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Tracking the Source of Fictitious Stories Generating Profit from Fake Man United News

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Did you know Manchester United have agreements in place to sign superstars Kylian Mbappe and Vinicius Junior? Or that Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the man investing millions into the club, sensationally plans to bring Mason Greenwood back into the fold?

No? Well, that is because these stories are, in fact, complete nonsense.

But that has not stopped them gaining significant traction on social media in recent weeks.

Stories about Manchester United go viral everyday and many of them are completely made up.

As one of the world’s most-followed clubs, stories about them spread around the world in a way that is simply not the case with other teams.

Huge social media accounts post or repost falsehoods, plagiarise journalists, and use pictures taken by professional photographers without credit or context, let alone payment — and social media makes it possible for people to make money by publishing this type of content.

For some, fake news about Manchester United has become an income stream, and The Athletic has tracked down two people for whom this weird world constitutes a business opportunity, as well as two others who say they are losing out because football’s fake news frenzy is harming their livelihood of taking football photographs and selling them to media companies and image libraries.

“I’ve seen my photos taken, my name taken off my work and false quotes put over my photos by these accounts,” said a photographer who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job. “I’ve challenged them and been blocked. You feel like you’ve been mugged by someone making money out of my stolen work.“They’re parasites.”

‘I create a clickbait related to the articles’

Valentine Denoni is a 24-year-old computer science student studying at Federal Polytechnic Oko in Anambra State, south-eastern Nigeria. He admits some of the stories he runs about Manchester United could be false, even those which have been “liked” thousands of times on Facebook and shared to many different groups and pages across the social media site.

He runs a page called FIFA 2022 WORLD CUP QATAR updates (United Pride), initially set up for the tournament but now regularly posting dubious United stories.

Early stories were typical of classic football “aggregators”, reposting content from elsewhere on the web, often stripping out nuances and caveats, making the story more interesting and more likely to spread online.

Often these have a tiny grain of truth in them.

For example, United forward Marcus Rashford was recently criticised for going on a night out in Belfast and missing training. There have been rumours he may end up leaving the club, with Paris Saint-Germain, previously interested in Rashford, a possible destination.

However, on the Facebook page, this has morphed into a typo-riddled story about PSG being set to pay a “huge fee” for the England star, something The Athletic’s plugged-in transfer experts have absolutely no reason to believe is well-founded.

One post on the page which heavily distorts a true story says Anthony Martial is banished from training, claiming his manager, Erik ten Hag, has accused him of “letting the team down” because “he has not been performing well”. It is true Martial is out of training and unavailable for around 10 weeks — but the real reason is he is recovering from groin surgery. United fans will not see him in squads over the next couple of months but not because of any disciplinary issues, a false accusation that could lead to abuse being directed at him on social media.

Social media does not just turn a blind eye to falsehoods, it actively encourages them, because fake transfer stories are by definition surprising, so are likely to get more likes and retweets than rehashed versions of truthful stories that can be read elsewhere.

Denoni’s Facebook page also posts stories that have no truth whatsoever, such as a post saying Ratcliffe is lining up “the largest offer in history” to sign Kylian Mbappe. The Athletic tracked down Denoni and he agreed to speak to The Athletic on the phone.

“I get my articles from many sources but create a clickbait related to the articles,” he said.

Some are rehashing the genuine stories about Manchester United that crop up every day.

When pressed, Denoni, who calls himself a “hardcore Manchester United fan”, is unrepentant.

“Even though some of it’s fake, I just work for the views. Just like every other person out there.”

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