There are few editors, journalists or bloggers who would refuse a story that mixes sex, R&B and Vladimir Putin.
Even the truth isn’t an obstacle.
On January 30th Russia’s English-language daily The Moscow Times published an interview with 1990s R&B group Boyz II Men, due to perform in Moscow later this month.
In an effort to spice up an otherwise dull piece about the washed-up musicians, the writer joked that the sheer romantic power of Boyz II Men’s music might help the Kremlin tackle Russia’s demographic problems.
In consideration of what was to follow, the relevant passage is worth quoting in full:
President Vladimir Putin’s crusade to raise the country’s birth rate is set to get the support of three powerful voices on its behalf. A baritone and two tenors, that is.
The stylish trio of Boyz II Men, the most successful R&B group of all time, is coming to Moscow on Feb. 6. The group will perform a selection of their classic and new romantic ballads, hopefully giving Russian men some inspiration ahead of St. Valentine’s Day.
Just to be clear: this was not a Moscow Times scoop. The Kremlin has not hired Boyz II Men.
But, within hours, the “story” that Putin had sought out Boyz II Men to encourage Russians to have sex was spreading across the internet.
The avalanche seems to have begun with Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
In a piece titled “Vladimir Putin hires Boyz II Men to boost the Russian birth rate. Authoritarians know how to have fun” Telegraph blogger Tim Stanley said that Putin’s decision was “no surprise” and confessed his admiration for the Kremlin’s “sense of pizzazz.”
From there it went viral through social media, and was published as the latest “Putin stunt” by hundreds of websites across the United States, Europe and Asia.
Vanity Fair ran the story on under the headline “Boyz II Men Recurited by Vladimir Putin to Boost Russia’s Libido This Valentine’s Day” while the Mail Online’s article took a bizarre twist when it included the factoid that Russia “accounts for a third of all heroin deaths worldwide.”
For one brief moment it seemed the baseless frenzy might be coming to an end. Foreign Policy published a piece with the title “Putin meme accountability watch: No, he did not hire Boyz II Men to make Russians have sex” on January 31st showing the claim to be utterly incorrect.
Popular Russian news site Newsru wrote in bewilderment about the splash the story was making abroad. “Foreigners believed that Putin hired a U.S. boy band to raise the birth rate,” read their headline.
Moscow-based journalists told editors in London and New York clamoring for a story that it was a fiction from start to finish.
But Putin, copulation and R&B rolled on.
On February 4th (5 days after the original Moscow Times article), Time published a piece that reported the Putin and Boyz II Men tie-up as fact.
Other journalists simply hedged their bets by acknowledging the killjoys casting aspersions.
On February 5th Bloomberg’s social media editor Kirsten Salyer wrote an article that reported the story as true. But, aware of the circulating doubts, Salyer added a beautifully ambiguous two sentences in brackets:
“Update: Putin “may or may not” have invited the band,” she wrote. “His campaign for more Russian babies, however, is longstanding.”
My favorite pick-up of the lot, however, was put up on Esquire’s website.
After two paragraphs setting “Putin’s Boyz II Men policy initiative” in context Esquire’s Miles Raymer admitted the evidence was sparse and suggested that, maybe, “some level of intended jokiness got lost in translation.” The Moscow Times is an English-language paper and Boyz II Men gave the interview in English.
And then the wish fulfillment kicks-in to spectacular effect.
“Regardless, even if it isn’t factually true,” he continued. “There is something in the combination of cold, hard pragmatism and surreal loopiness (not to mention media appeal) to the idea of combating population decline by staging a concert by a renowned slow-jam R&B group that’s pure Putin, the kind of way-way-outside-of-the-box thinking that so many of us have grown to grudgingly admire despite the blatantly heinous shit he does on a regular basis.”
You can almost hear the little voice. Let it be true! Let it be true! Let it be true!