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18 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:42pm

The mystery of the Spectator Index, one of the internet’s biggest news sources

On Twitter it's bigger than the Times or Good Morning Britain, but this news source has no reporters, no fact-checkers – and until now, its owner has never been named. Who is behind The Spectator Index?

By Henry Dyer

BREAKING. JUST IN. Newsflashes come in many forms and from many outlets, and with more than one million followers on Twitter, The Spectator Index seems to be a large outlet tweeting news as it comes in. It follows nobody, but its followers include policymakers (Mike Gapes is a particular fan), ambassadors, journalists, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. It also has a small following on Facebook and Instagram plus a scantily detailed website. The website’s main goal is to sign up people to its apparent sole source of income, a paid-for daily newsletter. No physical publication, no news stories, and no details as to its editorial staff or ownership. Twitter users variably suggest it is sponsored by countries such as Russia, India, Pakistan and China. But what’s the truth?

The story of The Spectator Index begins in July 2013, not as The Spectator Index, but as The International Spectator using the handle @INTLSpectator. It described itself as a “new online magazine website, offering analysis and insight into the world’s international political, economic, scientific, cultural and entertainment developments. We seek to enhance understanding of global affairs and engagement with them, regardless of the actors and complexities involved.” Then, as now, no further details are provided as to its staff or country of origin, beyond a footer on its website stating the content was “© The International Spectator Limited 2013”. No such company existed.

A 2014 capture of The International Spectator’s website, archived online, seems to suggest that despite no company existing behind it, it had managed to secure advertising. The site showed adverts for Jaguar and the CFA Institute, a global association for investment managers. Except those adverts were unusually locally hosted on the International Spectator’s website, and not provided via an online advertising network such as Google’s AdSense. Alongside the fake adverts, a handful of news stories, reposted from Agence France-Presse, most of which credited AFP.

While The International Spectator Limited may not have existed, The International Spectator already existed: an Italian/English-language journal on international affairs, established in 1966 and going by the name The International Spectator since 1983. On the last day of 2016, the account became known as The Spectator Index, rebranding itself and changing its handle to @spectatorindex. Leo Goretti, the co-editor of The International Spectator, confirmed there is no connection between the journal and the Twitter account. Quite why the name change occurred is unknown. Likewise, there’s no connection between The Spectator and The Spectator Index, despite assumptions that it might be a spin-off of the long-running British magazine.

But what about The Spectator Index’s content? A mixture of breaking news, posted after it is broken by newspapers and wire services, lists of statistics, and apparent quotations from historical figures. They are presented stripped of context or sources, beyond an occasional attribution after the lists to the organisations behind the original research.

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It also gets things wrong. In 2017, it claimed South Africa had a rape rate of 132 people per 100,000, citing figures from the UN. The figure was in fact nearly half that. Kate Wilkinson, a journalist from fact-checking website Africa Check, asked for a link to the original statistics and received no response.

In January, it published a list of “the most dangerous places to live”, in which the UK came 12th, citing research by InterNations, an expat community website. The original polling, which had a minimum sample size of 75 expats, went to 20,000 people across the globe, with only 64 countries ranked for “Safety & Security”. The Spectator Index used the bottom 20 and placed them in reverse order. And as The Spectator Index doesn’t actually have bureaus across the world to fact-check and verify, it amplifies misinformation, reporting using claims on social media in January 2020 that an Afghan passenger flight had crashed. In fact, it was an US Air Force plane.

Why does it have over a million followers? What’s the appeal in its unsourced second-hand reporting, most of which is irrelevant when stripped out of its context and analysis? Charlie Beckett, a professor at the LSE’s Media and Communications department, suggests this is nothing new.

“People have always had this with news. There’s a German word for it – the fear of not knowing something. A bit like the fear of missing out. Even if you’re not a journalist or a banker, you’d quite like to know, even if it doesn’t affect you directly – people would tune into the 10 o’clock news at night, sit down, because ‘I better watch the news, so I feel like I have a better sense of what’s going on with the world’. This may have a similar function.

“For some people, it may be useful, if they can’t afford a Bloomberg terminal or sign up to BBC breaking notifications. There are people who’ve tried to do more sophisticated versions of algorithmic news, but the answer is that it’s quite difficult to do it in a more sophisticated way. The virtue of [The Spectator Index] is absolute simplicity.”

Contentious lists and misleading reporting have led Twitter users to suspect conspiracies, often when they are displeased with how their country is being rated or described. Users from India suggest it is run by China or Pakistan, and Pakistani users say it is run by India. Swedish users claim it is a Russian propaganda account. Turkey, the US, Europe, and Nigeria are also believed to be the home of its administrator. So who is behind it? It’s… Rebekah Vardy a man from a Melbourne suburb.

Abdul-Latif Halimi, according to his LinkedIn, is a 31-year-old medical doctor living in Melbourne, with degrees in medicine, international business and Middle Eastern studies. He’s also the “founder and manager” of a “political and financial social media account”. Halimi is named in Australian business filings for The Spectator Index, a now-deregistered private company which has never filed accounts. He is described as the editor of the International Spectator in a 2014 article for The Diplomat, a news magazine on the Asia-Pacific region. He also featured in a podcast, in which he is described as an Australian-Muslim of Lebanese heritage, the son of refugees, who organised conferences and was an active part of Melbourne’s Muslim community. One British journalist who briefly spoke to Halimi describes him as well connected with the devout practising Muslim world, those who consider themselves to be traditionalists.

Multiple requests for an interview with Halimi for this piece have not been responded to. But in the past week, Halimi has deleted his personal Twitter account, the podcast episode featuring him has been deleted, all tweets from the Spectator Index prior to 2020 have been deleted, and a refund was issued to my bank account after attempting to subscribe to the newsletter to see its contents. Follow-up emails to The Spectator Index bounced back. Halimi, it seems, is much more interested in broadcasting than engaging: no archived tweets exist of The Spectator Index tweeting at someone.

“It’s odd that there are no sources,” says Beckett. “The fact it doesn’t do sources is a bad thing, in the sense that if CNN tweet out that the stock market has fallen, I know who CNN is. Good luck to him  –  but it’s not in his interest to tweet fake or false information. A lot of work has been done recently suggesting that you have to build credibility, show your source, a secondary source, background information, link it through  – but he’s proving people don’t care too much.”

The Spectator Index is currently following in the global media’s footsteps and focussing upon coronavirus, tweeting about new cases in countries across the world. Likewise, it faces the same questions as larger news organisations, institutions which have built up credibility and trust: how does it make money? What does it do when it states something incorrect? And why do people trust it, and should they? They don’t seem to have any of the answers  –  but if a news organisation does find those answer, The Spectator Index will be sure to tweet it out.

Henry Dyer is a freelance journalist who has written for Private Eye, the Times and the Telegraph

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