Russian Bear Attack: Tracking Back the Suspect Origin of a Viral Story
Written by: Craig Silverman
Igor Vorozhbitsyn was on a fishing trip in Northern Russia when he was attacked by a large bear.
Vorozhbitsyn was being mauled and feared for life until the bear was suddenly startled by a noise, causing it to run away. As was later reported by news organizations around the world, the bear ran off when Vorozhbitsyn’s phone began to play its ringtone: the song “Baby” by Justin Bieber.
In a line that was echoed by the many websites that ran with the story, MailOnline’s story led with the headline, “Finally, proof that Justin Bieber IS unbearable.”
After seeing the story tweeted out by someone on my Twitter timeline, I decided to see if it stood up to scrutiny.
Here’s how I eventually discovered that the Justin Bieber ringtone story wasn’t what it first appeared.
Step One: Close Reading
The first step was to gather all of the articles I could find in order to examine the facts they reported, and the sources they used. It soon became clear that all the stories about the bear-meets-Bieber tale included the same facts, and these facts were often stated without attribution. Most of the articles pointed to other articles that simply rewrote the story.
Some stories included the same quote from an unnamed “wildlife expert”: “Sometimes a sharp shock can stop an angry bear in its tracks and that ringtone would be a very unexpected sound for a bear.”
Many articles included the same pictures of the man in bandages. They were often attributed to CEN, the Central European News agency, or to EuroPics, another agency. It was clear that all of the stories were simply rewrites of the same facts, with them all pointing either to MailOnline or a site called the Austrian Times as the source. The photo agency, CEN, was also a potential source, as MailOnline credited it with the images.
Step Two: Identifying and Investigating the Original Source
The Austrian Times’ story was published prior to MailOnline’s. That meant it appeared to be the first English-language media outlet to carry the story.
The Austrian Times’s story repeated all of the same facts as the other stories, but the image it used was different in one important way:
Rather than credit the image to CEN or EuropPics, it cited a Russian publication, Komosomolskaya Pravda. This was the first indication that the story may have originated in a Russian news outlet.
By going to Pravda’s website and searching for the fisherman’s name, I discovered the original article about the bear attack, which predated the Austrian Times story by over a week:
It featured the photos that had spread everywhere, and a translation of the story also confirmed many of the key facts: the man’s name, the location where he was fishing, the bear attack... everything except one key detail. It made no mention of Justin Bieber. Instead, the story reported that the bear was scared off when the man’s phone began to recite the current time.
That meant at some point the Justin Bieber reference was inserted. Since it appeared to be the story that set off all the others, The Austrian Times was the place to focus more attention.
Step Three: Digging into The AustrianTimes/CEN/EuroPics
It was time to learn more about the Austrian Times and also about CEN/EuroPics, and where they got the story and the photos.
I called the phone number listed for the Times and asked to speak to the main person listed on their website, but was told he wasn’t available. The woman I spoke with said she didn’t know the specifics of the Bieber story, but that she would check with their people in Russia. As for their reporting process, she told me:
A lot of stories are found on the wire or in local media but also from local interviews on the ground, or we speak to the reporters who wrote them; we speak to police to get things confirmed.
That was the last real conversation I had with anyone at the Austrian Times, or at CEN/EuroPics. I soon found that the Times and the two agencies were all owned by the same man, Michael Leidig. The connection between the Times and CEN and its sister agency, EuroPics was found by performing Whois searches on all of the domains. They all came back to the same parent company and the same man, Leidig.
I called and asked to speak with him, but was told he was away on vacation and out of the country. He also didn’t respond to any of my emailed questions.
In the end, there remains no proof of the Justin Bieber connection, and the people who were responsible for spreading it refused to speak or answer questions.
With a bit of work to examine the content of the story, and track it back to the original source, news organizations around the world could have avoided giving exposure to a story that included fabricated material.