BuzzFeed Unearths Recruitment Ads for Russian Troll Factory

— The notorious troll factory posted ads on Russian job websites in mid-2014 and 2015 while allegedly engaged in operations to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election

Yesterday, I blogged that the recently indicted Russian troll factory, Internet Research Agency (IRA), recruited its U.S. election meddling troll army of “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

Today, BuzzFeed picked-up the story.

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Via “Here Are Some Job Ads For The Russian Troll Factory” by Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News, February 22, 2018:

The Internet Research Agency, now commonly known as the Russian troll factory, has gained international fame for its work during the 2016 US election, and the resulting indictments of 13 people announced by the Department of Justice last week.

Job ads from the IRA posted before the election give a sense of the kind of person the agency was looking for and how it helped weed out candidates. The ads were posted on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015 and the address listed in them matches the known location of the IRA’s headquarters. The blog Shooting the Messenger first posted some of the job ads.

One ad posting was for a social media specialist, offering a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles, or about $700.

The responsibilities included preparing “thematic posts,” publishing content, growing social audiences, and monitoring social media, blogs, and groups.

When it came to skills, the IRA wanted candidates he knew how to write “informational texts” and create an online community. It also asked for applicants with a sense of responsibility, initiative, and an “active life position.”

[…]

One uniting factor for all of these ads is a desire for energetic applicants. The ads also sought out people with “active life position,” “vigor,” “perseverance,” “ambition,” and the “ability to clearly and structurally express their thoughts.”

But with job postings come job reviews, and one reviewed by BuzzFeed News was not positive about work at the troll factory.

The review, from 2014, complained about being asked to do unpaid work for two days before being hired.

“The company invites you for the content manager for a vacancy, they give you a test task, when you do it, they invite you to an internship, 2 days for 8 hours. When you try to hint that it’s already full-time work and it would be nice to negotiate the terms of the employment contract, you hear ‘I’m sorry, you’re not a good fit’ in return,” the reviewer wrote said.

They wrote that that the other candidates doing the “internship” were largely between 18 and 20 years.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Update, via “Job ads reveal work of Russian troll farm employees” by Max Greenwood, The Hill, February 22, 2018:

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Job postings for the Russian troll factory that allegedly meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election sought prospective employees with coding and social media skills and promised work on “interesting projects.”

The job listings for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency were placed on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015, BuzzFeed News reported Thursday. Some of the listings first surfaced on a blog Wednesday.

One listing for a social media specialist position advertised a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles – about $700 – and said the job would require composing “thematic posts,” monitoring social media and growing social followings, according to BuzzFeed.

Another listing for a web programmer job offered prospective employees 60,000 rubles per month, or about $1,060, and advertised that the successful candidate would be part of a “friendly team” and work on “interesting projects.”

Read the full article by clicking here.

Techdirt Hoists Would-Be Speech Censors

— Techdirt douses German government’s “Raging Dumpster Fire Of Censorial Stupidity”

Last week, I highlighted abuse of Germany’s newly implemented speech law, NetzDG, intended to regulate the spread of disinformation and hateful rhetoric online.

Yesterday, Techdirt hoisted the would-be censors who are abusing the new law.

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Via “Germany’s Speech Laws Continue To Be A Raging Dumpster Fire Of Censorial Stupidity” by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, February 21, 2018:

Germany’s new law, targeting hate speech and other unpleasantness online, is off to a roaring start. Instead of cleaning up the internet for German consumption, the law has been instrumental in targeting innocuous posts by politicians and taking down satirical content. The law is a bludgeon with hefty fines attached. This has forced American tech companies to be proactive, targeting innocuous content and satire before the German government comes around with its hand out.

It took only 72 hours for the new law (Netzwerkdurchsezungsgesetz, or NetzDG) to start censoring content that didn’t violate the law. Some German officials have expressed concern, but the government as a whole seems content to let more censorship of lawful content occur before the law is given a second look. The things critics of the law said would happen have happened. And yet the law remains in full effect.

The spirit is willing but the body is weak, Sterling Jones says in the opening of his excellent post detailing more blundering attempts by the German government to enforce its terrible law.

While intended to stop the spread of disinformation and hateful rhetoric online, recently published “local law” complaints show that would-be censors are using NetzDG to target all variety of content, including mainstream news stories, sexual words and images, an anti-Nazi online forum, and criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of the NetzDG law itself.

So, that’s how the law is working out. Sterling’s post is filled with takedown notices forwarded to the Lumen Database — all of them targeting speech that doesn’t appear to be unlawful even under Germany’s screwed up laws.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Russian Election Trolls Were Recruited via Online Job Posts

— Russian troll factory recruited “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, allegedly expected applicants to work for free

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice released the latest round of indictments in the federal investigation into alleged election meddling.

The indictments name 13 Russian nationals who allegedly “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” on behalf of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious pro-Putin “troll farm” based in Saint Petersburg.

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According to the indictments, IRA trolls purchased “political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities,” organised “political rallies inside the United States…while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons,” and “without revealing their Russian association,” even “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

It would appear that members of IRA’s so-called troll army were carefully selected-and-vetted masters of political subterfuge.

However, archived job posts show the company recruited staff by placing conspicuous-sounding ads on Russian job websites, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

The ads for “Social Networking Specialist,” “Media Monitoring Specialist,” and “Content Manager,” among otherswere placed mid-2014, around the same time it’s alleged that IRA began operations to interfere in the 2016 election.

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Via Google Translate:

LLC Internet Research

St. Petersburg

Required work experience: 1-3 years

Full time, full day

SMM Manager / Social Networking Specialist / SMM Specialist

Duties:

Conducting projects in social networks
Preparation of thematic posts
Content placement
Work with reviews
Development and implementation of mechanisms to attract the audience of social networks
Conducting groups in social networks: filling with information content, links, surveys
Monitoring company mentions on the network
Monitoring of target groups
Monitoring social networks and the blogosphere

Requirements:

Knowledge of the basics of SMM / SMO
Competent Russian language
Experience of successful work with social networks (content and attracting the audience)
Creativity of thinking
The ability to write information texts
Confident PC user Responsibility, dedication, active life position, initiative, diligence, ability to work in a team
The experience of creating a community (launching and maintaining discussions)
Own active blog or group in social networks

Conditions:

Opportunity for professional growth and career development
Work in a young and friendly team
Working hours: 5/2
Wages up to 40,000 rubles
Staraya Derevnya, m. Chernaya Rechka
Full time in the employer’s territory

According to a post by a former IRA intern on another Russian job website that allows employees to review their employers, a revolving door of “very young adolescent 18-20-year-old” applicants were expected to work for free at the behest of the “ubiquitous aunt Tatyana”—presumably referring to Tatyana Kazakbayeva, who according to Business Insider used to work at the company.

In 2015, IRA was sued by a former employee, St. Petersburg resident Lyudmila Savchuk, for non-payment of wages and for failing to give employees proper working contracts.

Savchuck received symbolic damages of one rouble after reaching an agreement with her former employer.

Erdoğan Censorship Demand Links Him to ISIS

— Turkey’s authoritarian president demands U.S. social media giants censor critical posts, tweets, and satirical cartoons linking him to Islamic terrorism

In 2016 and 2017, I blogged about takedown demands sent by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, targeting satirical cartoons and “humiliating” news reports comparing him to Hitler.

Turkey’s censorious circus continues with yet another round of online takedown requests, this time targeting “insulting” posts about its authoritarian leader, who in recent years has jailed hundreds of journalists and critics as part of a sweeping media crackdown.

The illicit content concerns Erdoğan’s alleged ties to Islamic terrorism, including claims by a former Turkish government official that the Turkish president helped fund ISIS and other militant groups in Syria through a non-governmental charitable organisation.

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The claims were published by British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed, whose in-depth report about Turkey’s terrorist ties is just one of several critical posts included in a lengthy ten-page court order that earlier this month was sent to U.S. tech and social media companies on behalf of the Turkish president himself.

According to the February 2 court order, “hurtful, exaggerated words…constitute a criminal offence against the President of the country” because “a significant segment of society identifies themselves with political leaders” and because “the insults that have been made and reflected to the public have caused reactions to increase polarisation in society…with many killings and injuries.”

In the interests of full disclosure, here are a few notable examples of the “hurtful, exaggerated words” and images cited in the order:

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Fake News Ban Targets Political Speech, Sexual Content

— Germany’s recent fake news ban is already being abused by would-be censors

The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG) law, which came into force in October, requires social media websites to remove “fake news” and “hate speech” or risk fines of up to 50 million euros (40 million pounds).

While intended to stop the spread of disinformation and hateful rhetoric online, recently published “local law” complaints show that would-be censors are using NetzDG to target all variety of content, including mainstream news stories, sexual words and images, an anti-Nazi online forum, and criticism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and of the NetzDG law itself.

That’s according to the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests.

Anti-NetzDG campaign: “Think ban on criticism” (source)

German author Martin Hilpert is among the first to be targeted for allegedly committing “criminal offences” under NetzDG.

On his Google Plus profile, Hilpert has published dozens of posts criticising Chancellor Merkel’s immigration policies and calling for her immediate dismissal.

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In October, Google received a request to remove “problematic” content from Hilpert’s account on the basis that his political views allegedly constitute “hate speech or political extremism” under NetzDG.

He’s not the only one in the cross hairs.

Two prominent German news publishers, centre-right newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and tech website Heise online, have both had similar complaints lodged against them.

The complaint against FAZ states that the newspaper engaged in “harmful or dangerous acts” for a story about NATO, while the complaint against Heise states that the tech website engaged in “hate speech or political extremism” for publishing concerns by the EU Commission that NetzDG could lead to “possible abuse by governments seeking to limit freedom of expression.”

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From there, the censorious slope only gets slippier.

Last month, a Google Plus forum called NaziLeaks that exposes and ridicules neo-Nazis online was targeted for “discrimination, insults, defamation” and for being “extremely political.”

A separate takedown request for a photo of a snowman dressed like Hitler (allegedly containing “terrorist or unconstitutional content”) is probably unlikely to win over skeptics of the new bán.

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Next on the list of offending items, a perennial favourite of the would-be censor: sex.

Targets include a book of semi-nude photos of model Emily Ratajkowski (“sexual discrimination”), a forum for “friends to talk and exchange” that includes a soft focus nude photo (“pornographic”), and a public invitation for sex (“indecent”).

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While the few examples included here are all still available to view online, hundreds more aren’t.

As reported by Politico, last month Twitter deleted tweets by satirical magazine Titanic, comedian Sophie Passmann, and far-right politician Beatrix von Storch after receiving local law complaints.

It’s unclear how social media platforms determine what constitutes fake news.

The Takedown Conspiracy (Redux)

— TechDirt, Volokh Conspiracy hoist mystery defamer claimer

Earlier this week, I blogged about an anonymous defamation takedown request of articles by The Washington Post and Techdirt re: forged court orders intended to force Google to deindex links.

Yesterday, Techdirt and The Volokh Conspiracy hoisted the mystery complainant.

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Via “Techdirt, Volokh Conspiracy Targeted With Bogus Defamation Claim For Publishing A Bunch Of Facts” by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, February 9, 2018:

Last spring, Mike Masnick covered a completely fake court order that was served to Google to make some unflattering information disappear. The court order targeted some posts by a critic of a local politician.

Ken Haas, a member of the New Britain (CT) city commission got into an online argument with a few people. When things didn’t go his way, Haas played a dubious trump card:

Several months ago, he got into a public controversy with local activist Robert Berriault — allegedly, when someone got in a Facebook political spat with Haas, he responded by writing, “You do know I have access to ALL city records, including criminal and civil, right???” Berriault took that to be a threat that Haas would misuse that access for political purposes and wrote about this on the New Britain Independent site, as well as in a not-much-noticed change.org petition calling for Haas’s removal.

Following this, a delisting request was sent to Google with a supposed Connecticut federal court order attached. But the judge who signed it (John W. Darrah) didn’t exist, the word “state” was misspelled (as “Sate”), and the docket number had already been used for another, existing civil case…

Invaluable scourer of the Lumen database, Dean Jones, points out another bogus attempt to delist online content has been made — targeting posts at both Techdirt and the Volokh Conspiracy.

Now it emerges that an anonymous complainant has sent Google a defamation complaint requesting the removal of the two articles from its search results, citing a 1979 Supreme Court case concerning the public disclosure of personal information.

Yes, this one is styled as a defamation takedown request, even though both articles are factual and contain receipts. The takedown notice cites a Supreme Court decision that has nothing to do with either post, despite the claims made in the notice.

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Via “Someone Trying to Vanish My Post About Someone Trying to Vanish Another Post” by Eugene Volokh, Reason, February 9, 2018:

Who submitted the forged order to Google? Commissioner Haas seems the likeliest intended beneficiary of the forgery and the takedown request, and his name (spelled as Ken Hass) was used on the takedown request. But it is of course possible that this was done by someone else, whether someone hired by Haas (with or without knowledge of what would be done) or someone else. I called Haas back in March to ask about what happened here, but he told me he had no comment.

Then I wrote about this on the blog, hosted at the time at the Washington Post; TechDirt covered it as well. The New Britain Progressive covered it as well, and then mentioned the incident again in December, as part of its “Top 10 of 2017” retrospective.

A week later, someone submitted a deindexing request to Google asking it to vanish my original Washington Post item and the TechDirt piece.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized an individual interest in the “practical obscurity” of certain personal information. The case was DOJ v. Reporters Committee for a Free Press. As well, this information is harmful to me as it concerns unfounded information which never resulted in prosecution. Not only has the dissemination of this information never been legitimate, but its internet referencing is clearly harmful to my reputation as my professional and personal surroundings can access it by typing my first and last names on the Internet.

(Thanks to Dean Sterling Jones (Shooting the Messenger) for spotting the request, and, as always, to the Lumen Database for its invaluable role as an archive for these submissions.)

Now the submission doesn’t explain how the “information” in my original post is “unfounded.” It’s true that it didn’t result in prosecution, but the purported order submitted to Google in March is indubitably a forgery, whether the Connecticut prosecutor’s office wants to try to act on that or not. Nor does the submission explain how “the dissemination of this information [has] never been legitimate” — I would think that writing about forgeries of court orders, especially (but not only) those that seem to benefit local officials and community activists, would be quite “legitimate.”

DOJ v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press holds that the federal government has no statutory obligation, under the Freedom of Information Act, to reveal “criminal identification records” to people who request them. But that doesn’t affect all of our First Amendment rights to discuss crimes that we ourselves know about, and note who would have benefited from those crimes. (Tim Cushing (TechDirt) has also written about this incident.)

Fortunately, Google has not deindexed TechDirt’s or my posts in response to this request, and I’m confident that it won’t. But I thought it was worth noting that there has been indeed an attempt to vanish this story.

The full articles are available to read by clicking here and here.

Trumpian PR Campaign Whitewashes Russia

— Who’s behind the secretive PR campaign to whitewash Donald Trump’s Russian biz ties?

The months-long campaign, which launched in November amid the federal investigation into alleged election meddling, centres around two Soviet-born businessmen who masterminded the Trump SoHo hotel in Lower Manhattan.

Utilising dozens of fake Twitter accounts and paid articles, the campaign has sought to whitewash Trump’s relationships with Russian-born ex-con Felix Sater and former Soviet trade minister Tevfik Arif, whose real estate development and investment company Bayrock Group was the driving force behind the recently renamed hotel.

From left: Trump, Arif, and Sater (source)

As first reported on this blog and subsequently covered by The Daily Beast and The New York Times, in November the HuffPost deleted a paid article about Sater by Pakistani content marketer Waqas KH.

Via “Who Paid for the HuffPost Puff Piece on Trump’s Felonious Friend?” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, January 11, 2018:

HuffPost scrubbed the article, written in December, from its website after a blogger in Northern Ireland, Dean Sterling Jones, inquired about the piece, which hailed the dismissal last year of a $250 million tax fraud case against Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive.

The article’s author, listed on HuffPost’s website under the name Waqas KH, runs a Pakistani company called Steve SEO Services. That company offers to ghostwrite articles and organize internet commenting campaigns for paying clients. On the freelancer website Fiverr, Waqas goes by the username “nico_seo” and offers to place articles on HuffPost for an $80 fee. For an extra $50, he will write the article himself.

Waqas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he placed the article hailing the dismissal of tax charges against Sater, and said that his client had written the actual text. He said Sater himself did not pay to place the article, but would not say who had compensated him for it.

The article is just one of dozens of recent puff pieces about Sater’s relationship with Trump.

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One article on business website Be Easy claims that, although “Sater plead [sic] guilty to stock racketeering and fraud as a part of a U.S.–Russian mafia scheme in 1998…there has been no evidence showing that Trump took any part in this, or knew anything about what was going on during their split time together.”

Several of the Trump-touting websites openly accept payments to publish articles.

The business marketing website Octopuzz, which claims that “Trump was not informed of Sater’s criminal past when Arif and Sater suggested partnering with the Trump Organization [and] would not have considered working with Sater and his organization for the Trump SoHo project if he was aware of the allegations against Sater,” explicitly states in its disclosure policy that it “accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.”

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Another business marketing website, whose write-up about Sater states that “[now] Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” includes a message soliciting prospective clients to hire the article’s author, Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns a content writing service in Kolkata.

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Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish Sater’s reputation by linking to articles about the $250 million dismissal which they claim helps vindicate Trump.

This fake tweet, for example, states: “It looks like another case involving Russia connections to the president [has been] dismissed for lacking any legal merits.”

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Many of the fake accounts have also tweeted about Arif’s own relationship with Trump, including one garbled tweet which states that “Arif and trump is the best friend so they are very talent man.”

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All link to a mostly favourable online bio about Arif titled “Team Russia [Красная Машина] story” by Andy French, founder of the Trump & Russia blog. However, none appear to have attracted the attention of other Twitter users, except for a few comment threads consisting entirely of fake users interacting with each other.

It’s unclear who is behind the largely ineffective promotional campaign.

Sater, who was interviewed by House Intelligence Committee staffers last month, in an e-mail denied knowing about efforts to covertly alter the Trump-Russia narrative.

I was unable to reach Arif for comment.

Whoever the culprit is, it’s likely they used the same PR service as controversial Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who preaches against homosexuality and claims he can perform miracles. That’s because most of the websites, online profiles, and Twitter accounts promoting Trump’s Bayrock buddies have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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Russian Media Regulator Targets Award-Winning Trump Critic

— Russia’s media regulator is trying to censor an award-winning news website that reported on the Robert Mueller investigation

Roskomnadzor, a Moscow state-owned media regulator, has sent Google a court order demanding that it delist an award-winning opposition news website that reported about Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

Grani, a popular Russian website that according to Reporters Without Borders provides “a forum for the many civil society groups, human rights defenders and opposition figures who are never seen on the main TV channels,” won a human rights prize in 2015 for its reporting on Internet censorship.

The online newspaper has reported extensively about the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russian authorities.

Headline: “Mueller can be trusted” (source)

Last month, Roskomnadzor sent a court order demanding that Google delist Grani from its search results, claiming the opposition website had called “for the implementation of extremist activities.”

Via the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests:

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According to Grani’s “About” page, the website is actually a mirror of another website that is currently blocked within the Russian Federation.

When you enter that website’s URL into a Russian proxy, you get this message:

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Via Google Translate:

Access to this page is prohibited, because [it] was included in the “Unified Register of Prohibited Sites”, containing information, the dissemination of which is prohibited in the Russian Federation, or in the “Federal List of Extremist Materials” on the website of the Ministry of Justice.

As of publication, Google has not delisted the mirrored website, and it is still available to view within Russia.

Wonkette Roasts Brittain

— Shooting the Messenger cited by Wonkette article about Arizona Senate candidate Craig R. Brittain’s revenge porn past

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Via “We Need To Discuss This Revenge Porn Douchebro Running For Jeff Flake’s Senate Seat” by Robyn Pennacchia, Wonkette, January 4, 2018:

Meet Craig Brittain! He is hoping to replace Jeff Flake and be the next senator from Arizona. He is also, if not the actual worst human being on the planet, a strong competitor for the title.

From 2011 until 2013, Brittain operated the revenge porn website “Is Anybody Down?” — a blatant copy of fellow revenge porn douchebro Hunter Moore’s site “Is Anyone Up?” — where men could post nude pictures of their ex-girlfriends, along with their names, addresses and phone numbers. It was shut down by the FTC, but not because of the revenge porn — rather because Brittain also put up fake lawyer ads on the site from a guy named “David Blade III, The Takedown Lawyer” who claimed he would be able to help women get their pictures taken down for $250 a pop.

[…]

As reported by Dean Sterling Jones at Shooting The Messenger, following Brittain’s announcement that he would be running for Jeff Flake’s Arizona seat, social media expert Michael Palladino shared threatening messages that Brittain had sent a year ago to a woman he had seen on Tinder.

In response, Brittain claimed that the messages from “Craig R. Brittain” were not really from him and that someone was pretending to be him in order to ruin his sterling reputation.

He then reported the profile to Facebook.

This would all be very believable, of course, if the alleged impostor had not been the Facebook admin for Brittain’s failed ridesharing service, [Dryvyng].

Click here to read the full article.

Oh Betsy!

— Did someone from Betsy DeVos’ investment firm try to scrub unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family from online bio?

Last month, I blogged that former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo paid an employee from his own PR firm to scrub Wikipedia of references linking him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and subsequently covered by The Washington Post.

Now I think I’ve found another one.

According to Wikipedia editing records, it appears that someone from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ private investment firm, Windquest Group, attempted to delete unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family.

Betsy DeVos (source)

DeVos was chairman of the firm at the time the edits were made in August 2015 by Wikipedia user “WindquestGroup,” who was subsequently banned indefinitely because the “account’s edits and/or username indicate that it is being used on behalf of a company, group, website or organization for purposes of promotion and/or publicity.”

The user had attempted to delete supposedly “unnecessary” facts that DeVos’ mother, Elsa Prince, once supported “an anti-gay marriage ballot proposal in California,” and that DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, “founded Blackwater USA, a private security firm” that killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

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The Blackwater founder is currently facing scrutiny “over reports that he met the head of a Russian investment fund in an apparent effort to set up a back channel for Russian communication with the Trump administration, and that senior Trump officials had authorized the meeting,” according to CNN.