My top stories of 2020, from Kelly Brogan’s coronavirus conspiracies to Charlie Sheen’s unwitting involvement in a bizarre Russian propaganda campaign.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 saw an explosion of false information. On social media, purveyors of pseudoscience like David “Avocado” Wolfe, who claims that gravity is a toxin that can be combated by hanging upside down, peddled baseless conspiracy theories to their millions of followers. Meanwhile, Trump actively sowed distrust of science by pandering to the most irrational impulses of his supporters, even encouraging them to “rise up” against lockdown measures.
In other words, lots to write about.
One of 2020’s loudest coronavirus conspiracists was Dr. Kelly Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist associated with Goop, the pseudoscience company founded by actor Gwyneth Paltrow. I wrote about Brogan for The Daily Beast in March after she posted a video online falsely claiming, among other things, that the virus potentially does not exist. She is currently being investigated by the New York Department of Health related to those claims.
2020 also saw a widespread effort by the Chinese Communist Party to downplay its initial failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak, including running paid advertorials in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that pushed the party line. I scooped the story for BuzzFeed News in April, after which the Telegraph cut ties with the two Chinese state-funded news outlets that ran the ads.
Elsewhere, I co-reported my personal favourite story of the year with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon, published an exclusive in the Daily Beast, was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign, and saw my reporting cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, a joint Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory report on Russian disinformation, and an MIT-published book about Wikipedia’s first 20 years.
You can find links to all of the above-mentioned stories (and more) via the round-up below.
A big thank you to everyone who worked hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble, including (but not limited to): zen master blogger/independent reporter Peter M. Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman; BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman; BuzzFeed News deputy tech editor Scott Lucas; Foreign Policy global geopolitics correspondent Keith Johnson; Foreign Policy national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon; Daily Beast senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern; and Guardian media editor Jim Waterson.
1. “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” co-byline with Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy, September 23, 2020:
Russian headline touting Sheen’s video (source)
Do not give up, freedom will come,” said one-time sitcom actor Charlie Sheen, standing in what appeared to be his kitchen, jabbing his finger at the camera. “Freedom is, is, is, is in your future, on your horizon,” he stammered.
His audience? Maxim Shugaley, a Russian political consultant and operative who has been imprisoned in Libya for over a year, accused of meddling in the country’s chaotic internal conflict—a fight that Russia is very much in the thick of. Sheen, alongside actors Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren, seems to have been unwittingly recruited to record messages of support for Shugaley through the pay-for-videos website Cameo.
This story was listed in Foreign Policy’s top five Russia stories of 2020 (click here to read), and was cited in a joint report by Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory, published December 15, 2020 (click here to read).
2. “A British Newspaper Has Given Chinese Coronavirus Propaganda A Direct Line To The UK,” via BuzzFeed News, April 1, 2020:
Now-deleted People’s Daily Online feature via the Telegraph (source)
When medical authorities in China claimed they’d cured more than 750 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, using pseudoscience, one major British newspaper made sure there was space for China’s party line on the story.
“Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus,’” declared the March 3 headline, in the online version of the Daily Telegraph. Without any evidence, the article claimed that the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine had tested an unidentified “prescription” on 804 patients, and that “by the end of 14 February,” it had proven “effective in 94 per cent of the cases.”
The article was published in a section of the Telegraph’s site called People’s Daily Online […] the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.
Shortly after publication, this story was updated to reflect that “the Telegraph appeared to have removed the People’s Daily Online site in its entirety” and “also appeared to have removed China Daily’s China Watch feature.”
3. “Daily Telegraph stops publishing section paid for by China,” co-byline with Jim Waterson for The Guardian, April 14, 2020:
The Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing paid-for propaganda on behalf of Chinese state media, amid growing scrutiny of how Beijing is using the pandemic to grow its influence in English-language media aimed at western audiences.
The long-running China Watch section, funded by the government-controlled China Daily news outlet, has appeared in the Telegraph for more than a decade. The content, written by Chinese state journalists, presents relentlessly upbeat views on China’s standing in the world in both print supplements and on a branded section of the Telegraph’s website.
However, in recent days the dedicated content has been wiped from the Telegraph’s website along with another section that reproduced material from China’s People’s Daily Online – the official outlet of the country’s ruling communist party.
This story was cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, published November 18, 2020 (click here to read).
4. “The Gwyneth Paltrow-Approved Doctor Pushing Wacky Coronavirus Conspiracies,” via The Daily Beast, March 25, 2020:
Kelly Brogan’s website (source)
Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “modern lifestyle brand” Goop announced it was closing stores in the U.S. and U.K. to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, Paltrow’s psychiatrist-associate Kelly Brogan, a high-profile Goop contributor, has racked up tens of thousands of views on social media spreading discredited pseudoscientific claims that the coronavirus might not even exist, and that symptoms attributed to the virus are likely being caused by widespread fear.
The claims were made in a widely shared video posted on Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), and Vimeo last week by Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist, New York Times bestselling author, AIDS denialist, anti-vaxxer, and, according to Goop, a “trusted expert” and recent contributor to its site and live events…
In a March 22 letter shared with The Daily Beast, [medical fraud researcher Peter M. Heimlich] asked the Office of Professional Medical Conduct [OPMC], which is a branch of the New York State Department of Health, to determine whether Brogan misrepresented her board certifications online.
This story made international headlines, with coverage in BBC News, The New York Post, The Independent, the Evening Standard, Business Insider, and more. Shortly after publication, Brogan removed all three claimed board certifications from her site. Goop has since scrubbed all of Brogan’s content from its site and the OPMC has opened an investigation of her psychiatry license.
5. “A Russian Propagandist Ran An Ad In The Washington Post — And Then Ran Victory Laps In Russian Media,” via BuzzFeed News, February 6, 2020:
Malkevich’s ad in the Washington Post (source)
The Washington Post may have violated US government sanctions when it ran an ad online from Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich — and handed a propaganda coup to a man who appears to have been part of Russia’s interference with the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and has been pushing false information to sow political chaos across the globe.
Malkevich, the chair of the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP), a Moscow-based think tank, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he paid for the ad posted on Jan. 30, an open letter addressed to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, calling on him to release two Russian nationals…
The United States currently forbids business transactions with Malkevich after he was sanctioned in 2018 for “attempted election interference” while working as the editor of the Russian propaganda site USA Really (he has since left the site).
This story was cited in the above-mentioned Graphika/Stanford report. It was also the subject of controversy in Russia, making headlines on news sites controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin. As reported by BBC Monitoring (click here to read), Malkevich falsely accused me of taking orders from the U.S. government. “The death of American journalism,” read one of the Russian headlines.
6. “How a Playboy Model Exposed an Online Child-Porn Scam,” via the Daily Beast, May 6, 2020:
Leng Yein (source)
Earlier this year, Malaysian DJ and Playboy model Leng Yein began receiving messages from young and underage female fans begging her for help. They said they were victims of an elaborate scam orchestrated by users on Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and other popular social media platforms.
Posing as modeling agents, friends, and ex-lovers, among other fake and stolen identities, the perpetrators falsely promised money and prizes, such as iPhones, in exchange for nude photos and videos, which were later sold and published online without victims’ consent…
Yein’s fans are victims of a massive, highly organized online porn ring, according to Internet Removals, an Australian reputation management and takedown company. Since February, the company has worked with Yein […] to remove more than 136,000 of the offending photos and videos from Mega, the New Zealand hosting site.
7. “The Economist Disappears ‘Advertisement Feature’ Paid for by Chinese State-Backed Paper,” via this blog, August 10, 2020:
Now-deleted Beijing Review feature via the Economist (source)
…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…
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…”
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.
This story was covered by Radio Free America’s Tibetan service, which interviewed me for my first-and-only video interview (complete with shaggy coronavirus-lockdown hair):
8. “Rupert Murdoch-Owned Tabloid Retracts Article That Shamed NY Paramedic For Selling Nude Photos During Pandemic,” via this blog, December 14, 2020:
“HEARTS RACING: Paramedic is ‘making ends meet’ by sharing XXX-rated pics on OnlyFans,” read the now-deleted Dec. 12 headline, published on The Sun’s website.
The article, by reporter Danielle Cinone, detailed the online exploits of 23-year-old Lauren Caitlyn Kwei, a paramedic from New York who began selling nude photos on subscription content website OnlyFans to supplement her income during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Sun deleted its article — a re-reporting of an equally salacious New York Post story — after the Post was accused of shaming Kwei for (her words) “just trying to make ends meet…”
The Post and The Sun are owned by News Corp, a U.S. media conglomerate founded in 2012 by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.