"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.
I've googled countless writers over the past several years. Even the most obscure among us leave a bit of a breadcrumb trail as we traverse the Internet. While I did indeed find various people named Richard James in a simple search, none of them seemed likely to be our Mr. James — no blog, no other works, no Facebook page — in short, no breadcrumbs. His author's bio here at the site was strangely bereft of content. I decided at that point to backtrack a bit to his point of admission — he must have given us a URL on his writer application! And indeed he had. In fact, he gave us not one, but two! So our Mr. James would have us believe that he was both a real estate agent and a chess tutor (both in the UK, as it happens). Okay, some people like to keep themselves busy. But I was still suspicious, and now the plot thickens…
My next step was to Google "Africa's Best Stories," which led me to a very interesting article at BOOK Southern Africa, a website and reader/writer community dedicated to the promotion of South African literature. It would appear that Africa's Best Stories is a fraudulent work. Apparently Mr. Nsehe decided to publicize the book by falsely stating that Oprah Winfrey had chosen it as one of her book club picks (and the interested reader can find a press release or two about this, one of which happens to have been submitted to Ground Report by — Richard James!). Further, and more seriously, it appears that he has used the works anthologized in this book without the permission of the writers (and, one would assume, without compensation).
I emailed Mr. James that very evening and presented him with the facts I've laid out here and concluded with the following: "I am currently operating under two assumptions: 1) that Richard James (or richardjames, as you have designated your user name) and Mfonobong Nsehe are one and the same person and 2) that the interview with Mr. Trump is a fraud and is simply a vehicle for you to promote the book. Please do provide me with some verifiable evidence to the contrary. While it's easy enough to deal with writers who wish to use our site to promote their wares, we consider fraudulent articles to be an assault on our integrity and a breach of the trust we hope our readers place in us."
To my great surprise, Mr. James did respond to my email. Less surprisingly, while he stuck by his story, he failed to provide me with anything that I could verify. He did, however, claim to own a small (albeit unnamed) magazine in the US (between publishing a magazine, overseeing his real estate agency, and teaching chess, I'm surprised he has the time to read anything, much less write reviews), and asserted that his "I.D. card" was sufficient to gain access to Mr. Trump.
Regarding Africa's Best Stories, Mr. James asserted in his email, "I'm shocked to hear that it is a scam thing. I subscribe to Oprah Google Alerts, and when I heard she had endorsed a new book, I just bought it." I followed up with another email or two, but alas, that was the last I was to hear from Mr. James.
In the meantime, I contacted the real Richard James, the one who is a chess tutor in the UK. He very promptly responded and kindly verified for me that he has never applied to be a writer at Blogcritics. In addition, we've been in contact with Mr. Trump's office. Today they verified for us that the interview which we published never took place. So we are left with these known facts: the Richard James who was accepted as a writer at Blogcritics submitted false documentation when asked to produce a website URL/writing sample; he submitted a fabricated interview with Donald Trump; and his "shock" at hearing about the book scam seems dubious in light of the fact that he submitted the press release about Winfrey to Ground Report.
The bottom line is this: We believe that the writer who calls himself Richard James is either Mfonobong Nsehe or an associate of his and that his sole purpose in writing here was to fraudulently garner publicity for his books. As a community of writers, we are appalled that our site was used to publicize a book which was not only promoted on the basis of a lie, but which may in fact have violated the copyright of the writers whose work is included therein.
We believe that Mr. James' actions are an insult to the thousands of our writers who are honest people who work hard at what they do, and we further believe that our readers should be able to trust what they read on our pages.
We've been had. We don't like having egg on our face, but we like liars even less. We apologize to our readers for our lapse in editorial judgment, and we promise to listen more closely to our inner voices from now on.