From Russia with Love: How Old Fringe Claims about Bible "Mysteries" Became a Global Media Sensation
Most of you reading this will be aware that there are a number of British tabloids whose online editions produce what might generously be called clickbait about UFOS, ancient astronauts, and historical mysteries. We might less generously call the stories recycled garbage that barely rises above outright plagiarism of old material, which they pass off as new. Sites like The Express, The Mail Online, The Daily Star, and so on generate a lot traffic this way, but produce absolutely terrible journalism. Usually, though, their crappy material rarely makes much impact beyond other bottom-feeding websites, which piggyback on the stories for clicks. Today’s example, however, demonstrates clearly and depressingly how fringe pseudo-history goes through a laundering process as it moves from Russian sources to British clickbait websites to mainstream British papers and eventually American media.
A case in point comes from two stories this week that followed the same ass-to-mouth path, as old video offered on Amazon Prime became tabloid fodder and then featured MSN news. One story claimed that the true Son of God was Apollonius of Tyana rather than Jesus Christ. The other claimed that the Anunnaki were responsible for Noah’s Flood and were involved in the building of the Tower of Babel, the remains of which have supposedly been “newly” discovered in Iraq.
Both stories are actually descriptions of the 2016 (or 2017—different services give different dates) pseudo-historical documentary Bible Conspiracies, which has been available as an on-demand streaming video and through Hulu and Amazon Prime since 2017. Alongside Jesus conspiracies drawn from Holy Bloodline mythology, the film relates a number of standard ancient astronaut claims about the Bible, including space alien involvement with the Tower of Babel, nuclear weapons at Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. For whatever reason, the media have started mining it for cheap content. They did the same thing with old Atlantis documentaries back in January.
In each case, the stories originated with Sputnik, a Kremlin-backed Russian propaganda magazine that prominently features pseudoscience, pseudo-history, and ancient astronaut and UFO claims. The Russian government has promoted such material as part of an ongoing campaign to discredit trust in science, both in Russia and in the West, as Foreign Policy discussed in 2016.
As best I can tell, very few people watched the low-budget documentary before Sputnik wrote about it. The official trailer for the documentary had fewer than 1,000 YouTube views in two years.
What’s especially weird is that the Sputnik article was barely a coherent piece—just a few quotes and a couple of sentences, complete with an admission the claim was three years old. The British writers greatly enhanced and developed the germ of the story.
The British bottom-feeders repackaged the material for a larger audience, and split the documentary summary in two, focusing on Apollonius for some pieces and the Tower of Babel for others. The stories rose quickly into better-read publications like The Mirror and The Independent. (The Independent was the only paper I saw to acknowledge that a Kremlin propaganda outlet lay behind the story’s rapid spread across the internet.) MSN, a content partner of the Mirror, then delivered the Mirror article about the Tower of Babel to its readers, now impressed with the imprimatur of middlebrow American respectability. The situation with the Apollonius story was just as bad. From a repackaging of the material highlighted by Sputnik in the Daily Express, Fox News recycled the content but eliminated any indication of the source, with reporter Caleb Parke presenting a nearly verbatim copy of the British summary of the old documentary as original reporting. Shortly after, Newsweek published a story about the documentary, with the paper-thin justification that Fox News had covered the story, so it needed to be debunked.
Just to add insult to injury, Ashley Cowie wrote another very similar version of the articles for Ancient Origins, concluding that the documentary purposely used outrageous ideas to generate sales. That almost literally describes every cable and streaming documentary ever made, but it betrays little insight into why Cowie felt compelled to write his own clickbait article about a years-old failed documentary.
All of the British stories, as well as the Fox story, followed Sputnik and identified Bible Conspiracies as an “Amazon Prime documentary,” though it was not produced or endorsed by Amazon and is simply available for streaming there, as it is on Hulu and other services. This is a bit like identifying Black Panther as a “Netflix movie” just because it is available to stream on the service.
But the bigger question is this: Why are clickbait media companies surfing Sputnik--out of all the millions of sites online—for squibs to extrapolate into articles, and why do they consistently do the dirty work of laundering half-formed story ideas from a Russian propaganda website into full stories ripe for Western media consumption?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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