"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." — Peter Steiner, cartoonist
Here at Blogcritics, we're a pretty trusting bunch of folks. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that trait serves us well. A lot of people write here, many of them under pseudonyms. By and large, we trust that people represent themselves truthfully, and by and large, that has proven to be the case. Nonetheless, we recently found ourselves caught in someone else's web of deceit. Here's what happened, along with the virtual paper trail I constructed on our way to finding out how.
We publish original content on almost every topic imaginable, from reviews to political opinion pieces to sports news and everything in between. Every now and then, people join us for the wrong reasons, which quickly becomes apparent to both them and us. We don't have dedicated fact-checkers — we are not The New York Times, nor The New Yorker — and so we trust writers to do their own homework and verify their own facts. Further, we trust that when writers submit an article, they are submitting a truthful accounting of events.
Recently, we got our fingers burnt by our trusting nature and should have paid more attention to the old adage that if a thing sounds too good to be true, it usually is. A new writer to the site, who signed up under the user name richardjames (I shall refer to him hereafter as Richard James), submitted an interview with Donald Trump — yes, that Donald Trump, The Donald, a man who likely doesn't grant interviews with unknown bloggers very often. This is what we call a good catch, and it certainly falls into the "too good to be true" category. Mr. James wrote that he "caught up with The Donald at a restaurant in Manhattan where he talked about his story, the triumph and the glory." Blogcritics' publisher Eric Olsen contacted Mr. James to verify that the interview actually happened (he claimed that it did indeed) and in addition to being published, we gave it some coveted front page real estate.
Nonetheless, some members of the editorial staff (myself included) and at least one astute reader continued to have their doubts. Donald Trump probably has a bodyguard — would it even be possible for a stranger to approach him while he was dining out? And didn't it perhaps seem odd that when asked about what he was currently reading, Mr. Trump mentioned not just the title of the book but also the publisher? At the very least, it seemed that someone involved with the book was using this interview as a way to promote it. At the very worst, it was likely that the interview was made up.
My sleuthing instincts aroused, I set to work. It used to be the case — I've seen enough black-and-white movies about hard-boiled detectives to know this — that detective work was done on foot, and through the mail (the old-fashioned paper kind!), and over the telephone, and sometimes involved meeting unsavory types in back alleys. Nowadays, all you need is a place to start, and Google. So I decided to find out what I could about our Richard James. The first place I looked was our own backyard; he had published one other article with us and that's where the story begins to unravel…
Mr. James' first article was a review of a book called Africa's Best Stories. While we are loathe to give the book any more publicity (for reasons which will become clear), what follows is pertinent to the rest of the story. It turns out that Africa's Best Stories was published at Amazon's CreateSpace service by a publishing company called StoryAfrica, under the auspices of one Mfonobong Nsehe. Mr. Nsehe, not coincidentally, is a former contributor to Blogcritics. As it happens, the book that Donald Trump claimed to be reading in the interview we published (Crazy Billionaires Speak) is also published by — you guessed it — Mfonobong Nsehe. So we now have two articles on the site, by Richard James, which are promoting Mr. Nsehe's interests. I believe that coincidence is never outside the realm of possibility, but I was still very suspicious and set out to learn more about Mr. James.