Alessandro Proto: A lesson on post-truth from a master of the con

Don’t believe all you read. The Italian hustler Alessandro Proto’s ‘organisation’ is trying its luck to blag free publicity, this time with Malta’s property boom and an easy headline-grabber: Trump

Alessandro Proto, Esq. The Milanese publicity seeker is on top of the post-truth game
Alessandro Proto, Esq. The Milanese publicity seeker is on top of the post-truth game

Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. Anything tagged with Sean Spicer. Donald Trump and the entire Orwellian cast of revisionists and climate-change deniers. Untruth is all the rage in a dangerous world whose foundations are being shaken to the core by populist power-mongers.

But for one Italian self-promoter who paid dearly for his elaborate fibs that pumped up the Italian stock market, the game is on. Remember Alessandro Proto, a realtor who claimed Tom Cruise wanted to spend millions on a Malta home? He has learnt about Sliema’s controversial Townsquare and wants the Maltese press to hear him whisper two words: Donald Trump.

But more of that later. 

For it is Proto’s paradoxical tale of lies, to which he freely admits in an interview, that provides an education on the gullibility of the media and how the desertion of truth can leave us stranded in a landscape of lies. A landscape which begins to look even better than the truth.

Google Alessandro Proto and find his name still being bandied about in mass-market South American web portals, in quality press like The Australian, or in the English redtops which extoll his financial exploits: he has sold his Ferrari to Lionel Messi, he is selling George Clooney’s lakeside property, he is fronting the acquisition of 1% in Fiat, and he is even the inspiration for multimillionaire and part-time S&M lover Christian Grey.

Fake news: Italian newspapers swallowing it hook, line and sinker that Proto inspired the playboy character of 50 Shades, or that he sold Facebook king Mark Zuckerberg a Milan apartment
Fake news: Italian newspapers swallowing it hook, line and sinker that Proto inspired the playboy character of 50 Shades, or that he sold Facebook king Mark Zuckerberg a Milan apartment
Fake news: Italian newspapers swallowing it hook, line and sinker that Proto inspired the playboy character of 50 Shades, or that he sold Facebook king Mark Zuckerberg a Milan apartment
Fake news: Italian newspapers swallowing it hook, line and sinker that Proto inspired the playboy character of 50 Shades, or that he sold Facebook king Mark Zuckerberg a Milan apartment

All of this is patently untrue, but these news stories live in the ether and get imparted to unwitting readers who seem to have no choice but to believe.

In 2012, Proto, now 42, was responsible for sparking ‘Tom Cruise fever’ in Malta after claiming the Hollywood actor wanted to buy a massive property on the island. But when MaltaToday asked, Cruise’s publicist denied the claims. A year later, Proto was being arrested over an investigation into market rigging, having spent three years doing the false bidding of inexistent financiers, pledging to buy the stakes in companies like Fiat and Tod’s. His posturing attracted real business: people selling high-end properties wanted his celebrity friends to buy them, others wanted to buy access to the billionaires Proto claimed he knew. The Milanese prosecutor Stefania Donadeo said Proto was a “capable conman, much to the chagrin of cash-strapped investors looking for finance outside the common banking channels.”

When MaltaToday took on the talented Mr Proto in 2012, the Milanese braggart intimated that he was a modern-day Sindona, the convicted banker and P2 freemason who laundered money for the Mafia. More boasting and posturing.

This is how Proto perforated the epidermis of the media, using his intelligence and fantasy, and an abundance of paraculismo – the word Italians employ to denote the sneaky, self-serving opportunist who literally “has his ass covered”.

His weapons of choice were false public statements – 240 in all – often used to inflate share prices on the stock market, or showing his impeccable talent at courting Hollywood greats. Proto’s hyperreality – a falsity which the media found too irresistible – was a key to lucrative aggrandisement.

He admitted as much in court, earning a three-year jail term for which Proto spent just two months incarcerated, while paying a €5 million penalty and spending time under house arrest. But in so doing, Proto paradoxically exposed how easily he could disseminate statements from his ‘Proto Organisation’ to agencies like ANSA and Reuters, and wait for the Italian press to rehash the statements without verifying the contents.

“If a nobody like me can do it, just wait for someone with power in his hands to do it,” the repentant Proto told an interviewer in an ominous presaging of the way the Donald Trump administration is undermining objective truth.

“Why did newspapers like the Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, or Il Sole 24 Ore never carry out a verification of what I said?” Proto asks. “When Matteo Renzi told journalists they were napping [on Italy’s banking sector troubles], I laughed. They are accomplices to the wrongdoing.”

When Proto would announce that his organisation was fronting a third-party deal to buy 1% of Fiat or Unicredit, he would not even know what the value of that percentage was. “Nobody ever called me asking whether I had really bought those shares… what’s worrying for Italians is that these journalists would run the story.”

Proto today seems to enjoy revelling in his accidental role of exposing such laziness at the heart of the press. When in 2012, MaltaToday employed the humble question to reveal that Proto was fibbing on Tom Cruise searching for a Malta base, the Milanese speculator took unkindly to the probing. He insisted that Cruise was eyeing San Gwann for a €12 million house, ostensibly finding the name exotic enough for a Hollywood star. 

This was typical Proto, with a cock and bull story of millionaires searching for property that could not even exist (you could probably buy the whole of San Gwann and the Tal-Balal road for half that price). In a right of reply he insisted that his bona fide services were recognised by Il Sole24ore, Corriere Della Sera, Panorama, the International Herald Tribune… all this was pre-incarceration.

Today he laughs at seeing the Italian press reporting that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was looking for a Milan home with a 50-metre pool – just like the Tom Cruise ruse he used with the Times of Malta. “Tell me where you can find that kind of place in Milan,” he tells Affari Italiani editor Angelo Maria Perrino.

It’s all a game.

“In Italy the people forget easily. Journalists too,” Proto told Panorama in 2014. “Last week everyone was talking about Lionel Messi’s new house on Lake Como which my organisation sold him. I’m given free publicity… I am the proof of the total inadequacy of the financial press.”

He started off as a salesman of encyclopaedias, and later became a property agent, but Proto recreated himself as a property agent to the stars. He hit it big by claiming he was selling George Clooney’s Italian villa, and suddenly his Proto Organisation was receiving hundreds of requests to sell real properties. One of his grandest fibs was that he had purchased a Greek island with the billionaire Warren Buffet, which ANSA duly reported. When Buffet denied it, the Wall Street Journal called Proto, telling him the American financier did not know Proto. His game was rumbled.

Today he still runs his business – which he describes as a ‘global brand’ – allegedly with offices in London, Milan, Lugano and New York. In an email that his office manager sends me, firing up a crazy storyline, the Proto Organisation now has an office at 28, Berkeley Square, London. But the postcode does not match the address given, and the premises houses the private member’s club Morton’s. (The Milan address, 1 Via Victor Hugo, seems plausible, since Google Street View shows a brass plate with ‘Proto Organisation’ visible).

Proto claims prison tempered his appetite for risky fibs. But as of 2016, tabloids like the Daily Mail, The Sun, New York Post and clickbait portals like report ‘news’ of Proto having owned a Trump Tower loft that footballer Cristiano Ronaldo is buying. The Mail’s story runs a magnificent headline that is pure SEO-porn: “Soccer ace Cristiano Ronaldo buys $18.5 million New York loft apartment ‘which inspired the setting for 50 Shades Of Grey’”.

Replete with seductive photos of a New York loft and the Portuguese footballer, the post is a must-read for soccer fans, women, and celebrity lovers. Proto can revel in the contrived reputation that he inspired the idea for the heartthrob tycoon Christian Grey. Even Italian state television RAI goes crazy about the story. The real does not count, because something is better even than the real thing.

Proto is still busy playing ‘the wolf of Corso Buenos Aires’, as La Repubblica mockingly dubs him after having relocated to Via Victor Hugo just a few steps away from the Duomo.

In an email, his ‘office manager’ suggests I call Christian Ganado about the Sliema Townsquare project, and to ask him of his “contacts with Alessandro Proto and Donald Trump”. Brief. Tantalising. A tip worth the punt.

But it’s a typical ruse. Ganado has a Milan office for his retail interests in Europe. He tells me Proto called him a month ago about some personal issue. He brushed off any suggestion of relations with The Donald. Another Proto ‘bufala’ debunked, the sooner, the better.