The Putin steak that wasn’t: How fake news about a Vladimir birthday burger spread

Time & Us
Last Updated: October 10, 2017 at 1:26 am

A hamburger is not the sort of thing you would expect to spark an international disagreement.

But the apparent creation of a special birthday burger for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has dragged a New York restaurant into an argument over what critics say is fake news from the Kremlin.

Russian state media reported over the weekend that Lucy’s Cantina Royale had produced a special spicy burger in honour of Putin’s 65th birthday on Saturday.

It was a shining example of how Putin is adored across the world, said Channel One, the Kremlin’s flagship television channel. “It’s not only foreign leaders that are wishing Russia’s president a happy birthday, but ordinary citizens too, and, what is more, in extremely original ways,” a presenter gushed.

A waitress at Lucy’s, a Mexican restaurant near Penn Station in New York, told Russian state media that the five-patty burger, served with chips, sauce and salad, weighed exactly 1,952 grams, a reference to the year Putin was born in Leningrad.

“We believe that Vladimir Vladimirovich is an outstanding politician and a historical figure,” said a barmaid, identified as both Tamara and Tatiana by various Russian media outlets. The video was produced by Ruptly, a company owned by RT, the Kremlin-backed television channel. “We decided to devote one day a year to [Putin],” said another barmaid, identified by state media as Darya.

Tass, a state-run news agency, cited a manager at Lucy’s named Ted Bryant as saying Putin was the only world leader whose birthday the restaurant celebrated with a special burger. But there was a problem: the story was fake.

When Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist whose website exposes Kremlin propaganda, called the restaurant, a Lucy’s barman told him: “This has nothing to do with us”.

A pro-Kremlin Twitter user then posted a recording of a telephone call to Lucy’s, in which a barmaid confirmed the Putin burger promotion. When Kovalev called back, the same woman said the burger had been on sale in the morning and the man who had told him the Russian state media story was untrue was a “trainee”. She then hung up.

However, there was no mention of the purported Putin burger promotion on the restaurant’s website, and no sign of it on photographs posted to Lucy’s Instagram on 7 October, the Russian president’s birthday.

“Our restaurant has never celebrated Vladimir Putin’s birthday in any way, shape or form and has never offered a Putin burger,” Sean Ryan, a spokesman for Lucy’s Cantina Royale, told the Guardian in emailed comments. “Lucy’s completely disavows the statements made in the video, which are false.”

As for the barmaid featured in the state media report – apparently the same woman to whom Kovalev spoke – Ryan said: “She in fact does work for us and she lied about filming a project for school.”

Ryan said he was speaking to the restaurant’s attorneys about the incident.

Critics say the incident is a perfect example of how Kremlin-sponsored fake news operates. “This whole ridiculous story betrays the deep insecurity of both Putin, his loyal media and supporters,’ said Kovalev, who runs the website The Noodle Remover.

“They crave western attention and recognition so much that they’re prepared to resort to outright fakery to show that ordinary people in the west are in awe of the great Vladimir Vladimirovich. It’s just sad, really.”

Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications, said: “We have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this story.” She cited the Tass quote from the “Lucy bar manager” Ted Bryant as proof the story was true.

“We do not and never have had a manager by that name,” said Ryan, the restaurant’s spokesman, confirming that “Lucy’s Cantina Royale was the subject of a hoax involving Vladimir Putin’s birthday”.

Ruptly did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday. On Monday it released a statement saying it had removed the report from its website because “upon further review, it did not meet Ruptly’s editorial standards”.