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 :-(“

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.

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.

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.

Daily Telegraph Stops Publishing Propaganda From China Following BuzzFeed News Story

The British broadsheet had been publishing material from People’s Daily and China Daily, propaganda arms of the Chinese Communist Party. ICYMI, here’s my latest in BuzzFeed News and The Guardian.

Via “A British Newspaper Has Given Chinese Coronavirus Propaganda a Direct Line to the UK” by Dean Sterling Jones, BuzzFeed News, April 1, 2020:

BuzzFeed News April 1 2020

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 […] The article was published in a section of the Telegraph’s site called People’s Daily Online, a self-contained “advertisement feature” promising “all the latest stories about contemporary China’s dynamic development, diverse culture and world-leading infrastructure,” complete with a home page and sections for news, opinion, business, and sports, among other topics. But beyond a boilerplate disclaimer waiving responsibility, nowhere does the site disclose any information about its sponsor.

People’s Daily is the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China. Its “advertisement feature” on the Telegraph’s site is part of a global propaganda campaign that positions the country as a leader in fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 44,000 people worldwide.

Click here to read the full story.

Via “Daily Telegraph Stops Publishing Section Paid for by China” by Jim Waterson and Dean Sterling Jones, 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.

Click here to read the full story.

Free Tibet, a charity based in London, has started an online petition calling on the Wall Street Journal and The Economist to cut ties with China Daily and Beijing Review.

Via “Free Tibet Launches Petition Calling for the Economist and Wall Street Journal to Drop Chinese Government Material,” FreeTibet.org, April 16, 2020:

Free Tibet has launched a petition calling for The Economist and Wall Street Journal (WSJ) to drop paid-for propaganda sections published on behalf of Chinese state media which have appeared in both publications.

The petition comes two days after The Guardian reported The Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing its China Watch advertising, which consists of content created by Chinese Communist Party media organisation China Daily and is designed to promote the CCP’s image abroad.

Free Tibet’s petition invites the public to send a message to the editors of The Economist and WSJ asking them to follow The Telegraph and confirm they will both stop publishing the material.

Click here for the petition.

Muck Rack Verified (Then Unverified) These Seemingly Fake Journalists

Petar Mikonoss and Dragana Stepic purportedly write for once-popular women’s site The Frisky. There’s no evidence either of them actually exist.

In its heyday, The Frisky was one of the most beloved women’s sites on the internet. Founded by Turner Broadcasting in 2008, the site offered a “unique brand of funny, informative and relatable content written by an array of authentic female voices.”

After multiple changes in ownership, in 2018 the site permanently closed and the domain name bought over by Nebojsa Vujinovic aka DJ Vujo#91, a Serbian music producer who plagiarised the site’s brand name and republished the site’s old content using fake bylines. Vujinovic currently sells backlinks on the site from his Fiverr account.

You can check out Vujinovic’s feminist credentials here:

I wrote about the site’s unhappy afterlife for BuzzFeed News last April (the story was later cited by The New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review, and even The Frisky’s own Wikipedia bio). But it appears not everyone got the memo.

Around November, the site was listed on media database Muck Rack and given a green verification badge, which is similar to the blue badge Twitter uses to show that an account is authentic.

“The Frisky has been verified by Muck Rack’s editorial team,” claimed a message on the listing, which included incorrect information about the site’s current ownership.

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Shortly after adding The Frisky, Muck Rack listed and verified Petar Mikonoss and Dragana Stepic, seemingly creations of Vujinovic whose bylines currently adorn articles plagiarised from The Frisky’s former writers, and from other sites such as Showbiz CheatSheet (multiple copyright and defamation complaints have been made against The Frisky since Vujinovic took over).

Here’s Mikonoss’ verified profile on Muck Rack:

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And here’s Mikonoss’ byline on The Frisky, which includes such quality content as “Why Being a Biker Is Simply the Best” (“A: Kids are crazy about you”), “Why Do You Need to Buy an Inflatable Hot Tub?” (A: “They Are Cheap”), and “Tricky Snowflake Test Questions You Might Encounter on Your Job Interview” (Eg. “What are your thoughts on transgender people?” and “What was the last time you cried and why? WOW!”):

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A reverse image search shows that Mikonoss’ profile photo is actually of Peter Pfeffer, associate professor of Developmental Biology and Reproduction at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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In an e-mail, Pfeffer said he didn’t give permission for Vujinovic to use his photo.

“No I did not give permission for anyone to use it,” said Pfeffer. “Odd that it was on The Frisky in the first place as I have never visited that site.”

I was unable to find the person shown in Stepic’s profile photo. But a name included in the photo’s URL suggests their name is Dragana Berbetovic.

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Former editors for The Frisky told me they had never heard of Mikonoss or Stepic.

Robyn Pennacchia, a former writer and editor for the site, said she had “no idea who those people are.”

The site’s former EIC, Amelia McDonell-Parry — whose name appears numerous times in Muck Rack’s database as having co-bylined stories with Stepic  — said she’d “never in my life” heard of Mikonoss or Stepic.

“I can assure you that any article bylined with my name AND any one of these bizarrely named fake people was ONLY written by me, and me alone,” McDonell-Parry said. “For example, the article in this screenshot (below) was 100% ALL ME not me and fake ass DRAGANA.”

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In an e-mail, Muck Rack’s editor Sean Kiely said his editorial team had used automated tools to identify and create profiles for the two seemingly fake journalists.

Muck Rack finds new articles published at media outlets around the world from RSS feeds and Twitter handles and then we use technology to identify the author of any article by that article’s byline. Once we identify the author, we add the article to that journalist’s existing Muck Rack profile or we create a Muck Rack profile for that person. These profiles you have sent us have been automatically created using our technology with the name that corresponds to the byline on the articles.

The green verified badge on Muck Rack lets people know that a profile page meets Muck Rack’s criteria to be defined as a verified journalist, and that the information is maintained by Muck Rack’s Editorial team. We understand that many journalists and writers use pen names, so one of the most important factors our Editorial team considers when verifying a profile is the frequency at which the journalist is published, which is why these profiles are verified.

Asked to clarify if Muck Rack’s verification process is strictly automated, Kiely said his editorial team is “made up of humans who are reviewing profiles.”

While Muck Rack does have an Editorial team made up of humans who are reviewing profiles, we create hundreds of profiles a week, so we do our best to stay on top of these issues.

We’ve removed this outlet and these profiles from Muck Rack’s search.

Muck Rack’s listing for The Frisky now redirects to a directory of media outlets.

Mikonoss and Stepic are still listed in Muck Rack’s database, although without their verification badges.

BuzzFeed News: Hackers Breaking Into Sites and Adding Links to Game Google

Google made the link a valuable commodity, so hackers are compromising sites and then getting paid to inject links. ICYMI, here’s my latest byline for BuzzFeed News

Via “Hackers Are Breaking Into Websites And Adding Links To Game Google” by Craig Silverman and Dean Sterling Jones, BuzzFeed News, December 18, 2019:

…Websites of all types and sizes, and especially those that use the open-source version of WordPress, are hacked to inject links to manipulate search engine results. A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals how injected links are sold by global networks of online marketplaces and black hat SEO consultants who offer customers the ability to have links placed on compromised websites.

Among those affected are journalists, celebrities, churches, charities, veterans organizations, and the managing director of Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm. Injected backlinks on these compromised sites quickly improve the search engine rankings of customers’ web properties by exploiting Google’s preference for sites that receive a high quantity of links from authoritative sites. That in turn helps the customer sites attract more traffic, and in some cases, increase sales.

BuzzFeed News obtained lists of more than 20,000 websites where backlinks can allegedly be added for a fee, and confirmed multiple cases where links were added to these and other sites without the owner’s knowledge…

Click here to read the full story.

Journalism 404

Don’t miss this Columbia Journalism Review Q&A with former editors of The Frisky, whose transformation from popular women’s site to pay-to-play nightmare I documented for BuzzFeed News

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Earlier this year, I wrote an investigative story for BuzzFeed News about how a Serbian music producer had purchased The Frisky — once one of the most popular women’s sites in America — and turned it into a parasitic digital marketing platform that recycled the site’s old content using a host of fake bylines. In an interview this month for Columbia Journalism Review, two former editors of The Frisky discussed the site’s strange but not-so-wonderful afterlife.

Via “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives,” by Tiffany Stevens, Columbia Journalism Review, November 5, 2019:

Jessica Wakeman, women’s issues journalist with work in Bustle, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times

I wrote and edited for The Frisky for six years, which is a sizeable chunk of my career and also a very important period of my life. During that time I developed a lot as a thinker and as a feminist and as a human being. It’s disappointing and even a little painful when the record of that time disappears without my choice. Going to search for an old article that I wrote is a jarring way to find out that something is not online.

All of us had our bylines replaced with somebody else’s name. It’s just dummy bylines. At the very bottom of the story, it would say, “Original by Jessica Wakeman.” All of a sudden, things that I wrote were now being attributed to another person. As time has gone on, I haven’t been able to find pieces that I wrote.

I feel really cynical about digital-media ownership and the priorities of people who own websites and blogs. So, as disappointed as I am, I’m also not surprised by it. I think the current status quo for many owners is that the work isn’t valuable. Content that currently gains traffic is what they care about.

I started writing for a local newspaper when I was 15. My first job out of college was at a newspaper. I spent many years physically cutting out all of my articles and putting them in my binder. I can remember in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, applying to jobs and having a physical binder as my calling card. This is a new problem, but the answer might be that we as writers have to save every single thing we write as a PDF or that we have to print it out and put it in a binder and go the analog route, which seems crazy.

All of that being said, there’s a certain amount of relief that maybe some of the pieces I wrote are no longer accessible, because I wrote them between the ages of 24 and 29, and I don’t hold all the same viewpoints or use the same words. Which is the thinnest silver lining on this whole thing.

Amelia McDonnell-Parry, independent journalist whose work has appeared in Undisclosed

There were a couple of people who wrote for [The Frisky] that were like, “Is there a way for us to buy it?” And I was like, “Listen, more power to you, but I don’t got it in me anymore.” In a way, it’s kind of freeing to just have it go. I was running the site, I got hired when I was 28, and I left the site when I was 36 or 37, and I’m about to turn 40. You change a lot.

The things that I got that were valuable to me, I still have. But there was something oddly freeing about it, I have to say. And I also just knew I didn’t have any power over it.

I still get Google alerts for my name. Every few days, I’ll get a Google alert, and it’ll be for The Frisky, but it’ll be something I wrote seven years ago. A personal essay, or some strident opinion piece on something that I’m like, “I don’t think I even have an opinion on that anymore.” Or, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that really sucked.” And it’s presented by this person who’s not me — it has a fake byline — but then my name is still at the bottom.

I’ve been doing mostly audio stuff lately. That’s stuff’s preserved. And for quite a bit of time I was writing for Rolling Stone’s website. I don’t expect Rolling Stone to go anywhere anytime soon. But seeing what happened [at The Frisky] did sort of remind me it’s a good idea to save actual, physical copies of your work in some sort of way. PDFs. You can’t rely on Archive.org to have everything and you never know when shit might disappear. And you don’t know when it might reappear again in some bizarro environment with someone else’s name on it.

Click here to read the full article.
Click here for my BuzzFeed News story on The Frisky.