ru and Komsomolskaya Pravda, state-run news agency RIA Novosti, and the prominent privately owned news agency Interfax.

The website of Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, also reported the erroneous news on its website.

Other European outlets that circulated the false report include the French newspaper Le Figaro, which subsequently issued a correction, and leading Portuguese daily Diario de Noticias.

Reporters from various media outlets began calling Alexievich, who confirmed that she was alive, and publications began steadily updating their stories within the hour.

Le Figaro noted that the French publishing house that Nyssen headed had also dismissed the report as false.

Rossiiskaya Gazeta -- which once ran an op-ed by an author who appeared to take seriously a satirical English-language article suggesting Republican U.S. Senator John McCain had proposed air strikes against FIFA, world soccer's governing body -- had not updated its story nearly an hour after it was originally posted.

Asked whether the Twitter feed was indeed Nyssen's, a spokeswoman for the minister told RFE/RL by telephone on May 18 that the account was "not verified" but did not elaborate.

Within an hour of the original tweet claiming that Alexievich had died, another tweet appeared on the feed saying the account is a "hoax created by Italian journalist Tommasso Debenedetti."

Debenedetti has previously fabricated interviews with a range of world-famous authors, including the American novelists Philip Roth and John Grisham.

It could not be immediately confirmed whether he was the individual behind the Alexievich ruse.

The Russian state's English-language outlet, Sputnik International, which routinely reports gleefully on EU member governments' missteps, continued to report that "French Culture Minsiter [sic] Francoise Nyssen claimed on Twitter Thursday that Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich...has died" up high in its story despite including the tweeted confession of the prankster lower in the story.

Alexievich's writing has focused on the plights of ordinary people through the tragedies of the 20th century, including Nazi occupation, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Born in Soviet Ukraine to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Alexievich is a tenacious critic of totalitarianism and a vocal opponent of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With reporting by Antoine Blua and RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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