A journalist in the White House publicly supporting Donald Trump and trying to discredit Joe Biden? Social media accounts belonging to "Rob Petrosian" have attracted a large following on TikTok and other platforms. But an investigation conducted by the FRANCE 24 Observers suggests that "Rob Petrosian" is not a real journalist, and that he is most likely based outside of the United States.
In fact, he’s everywhere. On Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Parler, YouTube, Telegram and even Pinterest, a user calling himself "Rob Petrosian" shares daily photos and videos of his alleged life as a White House reporter. On his TikTok bio, he had written until November 2020 that he was a White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Today, his bio reads: “Events and News President (TRUMP) United States, The White House, US. Patriot.” Even though the Washington Post has said no one by that name works for the newspaper, the user continues to use the hashtags #washingtonpost and #reporter.
On most of these platforms, "Rob Petrosian" tags the White House as his workplace, implying that he works there, either as a member of the presidential staff, or as a journalist. He mainly posts videos of Joe Biden — along with critical or sarcastic comments — but also shares videos of Trump.
Analysis of the social media accounts suggests that the life of this self-described "White House reporter" is actually invented. Photographs appearing to show “Rob Petrosian” at the White House have in fact been Photoshopped, while the videos of White House events have been taken from the accounts of real White House correspondents.
Pro-Trump and anti-Biden captions
By posing as a journalist, "Rob Petrosian" has turned his accounts into disinformation machines. In the tweet below, he claims that many Americans refuse to call the current tenant of the White House "president", citing a poll that does not exist.
A video posted on the Instagram account @rabertpetrosian shows President Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, with this caption: "The goal of these two people is to destroy America and the Americans with their wrong policies. Take a look at their work in the last two months".
On April 5, the @RobPetrosian Twitter account shared a video from the White House that was viewed over 130,000 times, along with a caption saying that Biden was about to be hospitalised. The Observers team analysed the tweet. The conclusion? The shared video is old, and Biden was not at the White House that day, but appeared in good health the next day.
On March 26, the same account falsely tweeted that Kamala Harris was not American but Indian, and a week earlier published the results of a survey – also non-existent – concluding that 40 percent of the votes in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania had been “changed” by China and Iran.
Hates Biden, loves Trump
The Twitter account takes a very different tone toward Biden’s predecessor: "Patriots love President Trump", "Trump the best president of our lives" or "President Trump has always been the most popular president in America". Many of the tweets contain minor linguistic and punctuation errors suggesting that the author is not a native English speaker, and not a trained journalist.
A quantitative analysis of the @RobPetrosian Twitter account via Twitonomy confirms its political leanings. The hashtags #trump2024 and #presidenttrump are among the most frequently used (78 and 47 times since the account was created in May 2019). The hashtag #reporter is also used quite often (42 times), and maintains the myth of his false identity, as does #washingtonpost.
Compilation of stolen images
Much of the content posted on the "Rob Petrosian" accounts, however, is similar to the day-to-day coverage posted by real White House correspondents: a video taken from the Capitol rotunda, a military routine at the White House, the Oval Office, etc. Most of these images are actually taken from other accounts: those of real journalists and photojournalists, such as Jabin Botsford, photojournalist for the Washington Post. The account stole, among others, a video of Biden addressing members of the Democratic Party and another of the president about to sign executive orders.
Contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers, the Washington Post confirmed that neither this person, nor any of the aliases he used in the past, had worked for them.
The “Petrosian” accounts have a substantial audience: over 5,000 followers on Instagram and 10,000 on Twitter. But TikTok is the platform where they are the most successful: more than 290,000 followers and 4.8 million likes. Some of the TikTok videos have even reached the million mark.
But is his content really harmful? Marianna Spring, BBC’s specialist disinformation and social media reporter, has a clear opinion on the matter:
“Disinformation which is spread by accounts impersonating people that you might trust – whether that's a journalist or a doctor or an expert, or brandishing credentials in some way – can be very dangerous because it plays on our trust in those people and in those systems, and then exploits that trust in order to promote false information, or stuff that's just simply not true.”
Spring says she is not aware of any other case of someone impersonating a US political journalist. Politics, which has been a highly polarising topic in the United States in recent years, is a theme that can generate large followings on social media, according to Spring: “In this case, it definitely plays on your emotions. There are very strong opinions expressed and as we see often, journalists who do that on Twitter tend to amass a pretty large following, so it's quite an effective technique, even if you don't spell everything right.”
It is impossible to know what proportion of "Rob Petrosian"’s followers actually believe the falsehoods he shares. While the accounts contain warning signs that they are not reliable, such as poor spelling and Photoshopped profile pictures, an unwary user — or younger users who favour TikTok — can easily fall into the trap, according to Spring: “You can just scroll through TikTok and see video after video after video of a person that you do not follow. For that reason, it is much easier for accounts like this one to grow a following, particularly if they are using a certain hashtag, or branding themselves in a certain way, claiming to be a news source.”
Who is behind the “Rob Petrosian” accounts?
The FRANCE 24 Observers team tried to contact “Rob Petrosian” to find out the motives behind the accounts – political or not. We sent multiple requests via direct message and email, but the accounts ignored our requests and blocked our access to their profiles.
The @RobPetrosian Twitter account did however share an excerpt from a FRANCE 24 Observers video analysing one of the fake items he had posted, referring to our team as "French people who have formed a group in France to discredit American patriots”.
Photos with Trump have been Photoshopped
The accounts feature several photographs that appear to show “Rob Petrosian” at the White House, posing with Trump and his wife Melania, or standing at the press secretary’s podium. In all of the photos, however, the face has been Photoshopped into the frame.
For example, in the photo below, the man pictured with Trump is actually Filipe G. Martins, an advisor to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Profile pictures on the "Rob Petrosian" accounts change regularly. They consistently feature the same face that was Photoshopped into the Trump photos. In the case of the profile photos, the face is Photoshopped onto the head and shoulders of another man.
The Pinterest account of “Rob Petrosian” shows most of the profile pictures his other accounts have used in the past. Thanks to reverse image searches, the original photos can be found. In the photo comparison below, all of the original photos are from American actor Ben McKenzie, onto which the “Rob Petrosian” accounts added the same face.
The same face also appears on the Facebook account in older photos that do not appear to have been manipulated. They show a man sitting in an armchair, sitting on a bench in a park and posing in front of a clothing shop.
One of the un-Photoshopped photos, where a man is standing next to an old car, was geolocated by FRANCE 24 Observers. The Gant sign behind him and the Lacoste one, which can be seen through the mirror effect in the window, lead us to the Aqua Florya shopping centre in Istanbul, Turkey.
While we cannot confirm that this man is the person behind the “Rob Petrosian” accounts, we were able to trace the digital footprint of the accounts. Using online tools, we were able to partially retrieve a Turkish phone number associated with the Instagram account of "Rob Petrosian". Furthermore, in a tweet about Trump, he repeatedly used the capital letter "i" with a dot, which is a letter from the Turkish alphabet.