Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab
The who and why behind the spread of Amartya Sen’s false death news
This article is more than 6 months old

The who and why behind the spread of Amartya Sen's false death news

Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab

“A terrible news. My dearest Professor Dr. Amartya Sen has died minutes ago. No words.” The post from the X account (formerly Twitter) “Claudia Goldin” quickly circulated on both mainstream and social media on October 10th.

However, within an hour, Nandana Dev Sen, the daughter of Nobel laureate economist Dr. Amartya Sen, reassured everyone from her own ‘X’-account that her father was perfectly fine and that they had just returned from a beautiful vacation together. Unfortunately, by then, the false news had already spread far and wide, becoming a topic of discussion across the globe.

During the investigation into how this misinformation had spread, Dismislab identified Italian journalist Tommaso Debenedetti. Through analyzing his previous work, interviews with various media outlets, and numerous Twitter posts, Dismislab gained a profound understanding of his striking views on the role of the media and the dissemination of fake news and deception in the digital era.

How this hoax went viral

As previously mentioned, the origins of this news can be traced back to an account operating under the pseudonym “Claudia Goldin.” Just the day before, on October 9th, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had officially declared Claudia Goldin as the Nobel laureate in economics. An acknowledgment post was also made from the official Nobel Prize account, referencing Goldin’s achievement.

Several Indian news outlets (1, 2) disseminated the news of Amartya Sen’s death, citing posts from Goldin’s X-account as their sources. In Bangladesh, multiple media organizations (1, 2, 3) swiftly published the news online citing PTI and NDTV. Some media entities raced to be the first to break the news, displaying photo cards on their social media accounts. Multiple television channels prominently featured the story on their scrolls. However, after the actual news surfaced, each newsroom either retracted their initial reports (1) or made modifications (1, 2).

The news of the death of an economics Nobel laureate, shared by another Nobel laureate in the same field, evoked widespread grief and was widely believed. Within an hour, over two thousand users shared the post of the false death news, and more than five thousand people reacted to it.

The actual X-account handle of Claudia Goldin was @PikaGoldin, whereas the handle for the false death announcement account was @profCGoldin. Many did not find it necessary to verify the facts.

Live Mint reported that the fake profile was created in May 2023 and was not associated with Claudia Goldin. However, moments after Nandana Sen shared real news, the fake account of Claudia Glodin revealed that the profile was created by an Italian journalist named Tommaso Debenedetti. The fake profile was promptly deleted shortly after that.

Is it coincidental that a fake Claudia Goldin account emerged before her Nobel win, spreading false news about another laureate? In March 2012, a report published in The Guardian, a UK-based newspaper, revealed Tommaso Debenedetti’s modus operandi. He typically creates an account under any name and then changes it later. For example, he created a fake account in the name of Kim Jong Un and demonstrated to The Guardian journalists how easy it is to change the name of that account to Sonia Gandhi.

Who is Tommaso Debenedetti? 

Tommaso Debenedetti, a 64-year-old freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, comes from a family with a literary background. His father was a poet and literary critic, and his grandfather was an author and journalist. He taught history at a middle-aged school and is infamous for his creation of false interviews and news articles. 

Before spreading false reports about Amartya Sen, Debenedetti had posted fake news about the death of Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina on September 11th earlier this year. He also utilized a fake account to disseminate this news through various media outlets. Debenedetti gained attention in March of the previous year for spreading false news about the death of Nobel laureate British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

Debenedetti’s journey into spreading false information started through fake interviews, including of well-known authors such as Arthur Miller, John Grisham, and Philip Roth. He tricked conservative media outlets in Italy as these outlets, without proper fact-checking, published these fabricated interviews.

According to The Guardian’s report, Debenedetti’s fake interviews became evident in 2010 when a journalist asked Philip Roth about his supposed criticism about the then-U.S. President Barack Obama. Philip Roth denied any such interview, leading to the revelation of Debenedetti’s deception.

Debenedetti defended his actions, claiming that Italian newspapers paid only 20 to 40 euros to publish his fake interviews. He argued that he did this to highlight their lack of fact-checking, particularly when the information aligns with their editorial biases.

Judith Thurman, a writer for The New Yorker, quoted Debenedetti as saying, “Italy is a joke” and “Information in this country is based on falsehoods.

When his activities gained wide media attention, Debenedetti gave an interview to Miguel Mora, published in the Spanish newspaper El País. In the interview, he said that he wanted to be a responsible cultural journalist. However, he observed that in Italy, having a “big” name for the interview was often prioritized over the culture. He then submitted fake interviews of Gore Vidal to various newspapers and magazines, and they were published.

Debenedetti continued this practice, writing fake interviews with different famous names one after another. He told El País, “I like to be the Italian champion of lies. I believe I have discovered a new genre and hope to publish more fake content on my website and in books, of course, including an foreward by Philip Roth”.

Why did Debenedetti spread false death news?

Over the past decade, Debenedetti has propagated false news about the deaths of various prominent individuals, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, author Milan Kundera, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Tamaso told The Washington Post that people believe social media is more trusted as a source; they believe that the fight against fake news has been successful, and as a consequence, people are more misled.

On September 4th, after spreading the false news of singer Tomeu Penya’s death, Debenedetti talked to Catalunya Radio. “I have done this to expose the current state of journalism,” he said in the interview. “The pressures of social networks lead journalism into significant mistakes.”

According to ZeroHedge, In 2012, global crude oil prices spiked within minutes of Debenedetti spreading fake news about Syrian President Assad’s death. Debenedetti blamed the media for the incident, as the media took the tweets of a fake profile as facts and published the news without verifying it.

Journalist Mario Vargas Llosa summed it up in his book “Notes on the Death of Culture: Essay On Spectacle and Society,” quoting Tommaso Debenedetti:

“‘I lied, but only to tell a truth.’ What truth? That we live in fraudulent times, in which any offence, if it is amusing and entertains enough people, is forgiven.”