The Mystery of Al Jazeera Oceania

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On November 28, several journalists and media commentators were retweeting news that the international news channel Al Jazeera was going to be launching an Australian presence. Promising “a team of professionals who strive for excellence in journalism”, it was to set up in Macquarie Park.

“We have a new home, We will be moving into our new studios in 4 weeks in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie Park. Aljazeera Macquarie Park,” it posted on its Facebook page.

There was one tiny problem – it was all a massive hoax.

Al Jazeera themselves confirmed a day later that they weren’t involved, with their PR team tweeting, “We haven’t launched anything of the sort, and have no such plans. This Oceania account has nothing to do with us.”

Soon later, the account @AljzOceania and the Twitter accounts of journalist “John Leao” – @JLeao_Aljazeera and @LeaoReportsAljz – were removed from Twitter. Their Facebook presence (and profile), however, still remains. But I think it’s only there because it didn’t get a massive amount of attention like its Twitter account did.

So, how did several journalists fall for this hoax? While the Twitter accounts were already active before then – a Google search reveals replies to journalist tweets – the big ‘announcement’ of Aljazeera Oceania were in the same week as the Daily Mail announced (more like confirmed rumours) that they were launching an Australian edition. The journalists who retweeted it were probably excited to see more media diversity in the Australian press.

However, could have a simple Google search avoided the retweets? I think so. A simple visit to Al Jazeera’s own home page would tell you that it was a hoax. If they would have launched such a thing, they would make a big song-and-dance about it somewhere on their site – either as a news story or on their media relations page.

So, who was behind it?

Determining who was behind the hoax is obviously going to be difficult. The internet allows one person to be anonymous. This person’s Facebook profile lists Seven News Adelaide as one of their likes, which shows that he likes Channel Seven and/or lives in Adelaide.

However, what happens if we looked into the person that is common between the three Twitter accounts – John Leao? Several Google searches on the name (and variations on the query) reveals the person lives in the Hunter area in New South Wales. A Google+ profile also shows four posts – three related to the Seven Network, with two involving media rights to the Rugby World Cup – and that he attends a school in the area.

Using the school listed on his Google+ account, the school’s newsletters highlight that he is in the media club – again, highlighting a strong interest in the media and that he is in Year 7. Yes, that does mean that the journalists who retweeted the messages fell for a hoax performed by a Year 7 student.

I should stress that all of this is circumstantial. We’ve used the name that was common occurrence on all three accounts on the assumption that he wanted to pretend to be an Al Jazeera journalist. Alternatives include a person picking a random name to mask his true identity.