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Russian Media Duped By Fake British Soccer Journalists' Hooligan Tweets

Russian soccer fans clash with an English fan (right) during the match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on June 11.
Russian soccer fans clash with an English fan (right) during the match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome in Marseille on June 11.

Violence between Russian and English soccer fans at the UEFA 2016 European Championship in France has shocked the game's supporters across the world with its brutality. In Russia, leading media outlets zeroed in on reports by a pair of purported British soccer journalists about English fans stoking the mayhem with "disgusting" behavior.

The state-owned RT network cited a Tweet by "British sports journalist Simon Rowntree" stating that English fans called their Russian counterparts "commie scum" and chanted a crude reference to Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, who was recently banned for two years for taking performance-enhancing substances.

It then cited tweets by "another member of the British media, Martyn Macintyre," stating that two English fans wiped "their bottoms with a Russian flag. No wonder Russian fans responded so angrily."

The claims were picked up by several Russian media outlets, including the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency and the Kremlin-loyal national daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Some cursory googling of these two purported journalists -- or even a quick glance at their other tweets about "sickening" and "disgraceful" behavior by fans at the tournament -- might have quickly tipped off these publications to the fact that "Rowntree" and "Macintyre" are, in fact, parody personalities reporting largely fake soccer news on the Twitter accounts bearing their names.

As the Irish website noted last year, "Rowntree" and "Macintyre" identify themselves as journalists for a newspaper called The Forest Echo -- also fictional and with its own Twitter feed -- and "have made a name for themselves by reporting on fake, often highly offensive, stories on football."

"But the Forest Echo splice their fake news in with real news, which can be somewhat confusing for readers who just see stories popping up sporadically on their timelines," journalist Darragh Murphy notes.

The key to any good prank -- as Sacha Baron Cohen's fictitious characters demonstrate -- is including just enough implausible elements so that anyone who falls for it has no excuse for having been duped. A tweet by "Rowntree" stating that English fans were chanting the praises of the extremist Islamic State group would seem to meet this bar of implausibility.

It's not the first time that Russian media outlets have mistaken English-language online satire for legitimate news.

Last year, the Russian government's official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper published an angry op-ed about U.S. Senator John McCain's alleged call for "military action" against FIFA after Switzerland arrested seven officials with global soccer's governing body on corruption charges.

The comments attributed to McCain actually came from a satirical article published by American humorist Andy Borowitz on the website of the U.S. magazine The New Yorker. The May 29, 2015, op-ed remains unchanged on Rossiiskaya Gazeta's website.

RT at some point added a pair of asterisks to its story quoting "Rowntree" and "Macintyre," noting that their claims have "since been refuted."

No similar correction has been made by Komsomolskaya Pravda or RIA Novosti, which is part of the media company headed by vehemently anti-Western executive and presenter Dmitry Kiselyov.

The RIA Novosti report citing "Rowntree" was picked up by several other prominent Russian media outlets that have yet to issue corrections as well.

Props, however, are in order for the popular national daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, which quickly flagged the purported journalists' tweets as satire.

"These witness accounts were attributed to two tweets of certain Western journalists -- Simon Rowntree and Martin Macintyre -- that were not corroborated by any other news items," it noted.

Not that some English fans in France haven't been acting badly. Video footage has emerged that apparently shows a group of England supporters mocking migrant children.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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