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Donie O'Sullivan

Donie O'Sullivan
CNN's Donie O'Sullivan is a politics and technology reporter who covers everything from big tech, conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation campaigns targeting the American electorate.
‎Media Tribe: Donie O’Sullivan | QAnon, the missing million and being hunted by a conspiracy theorist on Apple Podcasts
This episode features CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan. Donie is a politics and technology reporter who covers everything from big tech, conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation campaigns targeting the American electorate. Donie was previously part of CNN’s social discovery team and before that he wo…
Listen to Donie O'Sullivan on Apple Podcasts
Listen to Donie O'Sullivan on Spotify
Media Tribe - Donie O’Sullivan | QAnon, the missing million and being hunted by a conspiracy theorist
This episode features CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan. Donie is a politics and technology reporter who covers everything from big tech, conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation campaigns targeting the American electorate. Donie was previously part of CNN’s social discovery team and before that he wo…
Listen to Donie O'Sullivan on Google Podcasts

Shaunagh talks to Donie O'Sullivan

CNN's Donie O'Sullivan is a politics and technology reporter who covers everything from big tech, conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation campaigns targeting the American electorate. Donie was previously part of CNN's social discovery team and before that he worked for Storyful, the social media verification news agency.

See Donie's profile on CNN here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Episode credits

Hosted and produced by Shaunagh Connaire and edited by Ryan Ferguson.

Episode transcript

Shaunagh Connaire

Welcome to Media Tribe. I'm Shaunagh Connaire and this is the podcast that tells the story behind the story. It's an opportunity for you and I to step into the shoes of the most extraordinary media folk who cover the issues that matter most.

Donie O'Sullivan

The sort of penny dropped in that we were like, whoa, actually what was happening here was that Russia was not just running these pages for Trump. They were running all these sort of pages all across the board. Pro black pages, pro white pages, pro second amendment gun law pages, anti second amendment. Anything to try and stir division here in the US.

Shaunagh Connaire

My guest today is CNN's Donie O'Sullivan. Donie is a politics and technology reporter and works with CNN's investigative unit tracking online disinformation campaigns targeting the American electorate. Donie O'Sullivan, it is so lovely to chat you.

Donie O'Sullivan

Shaunagh, thank you so much for having me.

Shaunagh Connaire

Well, you are obviously on the campaign trail for the 2020 presidential elections being an amazing political/tech reporter at CNN. But do you want to first tell our audience about how you got into journalism Donie.

Donie O'Sullivan

Yeah. I mean, well, my mom will tell you that she has photos of me when I was three or four years old at the coffee table in our sitting room at home in Kerry behind it, pretending I was on the TV and interviewing the teddy bear. So my mom would say I started there. I got into it. I did study journalism in college, but I went to UCD in Dublin and started working on the college newspaper there and got very, very involved in that. And it was great crack. And then I got lucky, I got an internship with Storyful, which was set up by Mark Little, who used to be the RTE Washington correspondent host of prime time. And that company's Storyful was set up about 10 years ago to basically vet what you're seeing on social media, particularly videos and breaking news scenarios to ways to prove that the video is what it claims to be. So I got in that way and that's sort of what I've been doing ever since.

Shaunagh Connaire

So from Storyful, you obviously succeeded in the internship in the sense that they employed you for money, and then you went on to CNN to work at the social media team. Is that right Donie?

Donie O'Sullivan

That's right. I was working with Storyful in Dublin and then eventually moved out here to the US with them in New York. And basically what Storyful is, is they provide a service to newsrooms, they're a sort of small social media news agency. And that if a bomb goes off or a terrorist attack somewhere happens in the world, obviously the first people on the ground these days are not reporters. They're just regular people with their camera phones. They post that up in social media. Storyful's job is to find that footage and then make sure that it's real, that it shows what it claims to show, that it's not something from a different city or a different time. And yes, CNN was in the market looking for folks to do that, to help them obviously in their breaking news. So I joined CNN to do that about four years ago, four and a half years ago, right before the 2016 election actually.

Shaunagh Connaire

It's amazing timing because those skills weren't around, I guess, in our industry. So somebody like you and your skills, you were really needed. So that was the CNN discovery team, as far as I remember Donie. But how did you then pivot to becoming a reporter that's covering the intersection of technology and politics?

Donie O'Sullivan

So the team, what we were doing out at CNN was anytime there'd be a terror attack or something like that in the UK or a shooting here in the US, getting those pictures and videos on air and figuring out what was real and what was fake on social media, that was my job. And then in January, 2017, around the time as Trump was coming into office being inaugurated, that's when the US intelligence community, the FBI, the CIA, NSA, all those agencies put out a joint statement saying that Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 election here, and that they had used social media as part of their campaign to do that. And that's when CNN sort of turned around to me and the head of the investigative unit, Patricia DiCarlo sort of walked over to the social media desk one day in New York. And she was asking, does anybody know how we could track how popular false stories were? Or how popular fake news was in the run-up to the 2016 election?

Donie O'Sullivan

And I sort of spoke up and that's sort of when it sort of clicked, I think for them to say, oh, you're the guy who sort of figures out what's real and what's fake in breaking news. Can you figure out what's real and what's fake when it comes to these accounts or what Russia was doing on social media in the run up to the election? And that's when I sort of started moving more into this investigative role.

Shaunagh Connaire

I mean, that's quite amazing because 2017, nobody really knew the level of an interference from the Russians, even at that point. So it does feel like you were certainly there at the right time, but you genuinely had the exact skills that they needed. And obviously your role then of course, it's transformed into a really key and strategic role within the current elections in 2020, because fake news and disinformation is very much top of the agenda and something that every news outlet is at least trying to stay on top of. So Donie, do you want to go into kind of some of the stories that you have covered in this role at CNN.

Donie O'Sullivan

Yeah. I mean, when we first started looking into this thing in 2017, we were trying to figure out what it was us that Russia could have been doing on Facebook and on social media that would be so consequential that the CIA would be talking about it. So we started digging around and everybody was sort of operating on the assumption that maybe Russia was running like these sort of pro-Trump pages or something like that. So I spent many, many months in 2017, basically looking for that and sort of looking for Facebook pages that might have sort of some telltale signs of them, maybe not being run from inside the US. Whether it's broken English, or links to pages that we then figure out might be tied to Russia that are registered in Russia or things like that. But as we were doing this, I sort of kept coming across Black Lives Matter pages, which is a black civil rights group here in the US. Pages that looked just a little off to me, pages with sort of weird expressions, weird use of punctuation actually.

Donie O'Sullivan

But when I saw them, I said, well, I don't think they could be part of this Russian campaign because we're looking for pro-Trump pages. And these pages are very much not pro-Trump pages, but I came across it a few times and I was very much, about a year at CNN at this point. And very much working in the background. I didn't have sources in any of the social media companies or anything like that. But I was down in Washington, in our office in Washington. And I mentioned to one of the reporters who did have sources, I was like, I was like, by the way, like it was almost just in passing. I said, "By the way, I keep coming across these pages. Will you ask your source about this." And he came back to me like 10 minutes later and said, "Oh my gosh." He said, "Yes, those pages that you're finding, these Black Lives Matter pages, some of them are Russian."

Donie O'Sullivan

And I was like, oh, the sort of penny dropped in that we were like, whoa, actually what was happening here was that Russia was not just running these pages for Trump. They were running all these sort of pages, pages about racial division, pages about social injustice in the United States. And as soon as we sort of told our bosses that, that's really when the sort of CNN machine went into overdrive, I think it was like 3:00 PM on a Friday at that point. And they were like, okay, we want to break this news. And this was really at the height of when everybody started investigating Russia. They said, okay, we want this story for 8:00 PM tonight for Anderson Cooper.

Donie O'Sullivan

But what we have learned since then, and actually some of the pages we identified later when to become part of congressional testimony and the Mueller investigation was these pages were being run all across the board, pro black pages, pro white pages, pro second amendment gun law pages, anti second amendment, anything to try and stir division here in the US. And I think a question I get a lot is well, what harm can a few Facebook pages, do? What's the big deal? But these are the precise tactics that governments use, have been using for decades. But just adjusted to the age of social media.

Shaunagh Connaire

That's it. It's like Cold War tactics. I mean, sowing seeds of discord is probably doing them that ... That's doing an injustice because it was so much more detrimental than that.

Donie O'Sullivan

Yeah. And in the case of Russia specifically, I mean, you'd think exactly as you said, during the Cold War, they tried to infiltrate activist groups, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement. But obviously to do that back in the day, you'd have to oftentimes have a physical agent, an asset here in the United States, train them up undercover. Like for folks who've seen that TV show, The Americans, and no doubt that is still happening today. But now they have this ability to pose. And I mean, some of these pages were huge. Some of these pages have half a million followers. They were actually organizing real events in the United States, all sort of co-opting on genuine activists to try and do some of their dirty work for them.

Shaunagh Connaire

That is extraordinary. And the problem is what happens on Facebook doesn't happen in an online vacuum. I think that's what the world has come to realize. You're kind of leading on to another area, which I'm fascinated by, and that's QAnon, which obviously you're covering in depth as well Donie. Do you want to tell our audience a little bit about your reporting there? You might want to detail who QAnon are as well for any listeners that might not be up to speed yet.

Donie O'Sullivan

I think the world really is starting to realize, and particularly here in the US that like social media and the real world, they are no longer two separate things. What happens on social media, whether it's people being radicalized to become mass shooters. We're seeing that more and more that people who are seeing this sort of content online that helps sow hatred in their hearts is having an impact in the real world. QAnon is a crazy conspiracy theory that basically there is a poster, an anonymous poster who goes by the identity Q, who purports to be a sort of government insider in the US and posts these cryptic messages really of nonsense, primarily claiming that many senior democratic party politicians, officials, Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles. And it's a very sort of pro-Trump conspiracy thing. It's been around for about three years.

Donie O'Sullivan

And for the most part, a lot of people ignored it, but it's really just snowballed. And particularly since we've all been locked up for COVID-19. A lot more people are on the internet with a lot more time on their hands. A lot of people are looking for answers and this conspiracy theory has now sort of just grown a life of its own. And there are no people, Republicans who are running for Congress who have expressed support for QAnon, President Trump himself has all been expressed support for it. He was asked about it one day and he said, he thought QAnon followers were great people, and all this. I was actually in California last weekend at a QAnon event, where there was about a 100, 150 people. And just people making outrageous claims, totally baseless about everybody from Hillary Clinton to Tom Hanks. They're convinced that that everybody's a pedophile.

Shaunagh Connaire

They used to be a fringe phenomenon, but now they seem to be attaching themselves to other mainstream causes like the anti-vaccine movement and of course anti-child trafficking movement. So they seem to be constantly evolving, but that's a tactic Donie, isn't that right, in order to get more followers, even though I think some of their followers don't realize what or who they're following when they have these hashtag save the children, save our children posts.

Donie O'Sullivan

Yeah, exactly. And a lot of your listeners have probably seen people share the hashtag or share content on social media over the past few months with save the children. Save The Children is a real legit charity, which has been around for 100 years. It has absolutely nothing to do with this online movement. These conspiracy theorists have basically co-opted this charity's name and obviously gripped onto this extremely emotive and serious and real issue of child abduction, sex trafficking. But they've used it, the conspiracy theorists have as a way to bring people in, it's assertive, it's a soft approach, it's a soft gateway, I guess, into these sort of crazier conspiracy theories. And what you have, and some of the people I met in California last week, were people who have genuine concerns about children, about child safety. But once they click on this hashtag on Instagram or on Twitter, or on Facebook, you very quickly, you don't see statistics or at least real statistics about children that are going missing. You don't see ways to actually help the real Save The Children charity or any real respectable charity at that point.

Donie O'Sullivan

All you see, is you click on this, you see these images and memes of Hillary Clinton, of Joe Biden, of all the Democrats. So I mean, it's genius on the part of the conspiracy theorists, because then you have people like me, some of the folks I was talking to, they said, why are you attacking Save The Children? Why would a CNN reporter come and tell us we're not doing a good thing by saying, we want to save the children? And that's a very difficult ... Because it's obviously such an emotive and a real issue, it's a very hard one to tackle and tell people, well, actually, while your heart is in the right place, you're being misled down this path. Which by the way, the actual real organizations that work on this issue of child protection say that this whole thing has become such a major distraction. They are getting calls about people who are convinced that this celebrity and this politician is doing X, Y, and Z. And it's overwhelming them.

Shaunagh Connaire

It's crazy. I mean, it's terrifying and crazy. I think you can't talk about QAnon without talking about the big tech companies, as well Donie, which obviously you cover in force. So the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, who've, they have amplified QAnon messages and they've recommended QAnon groups and pages to new people through their algorithms. I saw Facebook after three years have banned QAnon content. And I think today you were reporting about YouTube, who haven't quite banned them, but they kind of are prohibiting some of their content. Why can't they just ban this stuff outright?

Donie O'Sullivan

I mean, this is the case that we see over and over again with these companies, some of the richest companies in the world. You're right. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, have all in some form over the past few weeks or months said that they're now going to ban QAnon. But I mean, really the horse has bolted at this point. We see that people have become radicalized and have been exposed to this. They're just always behind the curve. I mean, the fact is they're not really incentivized no matter what they tell you, they're not incentivized to really clean up their platforms. I mean, they're making a ton of money. All they care about is the advertisers that people stay long on the platform. And also this sort of crazy stuff. If you can get somebody hooked on to these conspiracy theories and people go down the rabbit holes, they're going to spend longer on your platform, meaning you're going to be able to sell them more ads, meaning you're going to be able to make more money.

Donie O'Sullivan

So look, there are good people that work at some of these companies, don't get me wrong. They're trying to do the right thing, but like the fundamentals of how Silicon Valley social media platforms are set up is not to be set up to be moderated in any way.

Shaunagh Connaire

Yeah, exactly. And that's a problem. Is there a story Donie that you're really rather proud of? That's potentially had some impact?

Donie O'Sullivan

Yeah. I mean, look, I'm extremely lucky and privileged right now to be able to work for CNN and to travel around America and cover the stories that I cover. But actually I think the story that I've been probably most proudest of is actually from long before I was ever being paid as a journalist. It was when I was back in college in UCD in Dublin, and I was working for ... There's two college newspapers at UCD. There's one, which is sort of the student union, student government paper, which is a broadsheet paper, or at least it was when I was there and was very by the book and takes itself seriously. And then there's sort of a tabloid rag independence paper that's just all oldest sort of misfits. And I was at the one for the misfits.

Donie O'Sullivan

I started covering the student union, which in American terms, like I guess is student government. I view that as I was like, okay, this is our job here in our little campus in Belfield and Dublin for our role is to hold these guys to account. Even though they're just students like ourselves with 18, 19, 20 year olds who had no idea what they were doing, much like ourselves. But they did actually control and were responsible for a lot of money. Like UCD is the biggest college in Ireland. I think about 25,000 students at the time. And as a result, I think they'd get 150 Euro a head from every student. So I think all in all, about 7 million euros was going through the students union every year. They had professional staff who were supposed to be sort of the adults in the room watching this, but ultimately the boss was the student union president who was normally a 19 year old or 20 year old, who if you know anything about student politics, they're not often elected because they're a political genius. It's sometimes it's because they're the guy who can drink the most.

Shaunagh Connaire

I went to UCD Donie so I'm very familiar.

Donie O'Sullivan

And possibly the only people who drank more than them were the student journalists. But I think it was, I was in second year and I went to my first student union meeting and it was where they were talking about the yearly accounts. And they showed last year as accounts and for a few million Euro, all they had detailed was everything on a double sided piece of A4 paper. And it was stuff, extremely vague. Like they had something like pencil and paper, 50 grand spent on pencils, something like that. And I remember asking at the time just saying what? I was like, "Is there like a fuller version of these accounts available?" And they said, "Oh yeah, yeah, we have last year's available." So I asked them a few times for it. I was like, "Okay, can we see the full accounts?" And we never got it. But then the next year came around and the same thing happened again. They had this double-sided piece of paper with the year's accounts on it.

Donie O'Sullivan

And so that's when we really digging taking in and we just started doing front page stories on where are the accounts. Really got sort of everybody on the campus pretty interested about it because this was students money. As we asked more and more questions, the professional accountant, who's like a guy, I think maybe in his forties or fifties, who had been employed by the students union and the university in fact, for a long time. He went on sick leave as we started asking more and more questions. Once he left, other people started picking up the phone and the accounting office, and it was all these creditors saying the student's union owes us 50 grand for this, 20 grand for this, your bill is overrun on this. An investigation was launched. And by the end of our college year, it had all come out that about, I think 1.9 million Euro had gone missing.

Donie O'Sullivan

Was it just grossly mismanaged? Were some of the elected student officials taking it? Was this guy taking it? We simply do not know, but UCD, the university itself has a very sort of robust public relations team. The students union is supposed to be independent and it is but the adult in the room was supposed to be this guy who was keeping an eye on the money to make sure things are above board. And there was a total failure on their part. So it was also quite scary because it's like 20 years old or something. And basically had both the students union and my own university sort of threatening us to not report this or pressuring us in different ways about it. So it was certainly eye-opening, but it definitely, I think one of the stories I'm more proud of.

Shaunagh Connaire

Well, good for you Donie O'Sullivan. I'm not surprised in any way that you're even a thorn in people's side, back in [inaudible 00:23:05]. Does not surprise me, but good for you. Obviously you've got a real taste for investigative journalism and holding the powerful to account back then. So good on you. Donie, last question. All is a bit of crack, but is there a crazy moment in your career thus far that has never quite made it to air that you'd like to tell our audience about?

Donie O'Sullivan

Well, I guess the past few years covering the sort of dark murky world of conspiracy theories, there's more and more crazy moments every day almost. But a few years ago, I noticed that that, woke up one morning and there was this story about how the port of Charleston, which is one of the biggest ports in America had been closed down for part of an evening because somebody had called in a bomb threat. And as I sort of just poked around on it a little bit, I started to see there was actually a lot of people tweeting in these YouTube videos, people talking about this supposed bomb that was going to show up in this port. So as I dug into it a bit, I was actually able to track down. There was these bunch of conspiracy theorists who were streaming live on YouTube, just basically totally made up that there was a bomb. And the people, the few hundred or a dozen people that were watching them on YouTube and believed them, called up the port.

Donie O'Sullivan

And so I did a story, a pretty simple story to just say, look how a conspiracy theory had a real world impact. And of course the conspiracy theorists on YouTube were not very happy that I had called them out in this way. And you get pushed back on that all the time. But a few months later, my phone started blowing up. I was in the office at CNN and it was two or three months after we did the story, and my phone started blowing up all of these tweets. Basically the guy, the conspiracy theorist, who I think at the time was living in Ohio or something like that. He had shown up in New York trying to come find me and was streaming live on YouTube doing it. And he was walking through central park saying, I'm on my way to CNN to confront Donie O'Sullivan. Or he kept calling me Donnie O'Sullivan.

Donie O'Sullivan

And yeah, so obviously, when that happens, CNN takes that pretty seriously. He kept showing up I think for, I think he came two days, but they helped me with different security precautions and things like that. And it eventually thankfully blew over. What is interesting about that same guy. I wasn't actively tracking him. This actually happened three years ago, but he came back into my life just earlier this year at the start of COVID, because I came across a case of a woman, a US army reservist, who was being blamed by conspiracy theorists, but also by the Chinese communist party for starting COVID-19.

Shaunagh Connaire

I forgot about this Donie. I totally forgot about his story. Oh this was mental.

Donie O'Sullivan

And she was being blamed as part of this conspiracy theory. Obviously we know COVID-19 started in China, but as part of this conspiracy theory, it didn't start in China. It was actually a US biological weapon. And it was brought to China by this woman, which was obviously totally false. To give some context just before the COVID outbreak in 2019 in China, initially there was the World Military Games, which is like, sort of the Olympics for the army and the US had a team out there and it was in Wuhan. But this was before the outbreak and this woman, [Mahia Benassi 00:27:05] was competing. She's a cyclist, she's a mom, she's in her forties or fifties. She was out there competing. Basically out of no ... And sometimes these conspiracy theories are pretty complicated well you'll say, oh, this is why they chose this woman. This one isn't, they just decided that she was going to be the woman that they blame.

Donie O'Sullivan

And they started totally upending her life. These American conspiracy theorists were saying, no, it's a US biological weapon. She started it. Then the Chinese government, who of course, one to further narrative and distract from the point that China is where the virus started, also latched onto that. Which resulted in this woman, being harassed, at her getting death threats, her life being totally turned upside down, she's a private citizen. As I started looking into the story, lo and behold, the guy who really was pushing this conspiracy was the same conspiracy theorist who shut down this port three years ago, who came looking for me three years ago. And so I actually called him up this time and we did a thing where we confronted him. It was COVID so it was over the phone and stuff.

Donie O'Sullivan

But I think that also just underscores your earlier question too, is this guy has been on YouTube, has been on all of these social media platforms, spouting this bullshit for three years and nobody stopped him, and he's upending lives. And this woman, Mahia Benassi, and her husband, Matt, were pleading with YouTube, they were reporting it everyday. You see all these functions where you can report abuse on social media platforms. Most of the times it doesn't work. Only after when CNN's story published. Only after that, did YouTube do anything about it. Only after our story published and a US Senator from Virginia, which is the state where the Benassis live, called up YouTube. Only then did they act, so it just goes to show you that the scales are totally tipped in favor of the conspiracy theorists, of the harassers online and for regular people like the Benassis, they have nowhere to turn. I mean, they really didn't know what to do.

Shaunagh Connaire

Yeah. Well, that's exactly why we need you and your journalism Donie. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Before I let you go Donie, obviously you've conducted this interview in your CNN accent. I've conducted this interview in my, what my husband calls, my Channel Four accent. But I thought you might just say thanks for having me on the podcast Shaunagh in your actual [inaudible 00:29:47] accent, not accident, just to reiterate to our audience, that you're actually from County Kerry.

Donie O'Sullivan

Thank you very much for having me.

Shaunagh Connaire

Good man Donie. You're a great sport. Thanks a million. If you liked what you heard on this episode of Media Tribe, tune in next week, as I'll be dropping new shows every week with all sorts of legendary folk from the industry. And if you could leave me a review and rating, that would be really appreciated. Also, get in touch on social media at Shaunagh on Twitter, or at Shaunagh Connaire on Instagram and feel free to suggest new guests. That's it. Until next week, see you then. This episode is edited by Ryan Ferguson.