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Fake Story about Jagmeet Singh Pops up on Vancouver Courier Site, Others

Mysteriously and falsely, paid content ad says NDP leader owns opulent mansion.

By David Beers and Bryan Carney 5 Feb 2019 |

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Bryan Carney reports for The Tyee and is director of web production.

No, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh does not live in a $5.5-million dollar mansion resplendent with ornate staircases and murals painted on ceilings. But online visitors to the Vancouver Courier and other sites were fed that fake news today.

The facts about how that happened remain murky, but what’s clear is that a major online ad network whose CEO boasts of “disciplined processes” to prevent “tricksters” can be used to deliver false and potentially damaging information to thousands of voters during a high-stakes election in Canada.

The Tyee noted this morning an ad located below a Vancouver Courier news story. The ad showed a photo of Singh over the headline: “Jagmeet Singh Shows off His New Mansion” and in small type the words Attorney Cocktail.

Clicking on it took the reader to an article on the site Attorney Cocktail headlined “13 Super Luxurious Celebrity Houses – They Surely Know How to Spend Their Fortune.”

Clicking further delivered far more than 13 pages of celebrities with homes, ranging from Ivanka Trump to Michael Jordan to Drake. In fact the article, in classic clickbait fashion, provided 145 pages this morning when The Tyee tried it.

Number 145 showed Singh with photos of a mansion but, unlike any of the other slides, no text explaining who he is or where the home is located other than “Canada.”

The ad featuring Singh’s image linking to the mansion story was placed on the Vancouver Courier by Taboola, an advertising network that pays news sites to host sponsored content by its clients.

Other organizations taking its ads, Taboola says, include Bloomberg, USA Today, NBC and the Weather Channel. The linked stories tend to focus on classic “clickbait” topics such as get rich schemes, celebrity gossip and health aids.

That Jagmeet Singh’s face with a falsehood would show up in that mix while he is campaigning in a tight byelection in the Burnaby South riding raises questions about who might have wanted the NDP leader to be associated with wealth and luxury.

Singh does not own a luxury home and currently is renting a floor in a Vancouver Special-style house in Burnaby, campaign officials said.

Contacted by The Tyee, James Smith of the federal NDP said he is aware of the ads and has been trying to get in touch with Taboola to remove them. The same ad, he said, appeared on websites for the History Channel and the Independent newspaper based in the UK.

“This raises obvious questions,” said Smith. “Who paid for it? Was it a third party or a political party, which would create legal questions regarding the Elections Act.” He added, “This obviously has real implications for the general federal election.”

A different NDP spokesperson told The Tyee that party officials are also working with Facebook to remove false stories that either say Singh owns a mansion or that he is a terrorist. The Singh-led NDP has been the target of false Facebook posts since fall 2018.

A spokesperson for Taboola early today told The Tyee the company takes fake news seriously and would remove the content if it violates their internal policy.

Later Taboola CEO Adam Singolda replied by email that he spoke to his “content review team” of over 50 people.

“This was a clear violation of our policy and it has been removed from our network,” he said.

A Courier spokesperson said the newspaper provides a list of things they don’t want on the site but sometimes advertisers “sneak through” and they have to address them as they come up.

Alvin Brouwer, president of Lower Mainland Publishing said the ads from Taboola don’t represent a significant stream of revenue, and if this were to happen with any regularity he would pull them all down.

This is the first time he had heard of a political figure portrayed in the ads served to his publications by Taboola.

Taboola serves 20 billion ads a day to various sites, offering the sites the option of not showing certain kinds of ads, according to the “Reply All” podcast hosted by Alex Goldman.

The network offers an easy revenue stream for news organizations hungry for income now that Facebook and Google absorb most funds from advertisers. The Tyee does not host such ads or content.

The Tyee found the photos of the building displayed next to the NDP leader on Lawyer Cocktail actually are of a Hollywood area mansion called “The Villa Fiona” offered for rent for up to $4,995 a night by various luxury rental sites.

HGTV claims on a page that celebrities such as Blake Shelton have hosted parties there and “RuPaul, Heidi Klum and and Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) have also called it home.”

The photo of Singh used in the ad for the story is licensed by Reuters and credited to Mark Blinch.

The person who uploaded the picture of Singh to the fake mansion article appears to have modified an image of country music star Blake Shelton next to the Villa Fiona, used on other celebrity gossip clickbait sites.

582px version of Blake Shelton
Whoever created the fake Singh page did it by doctoring this existing page showing celebrity Blake Shelton with a Hollywood mansion.

Taboola CEO Singolda said his firm merely distributes content by clients including Attorney Cocktail, which was responsible for producing the luxury homes article.

Singolda said Taboola could not know how the fake page in the article about Singh was created, and relied on all its sponsored content clients to not publish false information.

Using Singh and the fake mansion claim as the ad, which linked to the entire article, meant far more people would see the false information than just people who clicked on the ad. Who made that decision?

“The advertiser — in this case Attorney Cocktail — was responsible for selecting the thumbnail image and uploading it to Taboola’s platform,” replied Singolda.

The Tyee contacted Attorney Cocktail but received no response.

Asked how many people likely saw the false ad, Singolda said “we are not authorized” to say.

At 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 5, The Tyee again clicked on the Attorney Cocktail story headlined “13 Super Luxurious Celebrity Houses – They Surely Know How to Spend Their Fortune.” It remained live on the Internet, and page 145 had not been changed, showing Singh’s picture and the mansion he is said to own but does not.

Now though, there was a page 146 to click. That one features radio shock jock Howard Stern and a home said to be worth $7.7 million. Like the Singh page, but no others in the article, it includes no accompanying text.  [Tyee]

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