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!

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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.

Bogus Copyright Complaints Sought to Suppress Michael Moates Sexual Harassment Claims

— At least three young women have accused conservative writer Michael Moates of sending sexually suggestive messages

Multiple bogus copyright complaints sought to suppress sexual harassment claims made last year against conservative writer and D.C. Chronicle founder Michael Moates.

The complaints, sent in Moates’ name over a five-month period starting October, requested that Google delist six news articles concerning Moates’ alleged misconduct towards three young women, including two underage girls.

Michael Moates (source)

The three women, Purity Thomas (16), Hadassah Cohen (17), and Kylie Thomas (20), assert that Moates sent them inappropriate and sexually suggestive messages during discussions online and over text message. The claims, including that Moates told Cohen that she “couldn’t possibly be telling the truth that [she] was a proud virgin…because [she] was too gorgeous for that,” were first reported in October by Right Wing Watch, a liberal watchdog site of conservative media.

According to statements and screenshots posted online, Moates texted Purity Thomas—then 15—that she was a “beautiful crazy chick.”

“This is Michael, correct?” Thomas asked in reply.

“Yes lol,” Moates wrote back. “Sorry I made a mistake lol”

Thomas, currently the executive director of pro-life women’s group reLOVE, had reached out to Moates to discuss her experience of being physically assaulted during a protest. But after talking to him, “[she] thought, ‘You’re not coming anywhere near my team,’” Thomas told Right Wing Watch.

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In another exchange that allegedly took place over Facebook, Moates propositioned Kylie Thomas, an advocate for sexual and domestic assault survivors, to go on a date with him.

“Maybe I can get you drinking if I can get that date,” Moates suggested.

“Sounds bad,” Thomas replied. “Sounds like a reason mothers give daughters pepper spray.”

“LOL I would never take advantage,” Moates wrote back. “lol more of hey your cute youve been drinking lets go to dinner haha.”

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Shortly after the story was picked up by Raw Story and a number of other media outlets, someone sent Google three copyright complaints in Moates’ name requesting that the search engine remove the offending articles because they included Moates’ personal Facebook and Twitter photos. Last week, another three complaints were sent to Google, also in Moates’ name.

“The self-taken photograph with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity was taken from Facebook,” reads one of the complaints. “Photograph (selfie) taken with Tomi Lahren,” reads another.

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U.S. copyright law stipulates that the publishing of copyrighted photos might be considered Fair Use if used in a journalistic context, as with the Right Wing Watch and Raw Story pieces.

“The fair use of a copyrighted work…for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting…is not an infringement of copyright,” Section 107 of the Copyright Act states.

In an e-mail, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing said that the use of Moates’ photos was “clearly fair use.”

“Moates’ use of social media is a key aspect of this story, so the use of screenshots of his social media posts isn’t copyright infringement,” said Cushing. “At best, Moates should be contacting the sites directly and requesting they remove the photo. Targeting the entire URL is just an attempt to remove a critical article under the pretense of protecting his IP [Intellectual Property].”

Moates with Sean Hannity (source)

It remains unclear if Moates sent the complaints, as he didn’t reply to a request for comment. But in September, Moates told The Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Markay that he planned to file libel lawsuits against a number of conservative women who’d made sexual harassment claims against him. 

As of publication, Google has not delisted the targeted articles.

Fyre Festival Co-Founder Billy McFarland Paid Someone to Write His Wikipedia Bio

— McFarland’s self-promotional Wikipedia bio now describes him as a “fraudster”

Billy McFarland, co-founder of the doomed Fyre Festival, paid a professional Wikipedia editor in 2014 to create his current bio as part of a promotional effort to raise his public profile.

According to Wikipedia editing records, McFarland paid a user with the handle Bernie44 an undisclosed amount to promote his involvement in two tech startups: the failed content-sharing site Spling; and the ultra-exclusive Magnises black card, which with Fyre went down in flames following McFarland’s conviction last year for defrauding investors.

Billy McFarland (source)

“McFarland founded Magnises in August 2013, and officially launched the card on March 1, 2014, aiming to create an exclusive black card that was community-oriented and technology-based, offering perks, guidance and cachet that would improve the everyday life of its members and appeal to the millennial generation,” reads Bernie44’s paid draft from September 8, 2014. “As of August 2014, Magnises has 3,000 members, including actress Rosario Dawson, former NBA player Baron Davis, and musicians French MontanaWale and Gabe Saporta.”

Bernie44 disclosed having been paid by McFarland in accordance with Wikipedia’s June 16, 2014 update to its terms and services.

“[This] is to disclose that I am paid for some of the articles I create and/or edit, in most cases by the subject of the article,” Bernie44 wrote. “Whether paid or not, I always aim to contribute positively to Wikipedia and to edit within Wikipedia’s guidelines, with properly sourced, neutral, constructive edits. I hope my work is judged based on those standards.”

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McFarland found fame in 2017 when his attempt to organise the luxury Fyre music festival in the Bahamas fell apart in spectacular fashion. The $1,200 to $100,000 per ticket event promised two weekends of music, gourmet meals, luxury villas, and parties on yachts with supermodels. But after months of failed preparations, the event crashed and burned in real time, leaving attendees stranded on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma without food, water, or shelter.

Last year, McFarland pleaded guilty to “fraudulently induc[ing] investments into his companies Fyre Media, Inc., Fyre Festival LLC, and Magnises, Inc., including in connection with McFarland’s failed venture to host a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ music festival in the Bahamas.” He was later sentenced to six years in prison.

Adding to that growing list of failures, last week McFarland’s self-created bio, originally titled “Billy McFarland (entrepreneur),” was moved to a new page, “Billy McFarland (fraudster).”

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Daily Beast: Google Yanks Services From Sanctioned Russian Website

— USAReally.com has been barred from using Google Analytics as the website’s American contributors reconsider their involvement

— The site’s parent company has postponed its lawsuit against Facebook while its attorneys apply for a sanctions exemption. Read my latest at The Daily Beast.

Via “Google Yanks Services From Russian Propaganda Site” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, February 07, 2019:

Tech giant Google has cut off a sanctioned Russian propaganda website from popular tools that allowed the site to track and collect extensive data on the site’s readers.

The website, USA Really, has been barred from using Google Analytics, the company told The Daily Beast last week, depriving the site of reporting data on readers’ countries of origin, time of visit, pages visited, referring websites, IP addresses, and types of operating systems. The information is typically used for search engine optimization and marketing purposes.

It’s the latest setback for USA Really, which has seen multiple other tech firms cut ties with the site after its parent company, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), was hit with U.S. sanctions in December. Federal authorities accuse FAN of complicity in a widespread, Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta…”

The sanctions have also thrown a wrench into a FAN lawsuit against another tech giant, Facebook, over its closure of USA Really’s pages on that platform, part of a long-running effort to rid Facebook of malicious foreign propaganda efforts…

Both parties agreed on Tuesday to postpone a conference later this month to update a federal judge on the status of the lawsuit. Treasury’s sanctions against FAN require its attorneys—with the U.S. law firms Diamond McCarthy and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston—to obtain a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to continue their representation…

Sanctions against FAN also have USA Really’s American contributors reconsidering their own involvement, given the possibility that any payments for their writing might run afoul of prohibitions on business dealings with the site.

“Our authors continue to cooperate with us,” Malkevich told The Daily Beast. “They write about their thoughts, about the problems of American society.”

Click here to read the full story.

And here’s a response from USA Really author Jeffrey Silverman, who was quoted in the article:

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A couple of days back The Daily Beast published an article on USA Really titled “Google Yanks Services from Russian Propaganda Site.” The foregone conclusion upon reading the title would be that USA Really is “Guilty as Charged!”

However, I must admit that barring the click-bait like title the article was more balanced than expected.

Since I have been a regular contributor to USA Really, the authors of the Daily Beast article while working on the article contacted me and other writers with their many questions. I was a bit skeptical to communicate with them at first, as my experience communicating with the American mainstream media in the past had not been very productive.

My previous comments to the media were construed to present views that were contrary to mine—taken out of context.  More often than not, to distort what I actually said, with few exceptions.

However, I decided to discuss the matters with them thinking that this might be a chance to tell the true story, the story of how USA Really, just because of its Russian roots, is being harassed.  At least to be able to demonstrate that neither I personally nor USA Really had anything to hide… we were both being upfront and transparent.

My trust in The Daily Beast has paid up, albeit not entirely, but certainly more than I had honestly expected. And I am not the only one who felt this. A colleague of mine during an informal discussion shared:

“Fairly balanced article, I would say. Other than the fact that in the title of the article as well as in the very first sentence they mention USA Really to be a propaganda website; they would have done better by saying ‘alleged propaganda website.”

Surprisingly the article mentioned my true credentials stating, and put all my comments correctly without twisting them, unlike some other previous publications that described me as being an eccentric American with an ax to grind against the US government.

“Jeffrey K. Silverman, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based U.S. Army veteran who previously worked for Radio Free Europe, has written over 30 articles for USA Really on topics as varied as the BDS movement and the tobacco industry. In an e-mail, Silverman said that he continues to write for the site on a paid basis despite the sanctions.

I don’t know how they could legally apply to a US citizen, as the 1st Amendment still applies …”I continue to cooperate, and with greater enthusiasm. I don’t like being told as a US citizen that I am subject to 1984 and USSR-styled censorship.”

With Dean Sterling Jones—the article’s author—I shared my dilemma of not getting an answer from responsible American authorities (Treasury Department and American Citizen Services) about my legal plight and whether I can legally contribute to USA Really, even after asking them multiple times.

Consequently, Dean tried contacting the concerned departments to get their side of the story too. And unsurprisingly, as with my requests, Dean’s too were met by a wall of silence. I know many would say that we did not receive any response was because of the government shutdown, but deep down my heart I know that it is a device of subterfuge—on the part of the US government.

Or maybe they are waiting to ambush me on my next trip to the US, as they have done in the past, [at the airport] or are just not willing or capable of putting anything of substance in writing.

Or, maybe these sanctions are but a Red Herring because there must be some serious reason for picking on a fringe alternative media site, and based on my experience they are testing the waters to understand as to who they can block next?

Click here to read Silverman’s full article.

Round-Up 2018: Here’s the Scoop

Russian trolls and stealth political campaigns. Revisiting my scoopiest stories of 2018

2018 was undoubtedly my most successful year since I started writing at Shooting the Messenger almost five years ago.

Once described as an “amateur sleuth” by Politico and unceremoniously trashed by a surrogate for U.S. president Donald Trump on Fox News (something I’ve always worn as a badge of pride, thank you), in 2018 I was delighted to land a freelance gig at The Daily Beast, from which I served a few decent-sized scoops.

Huge thanks to the Beast’s Editor-in-Chief Noah Shachtman for generously inviting me to write for him, and Beast reporters Asawin Suebsaeng, Lachlan Markay, and Lachlan Cartwright (count ’em, two Lachlans) for their help and encouragement.

Big thanks to everyone else who provided me with invaluable help and encouragement in 2018, including (but not limited to!): Zen Master Blogger Peter M. Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing, nutrition journalist/author Nina Teicholz, FoodMed.net publisher and editor Marika Sboros, journalist/fact-checker extraordinaire Brooke Binkowski, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, and BuzzFeed Canada’s Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko.

The year started strong when a story I wrote in late 2017, about the HuffPost’s retraction of a pay-to-play puff piece on former Trump business partner Felix Sater, was picked up by the Beast in January.

Felix Sater (source)

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

An unknown client paid a Pakistani national to place an article at the HuffPost defending a controversial associate of President Donald Trump.

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.

Following that article, the HuffPost announced that it was permanently closing its flagship contributor platform, which allowed readers to self-publish articles on the HuffPost website, and which the author of the Sater piece had been exploiting for financial gain.

In an interview with The New York Times, which cited my story, the HuffPost’s Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen said that the decision to close the platform was due to the proliferation of fake news.

Via “HuffPost, Breaking From Its Roots, Ends Unpaid Contributions” by Sydney Ember, The New York Times, January 18, 2018:

Since its founding nearly 13 years ago, The Huffington Post has relied heavily on unpaid contributors, whose ranks included aspiring writers, citizen journalists and celebrities from the Rolodex of the site’s co-founder Arianna Huffington.

…On Thursday, it said it was immediately dissolving its self-publishing contributors platform — which has mushroomed to include 100,000 writers — in what is perhaps the most significant break from the past under its editor in chief, Lydia Polgreen…

[Recently] a contributor with the byline Waqas KH published an article about Felix Sater, an associate of President Trump, that he had been paid to post. The site has since deleted the article.

In July, I co-authored a follow-up story—my first for the Beast—about a much larger campaign to whitewash Trump’s Russian business ties by manipulating Google’s search rankings.

Via “Inside the Online Campaign to Whitewash the History of Donald Trump’s Russian Business Associates” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 5, 2018:

A mystery client has been paying bloggers in India and Indonesia to write articles distancing President Donald Trump from the legal travails of a mob-linked former business associate.

Spokespeople for online reputation management companies in the two countries confirmed that they had been paid to write articles attempting to whitewash Trump’s ties to Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who, with former Russian trade minister Tevfik Arif, collaborated with the Trump Organization on numerous real estate deals from New York to the former Soviet Union.

The campaign appears designed to influence Google search results pertaining to Trump’s relationship with Sater, Arif, and the Bayrock Group, a New York real estate firm that collaborated with Trump on a series of real estate deals, and recruited Russian investors for potential Trump deals in Moscow.

The story was covered by The Washington Post, Politico, and ABC News, among others.

Perhaps my biggest story of 2018, about Russian government media adviser Alexander Malkevich’s attempts to launch a troll factory-linked disinformation website from an office near the White House in Washington, D.C., was my second to make it to The New York Times.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

The website, the conspicuously titled USA Really, was in fact created by Moscow’s Federal News Agency (FAN), one of a number of Russian entities U.S. prosecutors claim “employed hundreds of individuals in support” of Project Lakhta, a multi-million dollar social media influence operation that aimed “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system.”

I first started writing about USA Really in April, following FAN’s attempts to recruit “English-speaking journalists” to write for the website. That early reporting was picked up by The Daily Beast, Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, and Press Pool with Julie Mason. But USA Really only really caught the attention of mainstream news outlets in June, after a story I wrote about Malkevich’s ties to the Russian government, his involvement in the USA Really website, and disastrous attempts to stage a flash mob event at the White House to celebrate Trump’s 72nd birthday, was picked up by—who else?—The Daily Beast.

Via “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, June 10, 2018:

A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship…aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking…

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

Included in that article was reporting about an unsuccessful attempt by someone at USA Really named Michael to suppress my story:

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, Jones received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Following that article, the story quickly made its way to The Washington Post and Politico, then on to NBC News, NPR, Foreign Policy, and The New York Times.

USA Really (source)

Via “Is a New Russian Meddling Tactic Hiding in Plain Sight?” by Kevin Roose, The New York Times, September 25, 2018:

To an untrained eye, USAReally might look like any other fledgling news organization vying for attention in a crowded media landscape. Its website publishes a steady stream of stories on hot-button political issues like race, immigration and income inequality. It has reader polls, a video section and a daily podcast.

But this is no ordinary media start-up. USAReally is based in Moscow and has received funding from the Federal News Agency, a Russian media conglomerate with ties to the Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” whose employees were indicted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the 2016 presidential election…

Its founder, Alexander Malkevich, is a Russian journalist with little previous experience in American media. Its domain was registered through a Russian company, and its formation was announced in a news release on the Federal News Agency’s website. The project, originally known as “USAReally, Wake Up Americans,” was intended to promote “information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the political elite of the United States,” according to the release…

Mr. Malkevich’s fumbling misadventures in American media have, at times, made him seem more like a Sacha Baron Cohen character than a sinister propagandist. In June, he planned a rally outside the White House, but canceled the event, he said, after failing to obtain the proper permit. He scheduled a round-table discussion about fake news inside a WeWork office in Washington, but his membership was abruptly terminated. An NBC News story about Mr. Malkevich carried the headline, “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to.”

As I reported in an article I co-authored with Lachlan for the Beast, by September FAN and USA Really had become ensnared in the F.B.I.’s probe into Russian election interference.

Via “D.C.-Based Russian Media Venture Boasts that Indicted Kremlin Operative Is Its CFO” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, October 26, 2018:

When federal authorities allege a massive, foreign-government-backed campaign to undermine America’s democratic institutions, the expected reaction from those accused of complicity is to put some distance between themselves and the culprits.

But when Elena Khusyaynova, the alleged financier of a sprawling Russian disinformation effort, was indicted last week, one Russian media outlet rushed to associate itself with the St. Petersburg accountant. USA Really, a conspiratorial website run by a Russian media executive and Kremlin policy adviser, quickly boasted on its website that Khusyaynova was the company’s chief financial officer.

It’s not clear what USA Really hoped to gain through the admission. The site is quick to deny that Russia had any involvement in the 2016 election. But its gleeful association with Khusyaynova suggests that USA Really is not the independent, inquisitive news organization that it claims to be, but rather an adjunct of a deep-pocketed propaganda apparatus that federal prosecutors say amounts to a criminal conspiracy against the United States.

Last month, half a year after my first post, Malkevich and USA Really were officially sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference.”

Via “Treasury Targets Russian Operatives over Election Interference, World Anti-Doping Agency Hacking, and Other Malign Activities,” U.S. Treasury Department, December 19, 2018:

Today, [the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control] designated several entities and individuals related to Project Lakhta, a broad Russian effort that includes the IRA, designated previously under E.O. 13694, as amended, which has sought to interfere in political and electoral systems worldwide…

Within weeks after the designation of the IRA, the Federal News Agency LLC — an entity utilized by Project Lakhta to obscure its activities that was also designated today — announced that it was creating a new Russian-funded, English-language website called USA Really. USA Really, which is operated by Alexander Aleksandrovich Malkevich (Malkevich), engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies. In June 2018, USA Really attempted to hold a political rally in the United States, though its efforts were unsuccessful. As of June 2018, Malkevich was a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, which serves in a consultative role to the Russian government. Based on this activity, USA Really was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for being owned or controlled by the Federal News Agency LLC, while Malkevich was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, USA Really.

Another article I co-authored with Lachlan that made national news told the story of an anonymous editing campaign to whitewash the Wikipedia page of Russian spy Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to engaging in a Kremlin-backed conspiracy to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America. As we reported in our story, the edits traced back to Butina’s D.C. alma mater.

Maria Butina (source)

Via “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)…

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. 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.

The story was subsequently covered on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show:

My last big story for the Beast in 2018 was a collaborative effort with Lachlan and the Beast’s White House reporter Asawin Suebsaeng, about a conscious effort by National Enquirer boss David Pecker to distance himself and his tabloid from Trump, with an assist from Hollywood’s leading talent agency. Take a guess at which part of the story I contributed.

David Pecker (source)

Via “National Enquirer Boss David Pecker Tiptoes Away From His Pal Trump as Scandal Swirls and Circulation Drops” by Asawin Suebsaeng, Dean Sterling Jones, and Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, August 02, 2018:

Shortly after the feds raided the office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s now estranged personal attorney and longtime enforcer, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker went into a state of calculated retreat.

For years, Pecker’s tabloid had promoted and puffed up Trump’s political rise and his presidency. But once a regular fixture on the cover of the National Enquirer, Trump hasn’t appeared on it since an issue dated early May. That appearance was for a cover story on the various scandals swirling around Cohen…

According to multiple sources familiar with the situation, Pecker and the Enquirer’s top brass made a conscious decision to pull back on their pro-Trump coverage, just as Pecker’s media empire found itself increasingly embroiled in Trumpworld’s legal and public-relations woes.

A month after the Enquirer’s last Trump cover, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal authorities had subpoenaed Pecker and other executives at American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the tabloid. They sought records related to allegations that the company purchased the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump, then killed the story for Trump’s benefit, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Prosecutors are exploring whether such an agreement may have constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign by AMI…

As Pecker and his team were distancing themselves from Trump publicly, a more surreptitious effort was underway to cleanse the public record of details of Pecker’s involvement in the McDougal scandal and the AMI boss’s relationship with the president.

Over the course of a week last month, an anonymous Wikipedia user repeatedly tried to scrub Pecker’s page of damaging information regarding his alleged links to the McDougal hush-money scandal, removing huge blocks of text describing Pecker’s and AMI’s roles in paying the model for her story. The edits also removed references to Pecker as “a close friend of Donald Trump” and a supporter of his 2016 presidential campaign in addition to scrubbing mention of a federal investigation of the payment that stemmed from the raid of Cohen’s office (In a recently-leaked tape, Trump told Cohen to make the payment “in cash” to “our friend David,” assumed to be Pecker.)

The origin of the edits was even more interesting. They were made by someone using an I.P. address associated with the high-powered Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor, according to publicly-available web database information. The same I.P. address has been used to edit pages for WME itself, the head of the agency’s literary division, and a number of WME clients.

Click here for a clip of Asawin discussing the story with MSNBC news anchor Katy Tur.

Finally, here’s a quick story I blogged in February about how the Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory, used online job ads to recruit its army of election-meddling “Kremlebots,” then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

Vladimir Putin (source)

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.

The story was subsequently covered by The Hill.

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

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.”

Click here for more stories from 2018.