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.

Maria Butina Pens Article for Russian Think Tank Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Kremlin Policy Adviser

— The article appears to be the first in a regular column published by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, an obscure Russian think tank run by sanctioned Kremlin mass media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich

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Maria Butina is teaming up with a Russian think tank whose founder allegedly has close ties to the Kremlin’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In collaboration with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), Butina has penned an article — seemingly the first in a regular column — titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. The article, which claims to mark the beginning of a broader collaboration, comes just a few weeks after Butina was released from the Tallahassee Federal Correction Institution, where she served a 15-month sentence for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin.

Recounting an interview she gave 60 Minutes while still in prison, Butina described her sentence as “a shameful deal for the US prosecutor’s office, with an investigation in which they had to recognize my legitimate status as a student, apologize for sexist charges and, in order not to hit the dirt in the face and justify the money spent by American taxpayers on me, appoint me a prison term ?!”

Maria Butina (source)

Perhaps the most scathing comments, however, were saved for interviewer Lesley Stahl, whose “little dry American face,” Butina wrote, “doubled in the grimace of surprise and clear misunderstanding of my words.”

On returning to Russia, Butina claimed she “was barely alive from lack of sleep and stress,” but nevertheless “remained true to my promise to the women who sat with me, still imprisoned in the mortal arms of the American penitentiary system … not to be silent about all violations of their rights…”

Butina went on to thank FPNV founder Alexander Malkevich, who, “having experienced the bullying of American law enforcement officers himself,” had “systematically helped” her during her prison term.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Readers of this blog will remember Malkevich as the former editor of USA Really, a Russian propaganda site allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s cook.” Both Malkevich and Prigozhin are currently under U.S. sanctions for their alleged involvement in Project Laktha, a massive social media influence operation that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the American political system in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

At least four of Malkevich’s current employees — three of whom he reportedly shares with Prigozhin’s infamous troll factory — were recently accused of attempting to meddle in African elections. Malkevich has denied the claims.

In May, Malkevich launched a crowdfunding effort in Russia to help pay Butina’s legal bills. In an interview with this blog, he said he intended to pay the money through a third-party in Moscow in order to circumvent financial restrictions placed on him by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“Of course I am not paying [Butina’s lawyers] directly because I am under sanctions,” he told Shooting the Messenger at the time. “But I am the producer of this crowdfunding.”

Malkevich with Butina (source)

When Butina returned to Moscow last month, Malkevich met her at the airport with a bouquet of flowers. Following that appearance, I again asked Malkevich about his involvement with Butina. This time he said he’d made an offer for Butina to work for FPNV as its vice president.

“Yes, I offered Maria Butina to become a part of our foundation for national values protection, and I will be happy if she will agree to become a vice president of our fund, of our foundation,” Malkevich said in an audio recording. “About her possible acceptance, you know that I heard that she expressed interest in our joint work. But you know that nowadays she is in Barnaul in her native city in Altai region, and I think that for week or maybe for two weeks she has to have a rest among her family, with her father, her mother, with her friends. So we are not in a hurry. We are not in a hurry.”

Butina did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

I also asked Malkevich if he was excited to see himself back in the American press.

I can’t say that I was excited to see myself on CNN because a lot of American media wrote about me and are still writing something about me,” he said. “Maybe that first time I was a little bit excited when I found myself in New York Times, and really big article with photo about me and so on.”

He added that his next project will involve compiling the various definitions western news outlets have used to describe him and his activities. You can learn more about that project via the SoundCloud link below.

WaPo Cites Article I Co-Authored for The Daily Beast

— WaPo’s story, about the Wikipedia fact-checking community, cited a July 2018 story I co-authored with Daily Beast political reporter Lachlan Markay

Via “Checking the Web on Hunter Biden? A 36-year-old physicist helps decide what you’ll see,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post, September 25, 2019:

Wikipedia’s rules of engagement have gradually accreted over the years. The guidelines are most stringent for living people, governed by three main principles: neutral point of view, verifiability and no original research.

Bots are employed to guard against basic disruption, and the automated software is responsible for as many as one-third of the edits to the site globally, and many more to its underlying data, according to a 2014 paper . A “recent changes patrol,” or RC patrol, is composed of individual users, who watch for more subtle intrusion and hash out disagreements about edits on a page’s “talk” section. Administrators oversee the process.

The setup has faced high-profile tests before. In the spring of 2018, anonymous editors detected suspect activity on a page for Maria Butina, a Russian woman accused of running a covert operation to gain influence with American conservatives. Some of the activity — an attempt to excise unflattering information — was traced to the university in Washington where Butina had been studying. The information was restored [emphasis added].

And here’s an excerpt from “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university [American University] where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it…

A spokesman for American University confirmed that the IP addresses were associated with the school’s network, but declined to comment further, citing student privacy concerns.

Shooting the Messenger Referenced in New Book By Richard Stengel, Former Time Magazine Editor/U.S. Under Secretary of State

— “Information Wars” details modern disinformation tactics, from ISIS to the Kremlin

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Richard Stengel, former managing editor of Time Magazine, has a new book out.

Recounting his experiences as U.S. Under Secretary of State during the Obama administration, “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It” details the rise of modern disinformation tactics as practiced by the Kremlin and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organisation ISIS.

The book cites my February 2018 deep dive into the tactics used by the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) — better known as the Russian troll factory — in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election (my post transcribed and analysed internal IRA documents obtained in 2015 by Russian news site MR7.ru. To my knowledge, my blog was the first publication to translate that information into English).

Here is an excerpt from the book:

The Internet Research Agency was creating hundreds of pieces of fake and misleading internet content an hour. Like a digital marketing agency, it operated across the entire social media ecosystem. The whole enterprise is financed by a tycoon who is an ally of Putin’s…

MR7.ru had actually published documents smuggled out by IRA employees. They ranged from overarching guidelines about posting (amount, frequency, use of keywords) to talking points about the news of the day (protests on the Maidan, American policy toward Syria) to a glossary of internet slang. The guidelines offered a blueprint for what the workers did and how they did it.

One document describes their job this way:

TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.[52]

The first thing workers needed to do, according to one of the memos, was to create online personas, sometimes called “sock puppets.” These personas are meant to look and sound like real people. They have names and photographs. They “like” other people’s photos and comments and statuses. Workers are meant to have multiple social media accounts – one memo said they should have at least three different Facebook accounts. There are also specific guidelines, for example, for posting pro-Russin material in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, Politico, and the Blaze. The guidelines suggest that these identities should mix political opinions with more mundane posts about things like music or movies or “the owner’s social life.”

And here is the reference to my blog in Stengel’s footnotes:

52. Translated from a lexicon of internet slang terms produced by the Internet Research Agency and leaked in 2015. See Andrei Soshnikov, “Столица политического троллинга” (“The Capital of Political Trolling)”, MR&.ru, March 11, 2015, https://mr-7.ru/articles/112478/; and Dean Sterling Jones, “Inside the Russian Troll Factory,” Shooting the Messenger, February 7, 2018, https://shootingthemessenger.blog/2018/02/27/inside-the-russian-troll-factory/.
53. Jones, “Inside the Russian Troll Factory.”

The book contains a few more references to information first published on my blog, including an IRA directive requiring its staff to publish socially and politically divisive content online in an attempt to “stir up dissatisfaction and grievance” around issues of racial inequality, police brutality, and gun control in America.

Following the Indian government’s recent attempts to censor my blog (click here and here to read), this is a welcome change.

Thanks Stengel!

Reason: Indian Government Attempts to Remove Material From Western Sites

— Reason magazine’s The Volokh Conspiracy hoists Indian cyber police for making frivolous legal demand to censor this blog

Via “Indian Government Attempts to Remove Material from Western Sites,” by Eugene Volokh, Reason, August 27, 2019:

Northern Irish blogger Dean Sterling Jones reports on a successful demand that Buzzfeed remove the photo, and on an unsuccessful demand that WordPress remove it from Jones’ own blog post, which had reported on the Buzzfeed incident. I confirmed that the takedown demand came from the Mumbai Cyber Police…

Click here to read the full story.

BuzzFeed News: Underground Economy Selling Links From Big News Sites

— Shady online marketers are selling links in articles on the New York Times, BBC, CNN, and other news sites. ICYMI, here’s my latest for BuzzFeed News.

Via “There’s An Underground Economy Selling Links From The New York Times, BBC, CNN, And Other Big News Sites,” by Dean Sterling Jones, BuzzFeed News, July 26, 2019:

In 2012, the Hollywood Reporter published a glowing obituary for Patricia Disney, the first wife of former Walt Disney executive Roy Disney. In tribute to her philanthropic work, the obituary included a link to WeLovePatty.com, a memorial site where readers could donate to charities in her honor. But if you click on the link to that memorial site today, you’ll be taken to blaze4days.com, a cannabis blog offering content such as “Videos to Watch When High (Best of 2019).”

At some point, her family took down WeLovePatty.com and stopped paying for the domain name. That enabled it to be hijacked by parasitic digital marketers who trick readers into visiting sites that sometimes sell sketchy products and services. Search engine optimization consultants buy expired URLs that have been linked to by prominent news websites and redirect these domains to their clients’ sites in a bid to game search results.

Click here to read the full story.

ThinkProgress Shout-out

— ThinkProgress cites Shooting the Messenger story re: Russian propaganda site

Yesterday, Shooting the Messenger and American news website ThinkProgress published stories about efforts by Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich and others to help raise money for convicted Russian agent Maria Butina.

The ThinkProgress story, by investigative reporter Casey Michel, cited some of my previous work on Malkevich. Thanks Casey!

Via “Leading voices in Russian interference efforts rally to support Maria Butina” by Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, May 29, 2019:

An upcoming press conference in Moscow to support jailed Russian agent Maria Butina will bring together some of the most notable voices in Russian interference efforts over the past few years, from the leading figure organizing American secessionists to a sanctioned Russian social media operator.

The press conference, scheduled for next Tuesday, will be hosted by Alexander Malkevich, a sanctioned Russian disinformation operative who helps run the Russia-based Foundation for the Protection of National Values. The foundation describes itself as “a non-profit organization whose activities are aimed at protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation,” including the “preserv[ation] of traditional culture.”

Malkevich is best-known for helping create a disinformation site called “USA Really,” which has previously been linked to media operations led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a sanctioned Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef,” helped oversee Russia’s social media interference operations through 2016…

As the release announcing the sanctions read, Malkevich, via “USA Really,” was “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues.” Malkevich, as journalist Dean Sterling Jones has reported, has since left “USA Really,” but not before he decided to hang a Confederate flag on the office walls (as well as a flag in support of Russia-backed militants in eastern Ukraine).

Click here to read the full article

Byline at BuzzFeed

— The Frisky was a popular site for women. Now it’s a marketing scam leeching off the brand. Read my latest at BuzzFeed News.

Via “How A Popular Women’s Website Became A Pay-To-Play Nightmare” by Dean Sterling Jones, BuzzFeed News, April 22, 2019:

On first glance, the Frisky appears to be a thriving women’s entertainment and lifestyle website. Founded in 2008 “for women, by women,” the site currently attracts over 1 million pageviews per month.

But beneath the surface, the site is filled with a strange mix of awkwardly written celebrity clickbait, articles promoting floorcare and acupuncture, and a post that attacks Long Island attorney Frederick Oberlander, a nemesis of onetime Trump business partner Felix Sater. The bylines of the site’s original authors have also been scrubbed and replaced by pseudonyms and stolen profile photos.

The Frisky as it once existed is gone. Today it’s a vampire website feeding off the property’s former popularity and brand name to sell pay-for-play articles in order to influence search engine rankings. The site is one of a growing number of once-lucrative web domains that are taken over and then milked for every last drop of search engine optimization value before they are inevitably downranked for shady practices.

Click here to read the full story.

Bad Fan Fiction (Redux)

— Prior to suing HBO, Michael Jackson’s estate hired a takedown lawyer to scrub erotic fan fiction from the web

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Michael Jackson’s estate is suing HBO for $100m over the tell-all documentary Leaving Neverland.

The documentary, containing graphic allegations that the late singer sexually abused two young boys during the late 80s and early 90s, has caused outrage on all sides, from boycotts of Jackson’s music to counter-boycotts of the film by die-hard fans. Yet despite their steadfast devotion, recently it was the fans themselves being pursued by Jackson’s legal team.

Prior to the release of the documentary in January, Jackson’s estate hired notorious British takedown lawyer John Giacobbi, better known as “Web Sheriff,” to scrub Jackson fan erotica from the Internet. Giacobbi’s campaign, which took place over the period of a year between January 2017 and March 2018, sought to eradicate countless erotic descriptions and photoshopped images of Jackson from Google’s blogging platform.

John Giacobbi aka “Web Sheriff” (source)

In order to successfully remove the offending content, described as belonging to a subculture of “libellous innuendo” and “obscene and malicious falsehoods,” Giacobbi sent Google approximately 70 run-on, barely intelligible complaints, citing everything from the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act to European privacy laws to United Nations anti-money laundering regulations.

Here’s a typical example of Giacobbi’s work courtesy of the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests:

WEB SHERIFF® Creative Protection™ Incorporating Entertainment Law Associates™ Tel : +44(0)208-323 8013 (UK) / / +1-424-238 4551 (LA) / +1-212-601 2723 (NY) Fax : +44(0)208-323 8080 (UK) / +1-434-238 4301 (LA) / +1-212-601 2601 (NY) websheriff@websheriff.com http://www.websheriff.com NOTIFICATION Pursuant to (as applicable) DIGITAL MILLENIUM COPYRIGHT ACT (COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT NOTICE) EUROPEAN UNION COPYRIGHT DIRECTIVE (COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT NOTICE) FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION E-COMMERCE REGULATIONS (VIOLATION OF CONSUMER PROTECTION REGULATIONS) EUROPEAN UNION E-COMMERCE DIRECTIVE (VIOLATION OF CONSUMER PROTECTION REGULATIONS) CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS (INVASION OF PRIVACY NOTICE) UNITED NATIONS ANTI MONEY LAUNDERING CONVENTION (PROCEEDS OF ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES NOTICE) INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION ON CYBER CRIME (PROCEEDS OF ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES NOTICE) – and – NOTICE OF BREACH OF ISP’S / HOST’S PUBLISHED TERMS OF SERVICE NOTICE OF BREACH OF WEB-SITE’S PUBLISHED TERMS OF SERVICE PORNOGRAPHY NOTICE *** PORNOGRAPHY ADVISORY – For the avoidance of doubt, the published images that are the subject of this complaint comprise, inter alia, images and artwork of our relevant client / principal that comprise pornography and defame our said client’s / principal’s legacy and, as such, any publication and / or broadcast and / or distribution of such images / pornography is a gross violation of our client’s / principal’s legacy and the rights of the Estate (and on a web-site that has no age or content warning). Additionally, the published images / pornography in question are featured in direct juxtaposition and conjunction with unauthorized and unendorsed advertising for third party goods and services, which de facto ‘product endorsements’ are entirely bogus and constitute infringements of our client’s / principal’s right-of-publicity, goodwill and all other pertinent rights of an intellectual property nature. Such activities also blatantly contravene and violate Federal, European Union and international consumer protection laws and Human Rights legislation and treaties. 

And so on.

It’s unclear why Jackson’s estate was moved to hire Giacobbi, as the offending blogs have since been deleted by Google. But as I documented in a previous post, one of the now-deleted blogs, titled MJ Fan Fictions, included “semi-erotic adventures” involving the blog’s owner, Trinette Rani Johnson, and Jackson’s character Daryl from the Bad music video.