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How a fake story about Cristiano Ronaldo donating €1.5 million to Palestinians for Ramadan spread

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Did Cristiano Ronaldo really donate €1.5 million to Palestinians for Ramadan? The short answer: no. The long answer, however, is more interesting.

As a long-time fan of the Beautiful Game, I have become aware over the years of numerous and similar made-up stories. Unfortunately, these “news” items have become part of the online landscape and are often repeated authoritatively by fans who are usually unaware that they are spreading untrue information. As such, this latest made-up story can be useful in serving as a case study in the anatomy of fake news – how the original story develops, how it spreads, and how it eventually becomes uncritically accepted as fact.

I first became aware of this particular story based on a Tweet (on May 16, 2019) that eventually went viral – the Tweet has been liked over 10,000 times, retweeted over 4,000 times and has over 300 comments, almost all of which are reverential of or thankful to Ronaldo, including one by former British MP George Galloway. This Tweet links to a little-known website called 9sportpro, where a four-sentence article posted on May 15 claims:

The Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is known as one of the most human person in the world.

He often donates lot of money to help people with different problems but one of the places where Cristiano has helped a lot is Palestine. According to reports he has donated 1.5 million euros to Palestinians to feed them for iftar.

When this news become public lot of muslims from around the world has thanked Ronaldo for this amazing gesture.

Leaving aside the poor English used in the article, the text makes no mention of the source of the reports, let alone the name of the supposed charity where Ronaldo donated. Upon closer inspection, there is a note at the bottom of the article that cites “infoshqipmedia” as the source, although no link was provided.

Infoshqipmedia, is Shqip Media, an Albanian-language Macedonian news service that describes itself via its social profile as a media organization that “aims is to build a modern, democratic and just society in Macedonia.” The site’s content covers Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania. 

This outlet did indeed post an article on May 15, 2019 about Ronaldo, but it does not confirm the story published by 9sportpro. Titled “Fake News: Ronaldo donates 1.5 million euros for iftar in Palestine,” the article clearly claims in its headline that this story is fake news. I pointed this out on Twitter on May 17 here and here, but did not get a response. The whole text in this article is worth quoting because, after translating the original Albanian to English via Google Translate, the text in the 9sportpro article is nearly identical to the main text in the Shqip Media article:

Published in many Albanian portals this news is not real. This news is not available in any world media but only in Albanian media. We’re dealing with Fake News. [emphasis in original]

Cristiano Ronaldo, the super Portuguese football star is known as one of the most humane people in the world.

He often donates large sums of money to help the needy but one of the countries that he helps most is Palestine. According to some foreign media it is rumored that Ronaldo has decided to donate 1.5m euros to the Palestinians.

As soon as this news is made public, many Muslims have thanked Ronaldo for this wonderful gesture. Cristiano Ronaldo has many Muslim friends with whom he visits popular Arab countries.”

It is likely, then, that the 9sportpro article is a poorly translated version of the main text (the non-bolded part above) contained in the original Shqip Media article. However, it is unclear why the 9sportpro article would source its information from an article that clearly states that this is fake news. One possibility is that Shqip Media was originally fooled by this news and reported the claim uncritically, which was then picked up by 9sportpro, only for Shqip Media to subsequently realize that this was fake news and to update their original article with the new headline in bolded text. Alternatively, it could be that Shqip Media immediately noticed that this was fake news and reported it accurately, only for 9sportpro to misleadingly report it as real news. Regardless, and without delving into additional speculation, it is clear that the 9sportpro source is an article that is currently being reported as fake news by Shqip Media.    

Perhaps more interestingly, as the story started spreading on Twitter, it was picked up by larger news outlets.

On May 16, the Venezuelan government-funded agency TeleSUR, first in Spanish and then in English reporting, quoted a Tweet from a little-known Nigerian foundation (the Onwadan Charity Foundation) referencing the donation. The May 16 tweet does not attribute sources, but it shows images of Ronaldo with the text “Cristiano Ronaldo donate $1.5m to Palestine Gaza,” giving the (unintentional?) impression that Ronaldo donated to that charity.

TeleSUR posted a correction to their article on May 20, noting that it “ran the story without the proper confirmation from an official source and a fact checker revealed the news to be unfounded.” The fact-checker TeleSUR referenced is Maarten Schenk, who debunked the story on May 19, receiving confirmation from Ronaldo’s management team that the reporting is untrue “like many other stories about Ronaldo.”

On May 17, Russian government-owned Sputnik and RT agencies covered the donation in their articles here and here, quoting the tweet from the Onwadan Charity Foundation and/or various other tweets that either refer to the TeleSUR article or the 9sportpro article. Although Sputnik has since added a correction indicating that the story was false, RT has yet to do so.

On May 17, the pro-Russian and pro-Assad website 21st Century Wire (which was founded by Patrick Henningsen, who formerly wrote for Alex Jones’ conspiracy site Infowars) published an article covering this “news” after quoting from TeleSUR, while the self-described “pro-government” Syrian English language news site Al-Masdar quoted Sputnik in their article; neither of these sites have issued corrections to date.

One outstanding question remains: where did this claim about Ronaldo’s donation originate? It seems, as hinted by Shqip Media in their article, that the original source of this information comes from various Albanian-language outlets from Macedonia and Kosovo here, here, here and here, all of which seem to be of questionable reputation, and all of which report the same untrue information, with the same time stamp of May 14, 2019.

As is well-known, May 15 is the day Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), marking the creation of the Palestinian refugee population when 750,000 were expelled or fled from their homes during Israel’s creation. One possible explanation for the timing is, then, that this fabricated story was published on May 14 by these various Albanian-language outlets to coincide with the commemoration of the Nakba the following day.

Those who don’t follow the Beautiful Game are excused from not knowing that there is a cottage industry of made-up stories featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and/or Lionel Messi, widely viewed as the two best football players in the world (although Luka Modric may have something to say about that after winning the 2018 Ballon D’Or, awarded to the best football player in the world).

Typically these made-up stories are focused on either one supporting or donating to some cause, and spread via social media by their super-fans, only to be later picked up by larger, often reputable, outlets parroting these claims uncritically and with suspect sourcing. For example, in the case of Ronaldo, the Washington Post reported in 2015 that Ronaldo had donated $8 million to the “Save the Children” organization after the devastating earthquake in Nepal that killed over 8,000 people; the Post issued an explicit retraction of the story a few days later, citing as their original source the French magazine So Foot, an outlet that lost a 2010 legal battle with Lily Allen after it printed a fabricated interview with the British singer.

In 2017 ESPN, the largest sports network in the U.S., falsely reported that Ronaldo intended to build a pediatric hospital in Chile. The story was corrected the next day, ESPN explaining that its initial source was the Spanish wire, Efe News Agency.

In 2018, numerous social media posts claimed that Ronaldo had donated significant sums of money to the relief efforts of the tragic floods in Kerala state, India, that claimed the lives of nearly 500 people, only for these rumors to be dispelled as fake.

Finally, in 2012, various social media posts claimed that Ronaldo had auctioned off his European Golden Boot (awarded to the leading goal-scorer in league matches from the top division of every European national league) to a cause supporting Palestinian children. Note that the news articles discussed above also mention this donation, without quoting any sources, thus giving the impression that this is fact. In fact, the details of this donation have remained vague ever since, neither confirmed nor denied by Ronaldo or his team, although the Pakistani Daily Times has claimed that this was also fake news in an article that correctly points out the other aforementioned fake donations.      

These stories are manufactured and spread for a variety of reasons, but remain believable partly because of Ronaldo and Messi’s actual generosity, particularly towards children most affected by tragedy. Focusing on Ronaldo again, it is well known that in March of 2016, he enabled the visit of 5-year old Palestinian Ahmad Dawabsheh to meet the Real Madrid team after the Dawabsheh family home in the West Bank was firebombed by Israeli settlers, killing Ahmad’s parents and his brother. Ahmad sustained burns over 80 percent of his body that required months of hospitalization.

In December 2016, Ronaldo posted a video to social media announcing a donation to Save the Children (where he has served as an ambassador since 2013), and referred to Syrian children impacted by conflict as “true heroes.”

In February 2018, Save the Children announced that Ronaldo made a donation to support the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh, in the town of Cox’s Bazar, where some 915,000 children and adults have fled violence in Myanmar.

It is quite unfortunate that the actual generosity of these stars is exploited by click-bait websites that make up superficially-believable stories that are then spread by those who are surely happy to point out that their favorite stars are supportive of these causes. However, given the role that politics plays in manufactured content, one needs to always remain vigilant and cast a skeptical eye on such “news.”

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed by the author do not reflect in any way the positions of ExxonMobil, BDS Houston, HPFF or any other organization that the author is affiliated with.

About Nicolas Sawaya

Nicolas Sawaya strongly supports the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice and has been a member of various Palestinian solidarity groups for over 15 years. He lives in Houston, TX, and works for ExxonMobil Gas & Power Marketing. He is a member of the BDS Houston Collective, and blogs at notesfromunderground.me.

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