A false story that actor Leonardo DiCaprio made a $10 million donation to Ukraine was repeated this week by media outlets around the world and shared by tens of thousands of people on social media.
Articles and social media posts claimed that DiCaprio is connected to Ukraine because his late maternal grandmother was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Some of the articles claimed that DiCaprio’s $10 million donation was announced by an organization called the International Visegrad Fund.
Facts First: DiCaprio did not make a $10 million donation to Ukraine and does not have a family member from Odessa or anywhere else in Ukraine, a source close to the actor told CNN on Wednesday. The source said that DiCaprio “stands with Ukraine” and has made Ukraine-related humanitarian donations to CARE, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and the UN’s refugee agency – but that the reported $10 million sum is false, that claims of DiCaprio giving money to the Ukrainian government or to the Ukrainian military are also false, and that claims that DiCaprio has any “family ties” to Ukraine are false too.
The International Visegrad Fund told CNN on Wednesday that, contrary to the news reports, it did not announce a $10 million DiCaprio donation to Ukraine and has no related information.
So how did this false story spread so far?
The saga of the nonexistent $10 million donation is a case study in how bad information can bubble up from the online fringes to mainstream media outlets – with outlet after outlet, big and small alike, simply repeating the story without independently verifying it.
A poorly sourced story
On Saturday, an obscure website called GSA News, which focuses on news about the South American country of Guyana, posted a short article claiming that “sources inside Ukraine” said that DiCaprio “has transferred ten million US dollars to the Ukrainian government.” It added that DiCaprio “has Ukrainian roots through his maternal grandmother.”
GSA News founder Patrick Carpen stood behind the article on Wednesday afternoon, even after he was informed that the source close to DiCaprio had told CNN that its contents were false. Carpen said in an email to CNN, “I really trust my source inside Ukraine.”
On Wednesday night, though, Carpen called CNN to say “I apologize profoundly” for the false story, that he “had no bad intentions in publishing that article,” and that he was going to post a retraction, which he later did.
Carpen explained that his primary source for DiCaprio’s supposed $10 million donation had been a Facebook post from a Ukrainian woman whose posts about the war with Russia have generally been accurate. Carpen said he had also seen other Ukrainians on Facebook posting about the supposed donation.
Since his Guyana website has a small readership, Carpen said, he thought that if he published an article repeating the DiCaprio story and it turned out to be wrong, he could quietly delete the article within days.
“I thought that it wouldn’t have a lot of consequences if it was false,” he said.
Instead, he said he watched with surprise and dismay as the story “snowballed into everybody’s news publications, some of them with millions of followers. And that kinds of worries me…that people would just take something at face value and just publish it.”
He acknowledged, however, that he had himself taken a claim from Facebook posters at face value.
To Twitter, then another obscure website, then major outlets
Whether because of the GSA News article, because of Ukrainians’ posts on Facebook or for some other reason, the story about DiCaprio started spreading more widely on Sunday.
A Twitter account called Visegrád 24, which tweets news updates focused on the Visegrad Group countries of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to more than 196,000 followers, posted a tweet – citing no sources – that claimed “Leonardo DiCaprio has donated 10 million USD to Ukraine. His maternal grandmother was a native of Odessa, Ukraine!”
Claims that DiCaprio’s maternal grandmother Helene Indenbirken was born in Ukraine in general or Odessa in particular have circulated online for years. However, these claims have never been attached to a solid source. Indenbirken died in 2008 in Germany, where she lived; it wasn’t clear on Thursday where she was actually born, and the source close to DiCaprio wouldn’t say.
More than 10,000 retweets
Regardless, the Visegrád 24 tweet was retweeted more than 10,000 times. It was deleted on Wednesday afternoon after CNN informed the account that the story about the $10 million donation was false.
“It seems we fell prey to a fake story ourselves. Happens to the best of us!” a representative for the account said in a message to CNN on Wednesday.
So where did the account get its information? “We saw the story tweeted by several small news accounts, citing an anonymous source,” the representative said.
Major outlets pick up the story
On Monday, the day after the Visegrád 24 tweet was posted, the story really took off.
An article on another obscure website, “Polish News,” reported that DiCaprio “allocated as much as USD 10 million to support Ukraine and did not plan to announce it to the whole world” – but that, on Sunday, the donation had been announced by the International Visegrad Fund, which is an international donor organization created by the governments of the Visegrad Group countries.
Again, not true. The public relations manager for the fund, Lucia Becová, said in a Wednesday email to CNN that the fund had made no such announcement.
It’s possible that Polish News mixed up the International Visegrad Fund with the Visegrád 24 Twitter account. By Wednesday, the Polish News article had been edited to remove the reference to the International Visegrad Fund – and the site did not express strong confidence in the rest of the story. A Polish News representative, Artur Salamonczyk, said in a Wednesday email that if CNN is aware that DiCaprio didn’t make the $10 million donation, “we are happy to remove the content.”
By Thursday, it had deleted the article and published another article saying that reports about a $10 million donation from DiCaprio were incorrect. By then, though, the horse was out of the barn.
News outlet after news outlet had cited Polish News as the primary source behind their stories that DiCaprio made a $10 million donation to Ukraine.
News stories about the $10 million donation were published by – among others – England’s The Independent (which eventually amended its story) and The Daily Mail (which deleted its story), India’s The Hindustan Times (whose story remained online as of Friday), the Czech Republic’s Novinky (which eventually published a new story debunking its original), Euronews in France (which eventually amended its story), and, in the US, entertainment site ET Online (which deleted DiCaprio from its story on celebrities’ Ukraine donations) and conservative political sites The Washington Examiner and The Daily Caller (both of which amended their stories).
CNN began looking into the supposed $10 million donation after Jane Lytvynenko, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, raised questions about the accuracy of the viral story on Twitter on Wednesday.