Faking it: the man who tried to game the media system

Journalist:

Quentin Ariès

Photographer:

Thomas Dévényi

Photographer:

Alessia Capassso

Ludovic Zanker appears to be one of the most well-connected men in Europe. For over a decade he’s been presenting himself as a political consultant, ready to provide advice to high-profile figures about international affairs. Media outlets have interviewed him as an expert on topics as diverse as the Russia sanctions and the Afghanistan crisis to Brexit and Europe’s vaccination strategy believing him to be a figure at heart of diplomatic negotiations. The problem is, his entire persona is a fabrication. But to what extent has Zanker been able to trick the world? And what does his scam say about us?

It’s a beautiful morning in Rouen, a city an hour away from Paris. The sun is shining and there are just a few white clouds in the sky above the town hall. I’m due to meet Ludovic Zanker here at midday. He arrives a few minutes late. He’s in his early 40s, wearing New Balance sneakers, a casual sports vest and a blue shirt. My first impressions from our video call a few days earlier are immediately confirmed. He’s a good talker and he’s got charisma. 

Zanker describes himself as an “honorary consultant” to the European Commission. He is also the Director General of the ‘Institute of European Advices’, a mix between a think-tank and a lobbying agency which is well-immersed in the political bubbles in Paris and Brussels. We walk for a few minutes before taking a seat on a terrace. Zanker tells me he’s tired after a long week. He’s just got back from a trip to Croatia for a “top secret” meeting with Russian and German diplomats to discuss the rule of law in Poland, followed by a quick detour to the city of Bonn. 

His ‘Institute European Advices’ is a French-registered association. But I’m puzzled by the English mistake. It should, of course, read “of” and “Advice.” “It’s a mistake,” he admits as his freshly-squeezed orange juice arrives. The typo doesn’t look good. But it reveals the gulf between his public image and reality. His life as a consultant to the world’s most powerful leaders is a mirage.

  • Ludovic Zanker is 42 years old. He presents himself as an international affairs consultant. Yet his services and supposed contacts are pure fiction © Thomas Devenyi

Reporting on what we might well label an ‘imposter’ has been bizarre. I’ve been in Brussels for seven years now, and there are plenty of shady and opaque think-tanks, lobby groups and consultants around. Pretending to have an impact on European decision makers is this town’s mojo. Yet the Zanker case raises several questions. How can we assess the impact of an imposter who has invented a false life for more than a decade? How to report on it? How can a man curate an idea of himself as being so powerful when his legend is built on a house of cards? I’m not interested in Zanker’s opinions. He’s free to think what he wants. I’m more concerned with what his false identity tells us about our society.

I quickly realised that working on Zanker would mean entering a space-time void. First of all, because he is a talker! Between our video call and our meeting in Rouen, we spent two and a half hours together. In mid-October, his account had over 171,000 tweets; an average of around 45 messages a day. Since 2020, I’ve counted around a hundred assertions, fake official trips, press releases or clips of him appearing on various media in which he invents relationships with politicians and diplomats on all sides. 

In mid-August he apparently spent an afternoon in Tajikistan, helping European diplomats keep a line open with the Afghan government which had just collapsed. Later that evening he dined in Berlin with German diplomats. He’s also pretended to be a consultant on repression in Belarus, the Covid-19 vaccination campaign and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

To tweet or not to tweet

I first came across Zanker in early 2020 when he followed my Twitter account. After flicking through his profile I decided to click through to his website. I was intrigued by the crude-yet-plausible name of his think-tank: AAEIC – Europa. The website could use a makeover. It’s a bit sparse and the staff are all unknown figures, but there’s nothing really surprising. Nevertheless, in the following days, I started to have questions. His English, German and Russian are patchy and rudimental. And it’s strange for such an under-the-radar organisation to brag so much about its access to European decision-makers.

A blogger, SebastienEU, was also investigating Zanker at the time, and he discovered that the think-tank’s employees had fake Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. Their profile pictures were taken from random websites. Yet Zanker persisted. He published a post on the Médiapart website -an independent online magazine- responding to SebastienEU’s accusations. He explained to me that he even filed a lawsuit against him, before admitting it was promptly closed by authorities. 

The AAEIC was created in 2019 and was renamed the following year as the ‘Institute European Advices.’ But this was not his first try. In 2008, aged 29, Zanker set up his first association, ‘Cabinet Politique.’ Over the last 13 years, his name has appeared in several others, including ‘Europolitique Consulting’ which aims “to support the action of Ludovic Zanker on political issues linked to Europe but also at a national level in France.”

  • Ludovic Zanker stands in front of the town hall in Rouen, France. He lives in a small town 30 kilometres away © Thomas Devenyi

  • Ludovic Zanker stands in front of the town hall in Rouen, France. He lives in a small town 30 kilometres away © Thomas Devenyi

Nevertheless, those organizations are nowhere to be seen in the EU Transparency Register (a mandatory step to meet commissioners and their officials). Zanker did sign up in March 2020 but he was swiftly suspended by the managers of the register, who clocked-on to the scam. Moreover, the “honorary consultant” role he claims to have with the European Commission simply doesn’t exist. 

Eric Mamer, the Commission spokesperson, confirms Zanker has never met its president Ursula von der Leyen and has never worked for her. And the European External Action Service (EEAS) denies any supposed missions granted to Zanker in Ukraine, Afghanistan or Belarus: “We have no trace of him approaching the EEAS.”

"Following someone is already giving them some legitimacy”

Zanker may be unknown in the European bubble. But he does have an audience. Over 5,000 people follow his Twitter account. Among them are two French presidential contenders, Michel Barnier and Anne Hidalgo, the European commissioner Dubravka Suica and the members of the European Parliament Irene Tolleret, Fabienne Keller, Geoffroy Didier and Iratxe Garcia.

There are other significant names too: a junior French minister, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, the former French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as well as several lawmakers and various conservative activists and lobbyists.  

The overwhelming majority of these followers appear to be “follow-backs.” But this gesture alone is fueling Zanker’s fabrication. “Following someone is already giving them some legitimacy,” warns a European civil servant. EU communication specialists have also used the Zanker case as part of their social media training.

An “expert” in the media

Zanker mimics journalistic methods to gain greater visibility. When he wants to broadcast his views on an issue, say the vaccines, Brexit, the sanitary situation in France, the Afghanistan crisis or the repression in Belarus, he posts links to his apparent sources. I use similar techniques to guide my readers.

Sure, the majority of his messages are duds. They are just liked or retweeted by his ‘Institute’ account. Still, the way Zanker operates is revealing, says Alexandre Alaphilippe from the NGO Disinfo Lab. 

“There is a trend you can see very clearly […] the pretension of being something that you are not, or something that is much more than you are. It’s a consequence of the hyper-personalization of the Internet, of the weight that’s given to personal branding and the importance of communicating about [other] content.”

Spin has taken over substance, including in the European bubble. Lobbying agencies and institutions are now experts at it. Today, every MEP or organisation has one or more communication officers. And countless lawmakers or other personalities tweet at lightspeed, even if that means making mistakes.

It was most likely via Twitter that a few media organizations reached out to Zanker to invite him to share his thoughts. In May 2021, during an interview with the French version of I24 about the latest tensions between Israel and Palestine, he claimed he was in contact with the staff of the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. He also added: “as Vladimir Poutine said, off the record, not too long ago, we absolutely have to deal with the problem of the war over territories.”

On 18 April he was also on Dakar TV talking about Sputnik V, the Russian vaccine against Covid-19. He returned there a month later to talk about the economy. He appeared on Russia Today twice in 2018 to talk about the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Russian services in the UK, and to comment on the U.S. elections. More recently, in September, he was interviewed by the Tehran Times.

  • Alexandre Alaphilippe runs the organisation DinsinfoLab. For 4 years now, it has been producing resources to fight online disinformation © Alessia Capasso

According to Zanker, “if journalists, your colleagues, interview me, it’s because before putting me on the air they must have done some research.” None of these media responded to my requests. “They’re probably a little ashamed,” said a journalist who produces television shows. The people who contacted Zanker likely relied on his Twitter bio. For Alexandre Alaphilippe, these TV-appearances are part of “a legitimation process,” and must be placed “in parallel with an unfortunate economic necessity, to produce information on a permanent basis on a large scale.” In these circumstances the vetting of interviewees can be minimal to say the least.

“It’s a staircase phenomenon,” explains the disinformation researcher. “As soon as you get invited, you get invited back somewhere else and so on.” Admittedly, Zanker struggles to be re-invited, but that’s just because he’s not very good. In the case of other personalities, it can create “a fatal spiral”, to use Alaphilippe’s words.

Connect the dots

Nicolas Quénel:

Independent journalist, specialized in disinformation, terrorism and South-East Asia

The media machine is fuelling the spread of disinformation

Disinformation operations, at least those of a certain size, often emerge from ‘puppet media’ that are more or less official. They rely on characters like Ludovic Zanker to impose a narrative, or to give them the air of credibility.

At the beginning of 2021, together with journalist Antoine Hasday, I published an investigation in the newspaper Les Jours, about a large disinformation network at the service of New Delhi. The network has been operating for 15 years at the European parliament in Brussels, but also at the UN Human rights council.

In order to pass on disinformation, the minds behind the operation create fake media in which they give a platform to people that are more or less credible and skilled, and these individuals then deliver a positive narrative about India.

At this stage, the given piece of information has almost no visibility, since it’s still only tied to the puppet media. But things evolve when the story is shared by the biggest Indian press agency ANI. In its news bulletin, the source is presented as “an independent media in Brussels.”

But things don’t end here. The bulletin from ANI is then shared by other Indian media, which edit the text and delete the mention of the source “independent media.” By the end of this process, only the fake piece of information remains, without any indication of its origin. The label ANI gives credibility.

We discovered how – much like dirty money – disinformation is made plausible when it passes from hand to hand in the media ecology. At the end of the day, it is impossible to guess the origin of a piece of information, unless by starting a whole investigation. If Ludovic Zanker had entered this kind of spiral, it would have been quite difficult to debunk the fraud. And to be fair, there is no guarantee that this scenario did not happen when he appeared in the media. Maybe he found himself intervening in other media afterwards, without the original source being clearly identified, and that the narrative is still being perpetuated to this day.

The case of Ludovic Zanker is not the diplomatic equivalent of the Jean-Claude Romand affair, a sordid family drama in the 1990s where a man who invented a life as a doctor at the World health organization killed his relatives. Nor is he comparable to Idriss Aberkane, a French scientist who famously inflated his qualifications.

In a way, the Zanker story lies at the crossroads between two investigations by the French magazine Les Jours: ‘Indian Chronicles’, which is about disinformation operations close to Indian interests, and ‘La Mythomane du Bataclan’, a profile of a ‘false victim’ of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis. There are a few similarities with the saga of the Frenchman Alexis Debat, who for years posed as an expert in geopolitics and as a consultant to the French Minister of Defense. He was more successful than Zanker. A regular commentator in the American media, he was even hired by ABC TV. Then, in 2007, he was debunked after inventing a fake interview with Barack Obama. A few years later he made a comeback with another name as an expert on artificial intelligence, this time without faking his CV. He now works with the film industry to predict the successes of blockbuster movies.

Zanker wants to be seen as a credible expert, a man who has the ears of the powerful in Brussels, Paris, Berlin or Moscow. To do this, he uses all the typical tools of a disinformation campaign: setting up fake websites, founding associations and disseminating false information. At the same time, he seems to believe in his story so much that he uses his real name and maintains his character even when he is unmasked or questioned about his legitimacy. Is he a liar or a mythomaniac?

“Mythomaniacs who are anosognosic do not know that they are lying, they believe it,” says Albert Moukheiber, a doctor of neuroscience and a psychologist who works on the psychological impacts of false information. “And there are people who are deceiving. They know they are lying and they are lying. For X or Y reasons, for the rush, to give themselves some importance.”

  • Albert Moukheiber has a PhD in neuroscience. He is also a psychologist. He works in particular on the psychological impact of fake information © Thomas Devenyi

A journalist does not have to make a psychological diagnosis. Profiles like Zanker’s aren’t that new. “These types of behavior have always existed. But now, they are amplified by social media,” explains Dr. Moukheiber. And the work to verify claims like those Zanker makes can be time consuming. Seriously so.

The rise of Donald Trump provides a good illustration of the difference between simply pointing out false information on the one hand, and the difficulty of pinpointing its origin. The Washington Post recorded an average of 39 false claims per day in the last year of his presidency. And it’s still unclear in his case whether these inventions are a sign of mental health issues or just lies. The majority of American psychologists and psychiatrists refuse to comment on Trump’s mental health, as he is not their patient. Zanker, of course, is not Trump. But he has been trying to create an invented career as a consultant and political entrepreneur for 13 years now.

Zanker has endorsed elected officials of all sorts, both locally and internationally. He has voiced support for Emmanuel Macron, Ursula von der Leyen and the former President of the United States, Donald Trump. Everyone, except the Greens or radical left. He doesn’t try to hide his sympathies with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The problem is that he also imagines himself as a “consultant” and “facilitator” between Brussels and Moscow. Along with his interview for I24, in which he seemed to “break” an off the record remark made by the Russian president, Zanker used his blog, which is hosted by Médiapart, to publish a photo of a folder which he claims is official, explaining that he is working for the presidency of the Russian Federation on lifting the sanctions that the EU imposed when Moscow decided to invade Crimea. He is also said to have gone to Ukraine to negotiate with the Ukrainian and Russian governments, but the logos are incorrect and his Russian is rather approximate.

Is he supported by Russian diplomats? “I am in contact with the Russian Embassy in Paris, with the press service, and they say to me ‘Mr. Zanker, if you can do something at your level that would be good because we are not just monsters.’ So, suddenly, well, I’m not a mediator exactly but I’m trying to work things out.” The Russian Embassy in France claims to have no connection with Zanker’s activities.

"Well, I'm not a mediator exactly but I'm trying to work things out"

Zanker’s blog also exemplifies the difficulties of participatory journalism. Médiapart’s journalists moderate these blogs and they often post reliable and interesting updates. But the other side of the coin is that some users use the platform to make their own content seem credible, as if it was information that could have been published by the outlet’s own journalists. According to one of the staff responsible for those blogs, “Each Médiapart subscriber has a blog hosted on our platform, for which he or she is legally responsible, and our moderation is carried out exclusively a posteriori via an alert system.” After one such alert in March 2020, Mediapart removed an article by Zanker.

Where his tricks are working

Zanker believes in himself and he always speaks confidently. That is, until you start digging and he reveals his superficial understanding of certain issues. Before our meeting in Rouen, we discussed Brexit and he boasted about his contact with the former EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his sources in London. “They work in finance, people who want to stay in the eurozone.” But the United-Kingdom never adopted the euro. He also claims to have worked on the issue of Northern-Ireland, but he is unable to explain his role or what the Brexit deal says about the Irish border.

Nevertheless, his charisma can undoubtedly work on people who do not follow European politics closely. There are many testimonies of him convincing individual acquaintances purely on the basis of his social skills. 

By the way, why is he claiming to be a specialist in international and European issues? “Because it’s easy, nobody knows anything about it!” jokes Alexandre Alaphilippe. “It’s a different world, a very complex world with a lot of actors. So you can go into the details and people will believe you.

  • © Alessia Capasso

  • © Thomas Devenyi

One of his biggest coups was an email from the European Commission regarding French pension reform, which Zanker apparently received in the winter of 2020. According to him the Commission “will look into the details” of the reform, but is “expressing some reservations about its financing.” That particular invention has circulated widely among reporters, trade unions and political figures including the far-right conspiracy theorist Florian Philippot. Even though he was quickly debunked, he is proud of this new fame.

“If it was picked up, it proves it was verified” he says. “You know, there was a lot of noise about this, even at the Elysée [the French Presidency]. It’s not disinformation. I don’t think it’s incorrect, nor is it so for the officials I’m acquainted with. It is not wrong.” And yet, it’s impossible to actually find this email.

Zanker also uses social media to draw attention to his interactions with companies and institutions. The headers look very formal, accompanied by the logos of his organizations, and he usually adds a handwritten signature. In an email to Ursula von der Leyen, he claims to have been solicited by the latter regarding potential financial sanctions against France, which had failed to stick to the EU’s public deficit rules. “I give you the green light to set up a penalty between 5 and 10 billion euros,” he once wrote, while thanking her in advance for mentioning his name when she announced this decision. Sometimes he even gets answers, as the EU executive’s policy is to respond to letters in the name of transparency.

  • "Brussels attracts madmen like a lamp post does moths," says a European official. Pictured: the European parliament in Brussels © Alessia Capasso

Other times he goes too far. In April, in an email to the town hall of Rouen, and to an adviser of von der Leyen, he offered his services in relation to the Covid-19 vaccination programme. He apparently received confirmation from this adviser that new doses would soon arrive in the region. Two hours later, the advisor’s response was scathing: “I do not know the purpose of your message, but to avoid any misunderstanding I would like to clarify hereby that we do not know each other, that I am not your contact with Mrs von der Leyen and that I have not confirmed anything to you.

Staff in the Commission’s headquarters sigh every time Zanker’s name appears in a mailbox. Only recently, though, have they been instructed not to respond to him. And he is not the only one. “If you only knew the number of eccentric people who email us,” sighs another official. “Brussels attracts madmen like a lamp post does moths,” adds ​​another official who, over the years, has been a recipient of many of these kinds of requests.

Just a bad scam?

Looking more closely at the NGOs that Zanker has set-up over the last 13 years is rather disturbing. He is obviously eager to lead something as he often makes himself the president of his organizations. But you need at least two people to register an association. So Zanker must have had associates. Right?

The president of the ‘Institute’ is Olivier de Mazurier. But he is impossible to track down. And when I ask for his number, Zanker is unable to give it to me, claiming he lost his contact details. The same is true of the treasurer. Here too Zanker is unable to provide any contact details. All the leads are dead-ends.

The other registered statutes to the préfecture [the French local government body], – which were official then – also look shady. It’s hard to identify all the names listed and, surprisingly enough, a majority of them seem to be neighbors living at the Rue Mozart in Paris. Here, once again, it’s impossible to coax more information out of Zanker.

  • © Thomas Devenyi

  • © Thomas Devenyi

Filing fake statutes is an offence. “If those persons do not exist, then it is a forgery” confirms Colas Ambard, a lawyer specialized in NGO law. This is true even if the structures have been dismantled. 

Zanker is also a fan of inventing employees. Before our meeting, his personal website mentioned specific “staffers liaising with his political functions.” But when I ask him about these employees he uses different names to those listed. Even when I contacted his ‘Institute’, emails coming from his ‘personal office’ were signed by different people each time.

Two real women recently joined his institute and were paid by Zanker to publish reports and opinions. However, one of them told me she quickly left the projet, as she had serious doubts about Zanker’s credibility.

“I will receive around 25,000 euros”

This almost obsessional quest to set up very likely fake organizations is puzzling. But you can also smell the potential scam.

In criminal law, intention matters. This could be seen as an attempt to embezzle public funds,” says Mr. Ambard, before assessing situations like these as “completely maddening […] those are not usual practices in the NGO sector.” Being busted can be serious by the way: there’s a potential sentence of three years in prison for these crimes, plus a fine of up to 45,000 euros.

For an NGO executive Zanker is indeed rather evasive about his funding. After being asked several times, he claims he’s received some contracts and grants from the European Commission. It’s impossible for him to say more, he says, and he is not listed as a beneficiary of both local and European grants. His website also brags about sponsorships from Orange, Apple, Microsoft and the bank BNP Parisbas.

Zanker also claims to have received some funding from the French Coronavirus relief funds which were designated for NGOs. “I will receive around EUR 25,000 euros,” he said.

The French Ministry of the Economy is unable to confirm this due to legislation protecting professional and tax secrecy. They are, however, currently finalizing around 4,000 legal actions for fraud to the relief funds set up during the pandemic. Checks on the state of the subsidies could happen any time within the next five years.

Little did he know

As soon as our meeting is over Zanker sends me an email and text granting me his “authorization” to publish this story. He adds that he plans to shift the activities of his ‘Institute’ into a “new field” because he now has “more coherent projects.

Later that evening, however, he tweets about my “obsolete information” and tidies-up his story. He would never have worked for European institutions. “I will not divulge my diplomatic and political sources and contacts,he adds while also claiming he is ready “to work internally for the Russian authorities.” In fact he is in a spat with the Russian embassy in Paris as he later asked themto cease for good” their “fake defamations” against his institute.

Since our meeting, the “s” of “advices” has started to vanish from his website. His employees’ names have similarly been tweaked. He has replaced the reference to “honorary consultant” with “Independent!” on his Twitter account. Various spreadsheets which are apparently accounting documents have started to appear. As has a motion from his ‘Institute’ announcing that the mysterious president Olivier de Mazurier is stepping down. The Institute itself will also be terminated soon. A page is turning, there’s no doubt about it. But how will Zanker write the next one?

Connecting the dots

Francesco Barbati:

ereb member, translator and editor with a background in linguistics, communication and European studies

Fake news as artistic and political antibodies: the case of the Luther Blissett project

Disinformation isn’t something new. The phenomenon has been part of human history since long before the invention of the internet. In Italy, as early as the 90s, the Luther Blissett Project (LBP, the Italian branch of a European movement of cultural activists and agitators, known as “Luther Blissett”), organised a number of “hoaxes” which were constructed in such minute detail that they were covered by local and national media. Once a given story reached its apex of popularity, the LBP would reveal themselves as the originators and irreverently unmask the unprofessionalism of the journalists involved and the tendency of the media to spread news without properly checking facts.

The Luther Blissett Project, which ran for five years (1994-1999), was a collective that set out to make fun of the mainstream media via creative means. They obtained a certain notoriety thanks to hoaxes like that of the so-called “satanic rituals” in the area of Viterbo, not far from Rome. Between ’96 and ’97 – through a series of invented characters (and a fictional Committee) – Luther sent letters and news tips to local newspapers regarding alleged “black masses” taking place in the countryside around the city. Satanic writings appeared on the walls of Viterbo, along with candles, tealights and other objects typically associated with such rituals. At a certain point, editorial offices even received a video shot in an abandoned farmhouse in which it seems a human sacrifice is filmed. The story, the footage, the (false) evidence had all been assembled ad hoc. But nevertheless, local and national media talked about it for over a year and politicians, bishops and priests fed the paranoia and obsession.

The heart of “true” fake news is that it puts forth information that seems credible. Those who listen to and believe such stories, without having the necessary means to recognize their non-authenticity, experience a vortex of negative emotions that give rise to hatred, anger and resentment. As information outlets, the media, both in print and online, has contributed not only to the pervasiveness of fake news but also to the normalisation of this emotional vortex.

Even before the advent of social media the LBP wanted to undermine a media system based on the constant and obsessive search for news; a system capable of altering the users’ perception of reality. On disbanding in 1999 four members of the Bologna-based collective decided to commit “metaphorical suicide” and they then developed into the writing collective known as Wu Ming, famous for their meta-historical novels and literary experiments, linked to the Wu Ming Foundation, which carries out cultural projects, debunking activities and much more.

This report was produced in Brussels, Paris and Rouen.

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