How the “Tinder Swindler” is manipulating the media for political gain


Aviya Kushner, The Forward

This story was originally published on Feb. 15. by the Forward. Sign up here to get the latest stories from the Forward delivered to you each morning.

I didn’t expect the story of a con man bilking young women on a dating site for ginormous amounts of money to tell me anything about journalism or politics.

But as I watched “The Tinder Swindler’ documentary on Netflix — twice— and then binged on gobs of gawking Israeli media coverage about the story of the young Israeli who allegedly committed $10 million in international fraud, I realized this saga is about much more than the dangers of swiping right. It’s about the power of strong journalism and the dangers of weak journalism, and it also shows how not verifying facts affects both private life and public life. And of course, how social media supercharges all of this.

The titular “Tinder Swindler” is a young Israeli from Bnei Brak, born Shimon Yehuda Hayut, whose father is the chief rabbi of El Al Airlines; he changed his last name to Leviev, which happens to be the name of Lev Leviev, an Israeli billionaire and diamond mogul.

The film leans heavily on reporting from Norway’s largest newspaper, VG, which managed to wade through a sea of lies, allowing the public to see what verifying information really looks like. That VG story, which went viral, helped lead to the arrest of Leviev, aka Hayut, and his extradition back to Israel to serve time. The jail time was for a prior offense of fraudulent use of a check.

But the coronavirus meant an early release — a paltry five months instead of 15. Upon his release in Israel, local journalists swarmed. Guy Peleg of Channel 12, for instance, asked Leviev point-blank — mi ata? — “who are you?”

Miri Michaeli of Channel 13 tracked down business owners the Swindler conned along with the women he betrayed and proved that the “Swindler’s” self-described “home” in Israel is actually a short-term rented Airbnb. It’s chilling watching her explain that he took a 2,500-shekel check he received from a family he was baby-sitting for, added two zeros and left the bank with 250,000. And it’s fun watching her compliment the cleanliness of Leviev’s supposed “home”; her skepticism is warranted. Michaeli shows, in the October 2021 interview, that since Leviev’s release he’s been impossible to avoid, buying billboards in Tel Aviv and purchasing paid content in magazines to promote his model girlfriend.

Michaeli also interviews real-life billionaire Lev Leviev’s daughter, who states on camera that there is no family relationship or any connection between the Leviev family and this “Leviev.”

During Michaeli’s segment, I cringed when Simon Leviev — that is “Leviev” — borrowed from the Yom Kippur liturgy by saying chatati, aviti, pashati — using the language for “I have sinned” and its variants and claiming that he had paid his debt to society and all that was behind him.

But the part that really got me thinking about the ramifications of this conman’s case was a train-wreck of an interview conducted in his native Hebrew. It first aired last year, complete with an audience Q & A, and it’s a master class on the breakdown of the truth.

Billed as an opportunity for Leviev to tell his entire story, the hourlong interview on “Medina B’Hafraa” or “The Country in an Uproar” — on a channel called Online TV on Facebook Live and now, YouTube — offered a textbook case in media manipulation. As of this writing, the number of views for that interview, hosted by Yisrael Ohayon and Moshe Elbaz clocks in at 135,000. Someone has put some rough English subtitles on the interview, so now you can watch the spread of lies even if your Hebrew is non-existent.

The show opens with a “journalist” host asking if Leviev is a “financial genius or a con-man genius,” and then offers his answer: Leviev is a “financial genius.” There goes any claim to journalistic objectivity.

“As I see it, I am a Haredi boy — I used to be Haredi — and I succeeded against all odds,” Leviev says, making himself into an OTD story. (Netflix, it is fair to say, is a bit obsessed with this off the derech theme, focusing on stories about people who leave ultra-Orthodoxy.)

Leviev claims that he invested well in real estate and bitcoin, that the women owed him money, and that the media (of course) have distorted his story for the sake of sensational headlines.

“I want the public to know everything the media does not show,” he says as he shuffles some papers. “All of these documents that I have — I showed them dozens of times to journalists, and they were always edited out,”

The two young Israeli self-styled “journalists” in kippot allow the “fake news” framing, borrowing from American politics.

After watching this “interview,” I then spent an hour of my life I will never get back listening to various callers express their support Leviev and slam the news media. Leviev’s girlfriend, an Israeli model — at the time of the interview they had been together for four months — eventually joined the conversation to opine that anyone with any brains knows that it’s “the media” behind the allegations that her boyfriend defrauded multiple women of gob-smacking amounts of money. And that she, as someone who works in front of cameras, knows the real deal.

“The last thing that will come between us is the media,” she said. “He has very humane sides that the media cannot see.”

Leviev’s broad attack on the media shows an astute awareness of what made this story — and this documentary. What kept me glued to the screen, watching “The Tinder Swindler” twice, was the visual evidence that journalists — newspaper journalists at that — were the people who finally dug deep and found the truth.

Watching both “The Tinder Swindler” (twice) and the interview, I began to wonder how many people understand what journalists really do.

“The first thing you ask as a journalist, is what kind of documentation can you share with us?” video journalist Kristoffer Kumar, of Norway’s VG newspaper tells the camera in the documentary.

“Without documentation, you can’t bring it to print,” VG investigative journalist Erlend Ofte Arntsen, now the newspaper’s U.S. correspondent, said.

I loved watching investigative journalism on the screen. Poring over credit-card statements and reading 400 pages of WhatsApp chats may not sound sexy, but without that research, there is no story. These journalists checked every claim and went everywhere themselves to see with their own eyes — the ultimate verification. They collected multiple forms of evidence — still photographs; video; audio; financial records; personal interviews.

The VG journalists also clearly respect the power of language. They don’t just use Google Translate to prove that Simon Leviev and Shimon Hayut are the same person. They recognize that they need someone who knows Hebrew and knows Israel, and team up with Israeli investigative journalist Uri Blau. Then they fly to Israel, and find the con man’s childhood home, and his mother, in a rundown building in Bnei Brak They walk up the stairs and to the front door. They visit the Israeli police, in person, for an interview.

That interview with an Israeli policewoman made me curious about how Israeli journalists were covering The Tinder Swindler.

In Hebrew, he’s called Nochel Ha-Tinder. The term brings up an avalanche of media coverage, which I devoured. The more I read and the more I watched, the more the volume of coverage gnawed at me, and it took me a while to figure out why.

It’s because all of it gives significant airtime to a con man.

Consuming all of this coverage, it was hard not to think of Donald Trump, who rode the airtime from “The Apprentice” all the way to the presidency. When asked why he changed his name to Leviev on Medina B’Hafraa, the Tinder Swindler said there is no copyright on names, and that he could have chosen Donald Trump, because he admired the man.

During the interview, Leviev was asked if he has political aspirations.

At first, Leviev demurred. Not right now, he said, but in the long run all options are on the table. For some reason, this is the part where the “journalists” pressed. Asked where he is on the political spectrum, Leviev said — “right.”

But the interviewers kept pushing, asking about Leviev’s political plans.

Leviev said that he’s 30 and his initial goal is to start a family, which Netflix viewers know is what he said to all the girls, but in 10 or 15 years he would like to join a political party or start a political party. “Maybe a role like minister of foreign affairs as a start,” he said.

Let that sink in.

Con-artist experience as job qualification for world leader. We’ve seen it before.