Facebook Mislabels Historically Accurate Posts by Gay Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell as “Partly False”

Tatchell correctly identified Henry Kissinger as the architect of an illegal U.S. bombing campaign that potentially killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Facebook’s fact-checkers disagreed.

British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has long been a thorn in the side of Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. In 2002, for example, Tatchell attempted to have Kissinger arrested and tried for Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which historians estimate resulted in civilian and military deaths upwards of 300,000.

As Tatchell recounted in two identical posts on Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) yesterday:

[Kissinger] had authorised the mass indiscriminate bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, which killed possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The judge accepted that there was a potential legal case against Kissinger and even discussed with me where he could be held on remand awaiting trial. But in the end the court doubted that I had the capacity to bring former Nixon administration officials to London to testify as to Kissinger’s culpability. I did not succeed but only on the matter of being able to secure witness testimony in London.

Historical texts and news reports appear to support that: Kissinger was a key architect of the Cambodian bombing campaigns; that estimated casualties, while difficult to calculate with any precision, were likely in the hundreds of thousands; and that Tatchell brought a legal case against Kissinger in 2002, which was thrown out due to the presiding judge’s “serious misgivings” over Tatchell’s ability to secure evidence in the form of witness testimony.

Despite containing seemingly accurate information, Tatchell’s posts were restricted by Facebook’s fact-checking team and given the following boilerplate disclaimer: “Partly false information. The same information was checked in another post by independent fact-checkers.”

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The disclaimer doesn’t identify which aspects of Tatchell’s posts are allegedly false, merely stating: “Only two of the quotes here are close to correct.”

But it does contain a link to an April 15, 2019 article by Facebook’s partnered fact-checking website FactCheck.org, “What Kissinger Has Said About Trump,” which says nothing about Kissinger’s role in the bombing of Cambodia or Tatchell’s 2002 legal case.

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I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

In the meantime, Tatchell has posted on Instagram about the errant fact-check:

“Hi Everyone. @instagram is flagging my post earlier today about Henry Kissinger as ‘partly false’ on the grounds that Kissinger did not say certain things that I supposedly claimed he said about #Trump. But I never mentioned Trump or anything that #Kissinger may have said about Trump. I was highlighting the evidence that Kissinger authorised war crimes in #Cambodia in the 1970s. Algorithms gone mad? #instagram should apologise and remove the flag from my post. So far they have not :-(“

Goop Quietly Deletes Content From COVID-Denier Kelly Brogan

Gwyneth Paltrow has finally had enough of her disinformation-spreading colleague.

Even among the most virulent coronavirus conspiracy mongers, Kelly Brogan stands tall.

A New York State-licensed psychiatrist and “trusted expert,” according to Gwyneth Paltrow’s “modern lifestyle brand” Goop, Brogan routinely spreads false claims that the coronavirus doesn’t exist to her 121k followers on Instagram. She co-founded a website, QuestioningCovid(dot)com, that falsely claims that “masks do more harm than good.” She has even paid for a billboard ad instructing people to “WAKE UP! TAKE OFF THE MASK.”

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Via an article I wrote for The Daily Beast in March, she also “doesn’t believe the widely accepted germ theory of disease, encouraged viewers to seek alternative theories, suggested that the news media is being controlled by an unnamed pro-vaccination group, and speculated that the U.S. government is planning” to, quote, “link our passports with our vaccination records” in order to gain “totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.”

Various science and medical experts have debunked Brogan’s claims. although the most damning indictment of Brogan may be this endorsement from the website of infamous British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who claims that the Royal family are shape-shifting lizards:

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Goop — itself a proponent of potentially harmful pseudoscience — has been giving Brogan a platform as far back as January 2018, when Brogan was invited to speak at a Goop conference as a “trusted [medical] expert,” despite having claimed that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.

Interviews with Brogan and a short biography describing her as a ‘holistic psychiatrist’ were also published on Goop’s website.

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Now it appears that Goop has finally had enough of Brogan. Her two interviews, “How we can learn to tolerate emotional pain” and “The roots of mental health — maybe they’re not in our heads,” both containing dubious medical health claims, have been scrubbed from the site. Her biography has also been removed.

It’s unclear when Goop took down Brogan’s content. But that content was still available on Goop’s website as recently as July, according to information gleaned from the Wayback Machine, which archives web pages.

Here’s what you’ll see if you try to visit Brogan’s biography today:

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Cambridge Analytica-Linked Data Company Behind Trump Phone-Canvassing Campaign

GOP-funded websites managed by data-mining firm Bridgetree, Inc. allowed users to canvass for Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania.

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In an effort to rally support for incumbent Donald J. Trump in the lead-up to election day, the Republican National Committee hired a data-harvesting firm whose services were once sought by Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced U.K. political consulting company behind Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign.

Bridgetree, Inc., based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has been driving votes for Trump in battleground states going back as far as April this year, via the websites TrumpTalk.gop and TrumpTalk20.gop. The sites allowed users to “make calls to Americans across our great country” by “[turning] your computer into a anonymous phone system,” according to a Facebook post by Edwin Boyette, Vice Chair of Communications for the Hawaii Republican Party.

Once logged in, users were given access to a database of voter information (including full names, phone numbers, and addresses), then instructed to call voters to ask them to vote for Trump using scripted questions, such as “can President Trump […] count on you to vote early?” and “will you commit [to] vote absentee for President Trump?” Calls could be placed automatically from one voter to the next using the communications system LiveVox, with seemingly no oversight.

The sites were “Paid for by the Republican National Committee,” and directed users to “please contact us at gophelp@bridgetree.com.”

Here is a video tutorial by Bridgetree explaining the process for calling voters:

Bridgetree’s association with the two Trump Talk sites was first highlighted in a Twitter thread by disinformation researcher @DivestTrump. Bridgetree’s “advertised focus,” @DivestTrump notes, was “Operation Keystone,” a “massive grassroots […] phone-banking effort” in which “the fate of Pennsylvania” was said to “[hang] between the raging forces of good and the evil communists,” according to a pseudonymous post on TheDonald.win, named after the recently banned subreddit.

As of publication, Biden is leading in Pennsylvania with a clear path to the presidency.

Services listed on Bridgetree’s site include “NextGen microtargeting” and “data acquisition,” which involves “[multi-sourcing, combining and scraping data] in a unique manner that delivers the most accurate, robust and relevant information to deliver optimal results.” “Operation Keystone” is not listed among the site’s case studies.

A poorly reviewed app version of the Trump Talk service is currently available to download on the Google Play store. The app’s developers are listed as Bridgetree and Advantage, Inc., a Republican strategy firm based in Alexandria, VA, which has published an instruction manual on how to use the Trump Talk service.

Here are promotional screenshots of the app in action:

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Bridgetree’s association with Cambridge Analytica was brought to light in emails leaked by Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director. In one email dated February 2, 2016, Bridgetree’s business development manager Tom Boschwitz told Cambridge Analytica he could provide data scraped from Facebook and other sources in service of Ted Cruz’s 2016 failed presidential bid. The recipient of that email, Matt Oczkowski — then Cambridge Analytica’s head of product — joined Trump’s 2020 campaign earlier this year.

Cambridge Analytica’s shady tactics in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign were exposed in an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4, which determined that the company had scraped data from millions of profiles without users’ consent. The company later pleaded guilty to violating U.K. data laws.

Danny Trejo Recruited in Russian Propaganda Campaign

Trejo is the latest Hollywood celebrity to make headlines in Russia after recording a video in support of a notorious Russian political operative. The celebrities are seemingly being recruited through the pay-for-videos site Cameo.

Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Vinnie Jones appeared in their first ever film together last month, when an obscure Russian YouTube channel posted a suspicious video compilation in which they each expressed support for Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, currently being detained in Libya on election interference charges.

The videos, seemingly commissioned by an unknown client through the celebrity video-sharing site Cameo, quickly made headlines on Russian news sites associated with Putin-linked catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin — the man accused of hiring Shugaley — as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign to raise his employee’s profile in Russia. (Click here to read more about the “increasingly bizarre” campaign, via me and Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon.)

Now actor Danny Trejo has joined the growing list of unwitting surrogate propagandists, telling Shugaley to “stay strong” in a video published last month by Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), one of the sites associated with Prigozhin.

“Machete don’t text, but […] I’ll text you homie,” Trejo says in the video.

Here’s a screenshot of the FAN’s reporting, which made no mention of Cameo or any pay-to-play services. Via Google Translate:

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And here’s a screenshot of Trejo’s Cameo profile, where he currently charges $125 to record personalised videos in exactly the same format as the video published by the FAN:

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I was unable to reach Trejo for comment.

Alexander Malkevich, who insists that he, not Prigozhin, hired Shugaley to conduct harmless sociological research in Libya, has denied paying for any of the videos. Malkevich previously ran the clumsy Russian propaganda site USA Really, a subsidiary of the FAN.

Malkevich, Prigozhin and the FAN are all subject to U.S. government sanctions that prohibit them from doing business with U.S. individuals and entities.

I’ve contacted Prigozhin and the FAN for comment.

39 Satirical Images of Indian PM Scrubbed From Buzzfeed

Two BuzzFeed listicles poking fun at Indian prime minister Narendra Modi have been scrubbed following a 2018 legal threat.

Update, October 16, 2020: In a comment, BuzzFeed said that the most recent removals were not the result of further legal threats from Mumbai police, but the result of updates to BuzzFeed’s old content. Here is BuzzFeed’s comment:

“The removals last month did not have to do with legal threats–they are part of a broader systematic process we’ve been going through. For context, the rules around image usage on the Internet have vastly changed over time, so for the last few months we’ve been working to bring our posts from the early days of BuzzFeed up to the editorial standards of today. In certain cases, images that didn’t need to be removed have been swept up in the process, so we’ve also ended up restoring a number of images brought to our attention by former employees as improperly removed.”

Since Feb. 2018, I’ve been documenting heavy-handed legal attempts by Mumbai police to scrub photoshopped images of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi from the Internet.

Notable examples include forcing BuzzFeed to remove a doctored image of Modi embracing his right-hand man Rajnath Singh on an idyllic beach, plus two unsuccessful attempts to remove the same image from this blog.

In case you missed it the first time:

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The offending image was originally included in a Jan. 4, 2016 BuzzFeed listicle, “18 Modi Photoshops That Should’ve Never Fucking Happened,” by BuzzFeed India contributor Imaan Sheikh. The image was removed following a legal threat from Mumbai police alleging defamation, according to a BuzzFeed spokesperson. The removal served to highlight Modi’s taste for censorship and, incidentally, his party’s poor record on gay rights.

Last month, Sheikh’s post was updated yet again, this time removing all 17 of the remaining images. Here’s a snapshot of what the article looks like now:

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Another article by Sheikh, “21 Of The Most Awkward Modi Moments Of 2015,” which documented Modi’s “social awkwardness” in 21 images, has also been scrubbed of all of its content. The article was also removed from BuzzFeed’s “BestofIndia2015” list.

A cache of the “BestofIndia2015” list shows that BuzzFeed last month scrubbed content from at least ten other articles about India.

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I’ve asked BuzzFeed for comment.

The Wikipedia Whitewash That Cleared the Way for Trump Tower Moscow

As he was chasing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow, Trump associate Felix Sater — or someone working on behalf of Sater — was working hard to whitewash Trump’s Wikipedia biography.

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Felix Sater — the Russian-American real estate developer and former adviser to President Donald J. Trump — is back in the news, following a new report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee, published Tuesday.

The report details, in part, Sater’s ill-fated efforts to help Trump build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 U.S. presidential election — namely, Sater’s “high-level outreach to Russian businessmen and officials that Sater claimed to have undertaken related to the deal.”

From the report:

In September 2015, Trump authorized [former Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen] to pursue a deal in Russia through Felix Sater, a longtime business associate of Trump. By early November 2015, Trump and a Russia-based developer signed a Letter of Intent laying out the main terms of a licensing deal that promised to provide the Trump Organization millions of dollars upon the signing of a deal, and hundreds of millions of dollars if the project advanced to completion.

(U) Cohen kept Trump updated on the progress of the deal. While these negotiations were ongoing, Trump made positive public comments about Putin in connection with his presidential campaign. Cohen and Sater sought to leverage Trump’s comments, and subsequent comments about Trump by Putin, to advance the deal.

…the Committee found that Sater did, in fact, have significant senior-level ties to a number of Russian businessmen and former government officials, and was in a position, through intermediaries, to reach individuals close to Putin.

What the report doesn’t mention is that, shortly before Trump gave Cohen the go-ahead on the Moscow deal, Sater — or someone working on behalf of Sater — launched a surreptitious effort to scrub Sater’s convictions for racketeering and assault from Wikipedia.

The eight-month timeline of edits closely correlates with the Trump Tower Moscow timeline and suggests that Sater anticipated and may have sought to preempt any negative responses to his involvement.

Felix Sater (centre) with Donald Trump (source)

As I covered in a previous post (before information about the Moscow deal became widely known), the Wikipedia editing campaign began in August 2015, when someone using the handle “591J” made repeated attempts to edit Trump’s biography to whitewash the aspiring candidate’s business ties to Sater and delete references to Sater’s alleged “mafia and Russian criminal ties.”

591J appeared to reveal their true identity in January 2015, when the user admitted owning three websites that had been registered using Sater’s name, physical address, email address, and phone number.

Sater has not yet replied to any of my requests for comment.

591J’s first three edits to Trump’s biography were made as Sater was busy negotiating the preliminaries of the Moscow deal with Cohen. These edits removed details of a 2013 BBC Panorama interview that Trump cut short after being asked about Sater by British investigative journalist John Sweeney.

Here’s a clip:

And here’s one of 591J’s attempts to remove a reference to the interview:

August 25, 2015 edit of Trump’s Wikipedia entry by user 591J (source)

When that information was later reinstated, 591J created Sater’s current biography, in which 591J described Sater as a “prolific senior advisor” to The Trump Organization, boasted about his various real estate deals, and, inexplicably, claimed that Trump’s mother and father were Sater’s own biological parents.

This first draft also included an explicit warning to other Wikipedia editors atop the page: “DO NOT REMOVE prior to the result of the Presidential election.”

Over the course of three months starting February 2016, 591J obsessively revised the page, adding details of Sater’s “major role” in the development of the Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan (since renamed The Dominick) and attempting to roll back what the user claimed were “illegitimate” references to his 1993 assault conviction and 1998 stock fraud conviction.

591J stopped editing in April 2016, shortly before 591J and four associated accounts were banned from Wikipedia following an investigation by the site’s administrators. (In 2018, Sater hired a third-party content writing company to edit his biography to add reporting from BuzzFeed News about his undercover work for the FBI, according to an admission on Wikipedia’s talk pages.)

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By then, Sater’s Trump Tower Moscow dream was quickly unraveling, with Cohen angrily berating him for failing to find a viable Russian bank to finance the project.

“After almost two months of waiting you send me some bullshit letter from a third-tier bank and you think I’m going to walk into the boss’s office and tell him I’m going there for this?” Cohen wrote in a series of late-2015 text messages. “Tell them no thank you and I will take it from here.”

Cohen later claimed he’d told Trump in January 2016 that the deal was dead, according to BuzzFeed News’ “definitive” reporting on the subject. However, Sater and Cohen continued to message each other about new developments as late as June 2016.

As Sater told BuzzFeed News, he knew the deal was fried on July 26, 2016, when Trump tweeted: “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.”

“Fuck me, I thought to myself. All that work for nothing,” Sater told BuzzFeed News.

Facebook Continues to Host Political Ads from Chinese Communist Party Mouthpiece

The ads comprise two videos from the Global Times defending China’s crackdown on political protests and attacking the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Update, August 28, 2020: The two Global Times ads have been removed from Facebook’s ad library. A message reads: “This ad is no longer available in the library. This can happen when an ad has expired or has been deleted, or when it’s incorrectly categorised as an ad about social issues, elections or politics.” Facebook has not returned a request for comment.

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In April, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Global Times, an English-language adjunct of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, had flooded “Facebook and Instagram with undisclosed political adverts whitewashing its role in the coronavirus pandemic and pinning blame on Donald Trump.”

The ads “initially ran without a political disclaimer, allowing them to hide information about who they were targeting and sometimes letting them sidestep Facebook’s strict rules on political advertising,” according to the Telegraph.

Facebook subsequently removed the ads and added a disclaimer, in accordance with the site’s decision to add labels to state-controlled media. But that hasn’t stopped the Global Times from continuing to run political ads on Facebook.

The new ads comprise two August 10 videos from the Global Times’ editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, who hosts an opinionated video series called “Hu Says.” Facebook doesn’t disclose how much money the Global Times paid Facebook for running the ads, or the potential reach of the audience the ads are aimed at.

In the first of the two videos, Hu tries to defend the high-profile arrests of 10 Chinese pro-democracy activists who were detained in Hong Kong on Monday under China’s new national security law, which has been widely denounced as a blatant attempt by the Chinese government to quash ongoing anti-government protests.

The arrests include media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is accused of colluding with foreign forces, among other charges.

“In my opinion, this arrest sends a strong signal,” Hu says in the video. “The Hong Kong SAR government has not been intimidated by the series of US sanctions, including those against [Chief Executive of Hong Kong] Carrie Lam and other senior officials of the Hong Kong government” (for allegedly “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” according to an August 7 press release by U.S. Treasury Department).

Hong Kong’s protests began last June, against plans that would have allowed the Chinese government to extradite dissidents to mainland China. According to Hu, these protests are actually “violent demonstrations” that “have severely hit the city and endangered China’s national security.”

“China will not allow such rioting to continue,” Hu says in the video. “Let them shift to US cities like Portland.”

Toward the end of the video, Hu complains that “Violent demonstrations in the US are called riots but the ones in Hong Kong are called democratic protests. The Chinese people have already felt sick of this double standard from Washington. We will not put our attention on the attitude of Washington and the West before restoring order in Hong Kong.”

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Hu’s complaints about Washington continue in the second video, in which he says “that for the Trump administration, the challenge China poses is more serious than the coronavirus,” and that “this absurd practice of Washington seems to work.”

From the video:

Five million people have been infected and 160,00 people have died. The government has done nothing about it and many Americans have accepted it. In addition, the Trump admin said that TikTok poses security risks and China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang threaten the U.S. They are convincing people that these issues are obviously greater threats than the coronavirus and require an emergency response from the U.S.

Other recent ads from the Global Times include a viral video titled “Can’t believe this is a dog!” which shows a fluffy dog balancing on a basketball, riding a children’s scooter, and driving a toy car.

I’ve asked Facebook for comment.

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The Economist Disappears “Advertisement Feature” Paid for by Chinese State-Backed Paper

Paid content from the Beijing Review included an article attacking western news outlets and defending China’s botched response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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In April, I bylined a story in BuzzFeed News about how during the pandemic, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph continued to sell advertising space on its site to the People’s Daily Online, the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), enabling it to publish state propaganda and medical disinformation aimed at a British audience.

As reported in another story I co-bylined with Jim Waterson for The Guardian later that month, The Daily Telegraph subsequently cut ties with the People’s Daily Online and another China-backed newspaper, China Daily, which for more than a decade reportedly paid the Telegraph £750,000 annually to carry a supplement called China Watch.

Now it appears that The Economist, the international weekly newspaper, has disappeared an “advertisement feature” on its site paid for by the CCP-backed Beijing Review.

The section, dubbed “China Focus,” included titles such as “Western Take on Coronavirus: Schadenfreude, Xenophobia and Racism” by Beijing Review associate executive editor Liu Yunyun. Her article claimed that “Accusations [by western news and media outlets] of the [Chinese] government hiding the scope of the disease” are based on “Rumors, misinformation and fears,” and that “Global readers are largely kept in the dark” about how “China is sacrificing its own economy to keep the world safe.”

That article, and others like it, were previously available via the subdomain, chinafocus.economist.com. But now when you click on that link, you’re directed to an HTTP 503 error page, which occurs whenever a server is “unable to handle the request due to a temporary overloading or maintenance of the server,” according to the World Wide Web Consortium, founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee.

Site information for chinafocus.economist.com states that its security certificate expired on July 26. A message reads: “This certificate has expired or is not yet valid.”

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The 503 error page went up shortly after I emailed The Economist’s global communications SVP Lauren Hackett on April 16 asking her to comment on a petition by British non-profit advocacy group Free Tibet, calling on western media outlets to “STOP SPREADING CCP PROPAGANDA.”

Here’s her April 17 reply email:

Dear Dean – Thank you for reaching out on this. I’ll have to look into it. Can you let me know who you are writing for and the focus of your story. Kind regards, Lauren

Hackett and The Economist did not reply to multiple follow-up emails I sent asking the paper to clarify whether it had cut ties with the Beijing Review. But here’s what Free Tibet’s campaign manager John Jones sent me when I asked him for comment:

We have been following China Watch and its presence in papers like The Telegraph for a couple of years now with a mixture of despair and grim fascination. Some of the articles last year on “60 years of democracy in Tibet” were particularly appalling, with articles titled “Tibet marks 60th anniversary of democratic reform” and “Memorial Hall built to commemorate freed Tibetan slaves” appearing in The Telegraph. This anniversary and alleged freeing of slaves is actually a reference to what Tibetans know as the Tibetan Uprising, when thousands of Tibetans in the capital, Lhasa, gave their lives to protest against the Chinese occupation of their country. Since then, occupied Tibet has become an increasingly repressive place. Freedom House, a think tank that compares the openness of different societies around the world, has for the past five years ranked Tibet as the second worst place in the world for political freedoms and civil rights, ahead of only Syria (some of their analysis is here in their latest report: https://freedomhouse.org/country/tibet/freedom-world/2020). For media outlets in free societies to be running material praising the dire state of affairs in Tibet is truly shocking.

Our hope for this new campaign action is that the editors of The Economist and Wall Street Journal drop content that is nothing more or less than Chinese government backed propaganda from their publications. It does seem that the coronavirus and some of the nonsense reporting on it by Chinese state media has sent a signal to several newspaper editors that these puff pieces can be dangerous in the falsehoods that they spread, not just for the billion people under CCP rule but also for their own readers. There is a backlash against disinformation around the pandemic and neither of these newspapers will want to be associated with that in any way. We hope that this will have set off alarms in their minds that it really is not ethical to run features that ultimately are the product of a dictatorial government and that what we need at the moment is scrutiny of the CCP – scrutiny of their handling of the pandemic and their silencing of whistleblowers, but also scrutiny of their treatment of the Uyghurs and scrutiny of their repressive rule in Tibet. If the readers of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal make it clear that they do not want to see this content then there is a great chance that these two outlets could follow in the footsteps of The Telegraph, The New York Times and The Washington Post and scrap these propaganda sections.

It’s unclear whether the print edition of The Economist is still carrying the Beijing Review material, as U.S. news site the Washington Free Beacon reported in March. To anyone who knows the answer, please get in touch by leaving a comment below, or by clicking here.

New Action Film “Shugalei” is Propaganda for Putin’s Cook

The film credits election-meddling Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin as copyright holder. Yet the film’s co-financier, Alexander Malkevich, claims he was “not aware Prigozhin took any part in the creation of the film.”

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As Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord wrests back control of Tripoli from Khalifa Haftar, the renegade leader of the Libyan National Army, a bizarre new propaganda-feature film is claiming to tell “the harrowing yet true story” of two Russian prisoners said to be at the center of it all.

Via “How Two Russians Got Caught Up in Libya’s War, Now an Action Movie” by Andrew Higgins and Declan Walsh, The New York Times, June 18, 2020:

[Maxim Shugalei and Samer Hassan Ali Seifan’s] Libyan misadventure began in March last year with what their Russian employer described as a “research project,” which quickly landed them in a notorious jail on charges of visa violations and meddling in Libyan politics. [Note: A third Russian, Alexander Prokofiev, accompanied the two men to Libya, but managed to return home unscathed.]

As part of a campaign to get the Russians freed, their employer, a shadowy private Russian foundation [the Foundation for National Values Protection] helped finance a feature-length movie [titled Shugalei] that premiered on Russian state television last month.

The Times’ story notes that “Shugalei’s trip appeared to be part of a push for influence by a St. Petersburg businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin,” who spearheaded Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and has been sending mercenaries from his private militia in Russia, the Wagner Group, to support Haftar in his failed campaign to gain control of Tripoli.

What the story doesn’t mention is that the copyright to the film belongs to Aurum LLC, a wholesale manufacturing company founded by Prigozhin in 2017. There is little information available about Aurum online, and the company’s business address leads to a random apartment building in St. Petersburg.

Aurum’s involvement appears to contradict statements given to the Times by “Shugalei’s employer, [Alexander Malkevich, who] said his foundation had no ties to Mr. Prigozhin.”

Malkevich rose to prominence in mid-2018, when he attempted to organize a flash mob at the White House to celebrate the launch of USA Really, a clumsy Russian propaganda site aimed at an American audience. That December, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference” in connection with Prigozhin’s infamous troll farm.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Last week, I e-mailed Malkevich to ask him about his involvement in the film and whether he’d met with Prigozhin. He told me that despite consulting with the film’s writers and director, he was “not aware that Yevgeny Prigozhin took any part in the creation of the film.”

I also asked him about allegations by Libyan prosecutors that his employees helped plan the election campaign of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of the deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi, as part of a Kremlin-backed plot that included helping Russia to secure a military base in Libya, as Bloomberg reports.

Here’s what he sent me:

I have not seen the official charges. As far as I know, no one at all has seen them. All the charges are still only in words and have not been converted into a legal document 13 months after. All the so-called charges are replicated in the press, appearing primarily in the US, but maybe they know better. In answer to your question, Seifan was hired as a translator on the eve of the trip by the Foundation for National Values Protection. Shugaley was also approved for the project. So they both worked for the Foundation. About Gaddafi: what kind of election campaign could we be talking about if no election was scheduled, there is no Constitution and as a result, no electoral law?! And as you know, one of our sociologists left a few days before the kidnapping of Maxim and Samer who were supposed to leave 2 hours after him. No long-term work of any kind was planned.

GUARD A MILITARY BASE??? The two of us? Does Russia have a military base in Libya? and I want to remind you that Samer is diabetic, and Maxim has suffered a stroke. What kind of security of a military base are you talking about? are they hobbits from Middle-earth? Have the eagles flown Prokofiev out of Libya yet? Let’s have a serious conversation. Election campaign without the election, protection of a military base without the military base (!!!) by people with health problems.

We conducted a sociological study, a complete one, not hiding from anyone. It had questionnaires, focus groups and expert interviews. Nothing more was planned or discussed.

*     *     *

The film’s storyline corresponds closely with Malkevich’s version of events, depicting Shugalei and Seifan as intrepid sociologists who uncover “explosive evidence” that threatens to undermine Libya’s “puppet” government, for which they are imprisoned and sadistically tortured.

Throughout it all, the devil-may-care film version of Shugalei, played by 51-year-old Russian character actor Kiril Polukhin (doing his best Bruce Willis impersonation), spouts witty dialogue, drinks whiskey straight from the bottle, and, above all, “[does] not lose a sense of humor despite the challenging times.”

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Although not the main focus of the film, Haftar plays a key role, mounting a daring but entirely fictional rescue that undermines the film’s claim of documentary-level accuracy. Meanwhile, Prigozhin, a central figure of the real story, is never mentioned.

The film is “a very powerful propaganda tool,” said Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan disinformation expert. She said that in addition to whitewashing the allegations against Shugalei and Seifan, the film feeds into an already existing narrative that most Libyans preferred living under Gadhafi’s dictatorial regime and view the 2011 revolution as a curse.

“The movie pushes a lot of points I’ve seen online in Arab media — that revolutions lead to chaos, that terrorism and violence follow,” Ramali told me. “It tries to paint Tripoli as this place overrun by militias (which it is) but in a way that fits in with [Haftar’s] narrative.”

It’s not the first time Malkevich has sought to manipulate the narrative around Libya’s civil conflict to his own advantage. In January, he placed an advertorial on The Washington Post’s site — seemingly in violation of U.S. government sanctions — pleading his employees’ innocence and calling on Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj to set them free.

Asked if he feels any guilt over his employees’ current situation, Malkevich said he is “certainly concerned for both of our colleagues, Maxim and Samer” but that “it is not my fault” and that “all the blame lies with the so-called Government of National Accord, as well as with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj personally.”

al-Sarraj’s office did not return a request for comment.

Shugalei is currently available to watch on two separate YouTube channels run by Russian state-funded news network, Russia Today. As of publication, the film has been viewed nearly 700,000 times.

 

Roger Stone’s Style Blog is Now a Spammy Marketing Site

StoneOnStyle.com was a fashion and politics blog run by Trump’s flamboyant campaign trickster. Now it’s used to promote hair loss treatments and online gambling.

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In the midst of an ill-judged media blitz last year after being charged in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, it appears that Trump’s former campaign trickster Roger Stone either sold off or forgot to update his fashion and politics blog, Stone On Style.

Launched in 2013 with help from “Manhattan Madam” Kristin Davis, the blog was an unapologetic self-tribute to Stone’s swankiness, complete with an annual “Best and Worst Dressed” list, readers advice column, hard-hitting posts like “Turtlenecks – The Cold Hard Truth,” and several photos of Stone dressed as Sean Connery’s James Bond.

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But if you visit the site today, you’ll find noticeably unswanky content like “Shampoo Ingredients to avoid hair loss” and “Truth or Dares I Asked My Teenage Daughter That Got Her Thinking Hard.”

Last June, the site was taken offline. According to online records, it was then purchased by an unknown buyer for $450 and relaunched with the site’s original branding and bio.

All but five of Stone’s original posts have been scrubbed from the site. The rest appear to be thinly disguised ads for dubious hair loss treatments and online gambling, among other posts written in Indonesian.

“To one loosing hair is like having a crushed image and maximum suffers it in silence,” reads one post. “If you are tired of all the unwanted hair on your body, then you can go for the hair removal laser treatment without any risk factor,” reads another.

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Buying once-popular domains for marketing purposes is a known SEO strategy. For example, in 2018 former women’s site The Frisky was bought by a Serbian music producer, who currently sells backlinks on the site from his Fiverr account.

Stone — currently facing a 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress — did not return a request for comment.

Update, June 10, 2020: According to domain records, Stone’s site was re-registered on this date by Finixio Limited, a London, UK-based “Personal Finance Comparison Network.” The site has been returned to its original glory and its old content has been archived.