Last week, Bloomberg reported on the existence of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s ‘secret wallet’ citing opposition representative Carlos Vecchio (who is responsible for relations between Juan Guaido’s government and the U.S.). Vecchio claimed that Maduro holds millions of dollars stolen from the state in funds controlled by “Russian of Kazakh heritage” Nurlan Baidilda. A week later, it emerged that Baidilda doesn’t have any such funds, Maduro doesn’t have such a wallet, and the entire story was a prank by two Russians.
- Several days after Bloomberg published its piece, The Bell learned (Rus) that Baidilda is a citizen of Kazakhstan, not Russia, and it was impossible to find his fund – most likely because it never existed. Instead, Maduro’s money manager turned out to be a teacher of Livespring-style business courses and a Kazakh social media star. On his social media accounts, Baidilda tells tall tales about how he studied in the “U.S., Europe and Cambridge”, consulted Gazprombank (the bank denies this) and for up to $1,500 can teach attendees of his seminars how to win state contracts. He saw the allegation about his ties to Maduro, but called it “noise”.
- The next day, it emerged that not only was Baidilda’s fund fake, but the entire story was invented. Vladimir Kuznetsov, better known as the pranker Vovan (he has impersonated dozens of celebrities, from Elton John to John McCain) said he was the one who had spread the story.
- In mid-February, Vovan, together with another prankster, contacted the office of the U.S. special representative in Venezuela, Elliot Abrams. One of the pranksters introduced himself as the president of Switzerland, Ueli Maurer (the recording of the conversation is here). He said that they had found accounts controlled by Maduro and the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA, in Switzerland – more precisely, in Limpopo Bank (the Limpopo is actually a river in Africa and the setting of a famous Russian fairy tale). Abrams asked that the accounts be frozen, “Maurer” asked for proof of the illegal origins of the funds. Then Abrams, as proof, sent him the U.S. sanctions list with the names of 100 Venezuelans, including Maduro.
- Next, Vecchio began to correspond with “Maurer” and questioned him about whether he was able to locate the accounts belonging to Maduro himself. “Maurer” replied that the money was in Baidilda’s funds (NurlanBaidilda Ltd). Later, the pranksters explained that they chose Baildilda “because of his never-ending adverts on social media”. They supposedly couldn’t block the accounts in Switzerland because there wasn’t enough evidence so “Maurer” advised Vecchio to go to the press.
- Vecchio was keen on this idea, asked “Maurer” for a draft statement so as “not to make a mistake” before giving an interview to Bloomberg. When he received a draft of Bloomberg’s article in advance of publication, he also sent it to “Maurer”. The article itself was published on February 25.
- When this all became known, Bloomberg updated its article, which now says Vecchio is not sure of the data he presented. At the same time, pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia – the pranksters spoke to state-owned Rossiya 24 – used the case as a propaganda weapon, emphasizing how Bloomberg was cooperating with the U.S. authorities.
Why the world should care
One could waste years and years in the fight against fake news, but have zero impact. This is a case in point: the key to the prankster’s success was not Kremlin support, but, rather, the carelessness of their victims. As long as senior officials and respected media agencies continue to fall for relatively simple tricks, the chance of winning the battle against fake news is slim.