Round-Up 2019: Creating a Buzz

Hackers, backlinks, and Russian trolls. Revisiting my scoopiest stories of 2019

First up, a perennial thanks to zen master blogger Peter Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman, BuzzFeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman, EIC Ben Smith, and online disinfo chronicler extraordinaire Jane Lytvynenko, Daily Beast EIC Noah Shachtman, reporters Lachlan Markay, Lachlan Cartwright, and Asawin Suebsaeng, Truth or Fiction? Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski, Volokh Conspiracy (via Reason.com) co-founder Eugene Volokh, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing, Foreign Policy reporter Amy Mackinnon, investigative reporter Casey Michel, FoodMed.net editor Marika Sboros, journalist/author Nina Teicholz, online disinfo researcher DivestTrump, and the many editors, copy editors, and lawyers who work hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble.

Big thanks also to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, which in 2019 denied three frivolous legal requests to remove content on this blog, including from the Indian government (click here and here to read Eugene Volokh’s coverage of those requests).

After co-bylining a series of investigative stories for The Daily Beast in 2018, in April I started freelancing for BuzzFeed News. But not before co-bylining one last story with DB’s Lachlan Markay. An update to the Forrest Gumpian saga of Kremlin media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich — who has a knack for popping up in unexpected (and not-so-unexpected) places — the story chronicled Malkevich’s attempts to navigate US Treasury Department sanctions placed on him and his now-infamous Russian propaganda site USA Really in late 2018.

malkevich_standart04032019

Alexander Malkevich (source)

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…”

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…”

Asked about the future of USA Really, he said he is currently exploring ways to navigate the new sanctions while waiting for federal authorities to confirm whether or not he has the right to continue operating in the United States.

“WHY I HAVE THE RIGHT TO RUN MY SITE??????????????,” he replied when asked to elaborate. “1. IT IS MY OWN PROJECT 2. I REALLY LOVE TO WRITE 3. US DIDN’T SUGGEST ME ANYTHING ONLY SANCTIONS NO COMMUNICATION NO LETTERS NO ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS NO COOPERATION.

“I AM REALLY UPSET BECAUSE OF ALL THESE THINGS,” he added. “AND NOW YOU WANT TO CONSRUCT [sic] SOME THEORY OF PLOT AGAINST US?

“WITCH HUNT 2019? ALL ANERICANS [sic] CAN WRITE ANYTHING FOR US.”

Click here to read the full story.

Despite a glowing review of our story by one of USA Really’s American contributors, Malkevich subsequently quit the site to lead the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), a self-described “small non-government organisation” that purportedly conducts sociological research to sell to “businessmen” and “other people who are in need of them.” At FPNV, Malkevich spent the rest of 2019 fending off allegations (including criminal charges against two of FPNV’s employees) that he was involved in Kremlin-backed efforts to interfere in African elections.

In March, I scooped The Atlantic to a story about Alexander Ionov, a gun-toting Russian lawyer, businessman, and financial supporter of fringe secessionist movements across the globe, and who in 2018 launched a fundraising site to help pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills.

Maria Butina (source)

Via “The Enigmatic Russian Paying Maria Butina’s Legal Bills” by Natasha Bertrand, The Atlantic, March 20, 2019:

Maria Butina, the first Russian to plead guilty to seeking to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election, remains somewhat of a mystery. But her prosecution in Washington, D.C., last year shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. New revelations about Butina’s legal-defense fund in Russia shows that one of her backers has been trying to promote fringe separatist movements in the U.S. since well before 2016.

In 2018, Alexander Ionov, the founder of the NGO, called the Anti-Globalization Movement, began raising money for Butina through a fundraising website that says all proceeds will be “used to finance legal protection and to improve the conditions of Maria’s detention in prison.” The website was first discovered by freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones. To date, Ionov has raised about 2 million rubles (approximately $30,000) to help pay her legal fees, he told me in a recent interview. The Russian embassy, which has been advocating for Butina’s release, did not return a request for comment.

Click here to read the full story.

May spawned an unexpected marriage of the above-mentioned stories when Malkevich — whose involvement in USA Really I’d scooped in 2018 (click here for The Daily Beast’s follow up to my story) — told me he’d been paying Butina’s legal bills through Ionov in order to circumvent the financial restrictions that come with being sanctioned. Investigative reporter Casey Michel also wrote about this via his perch at ThinkProgress.

Alexander Ionov (source)

Ionov and Butina’s American attorney Robert Driscoll did not return requests for comment. But at a press conference held in Moscow the following month, Ionov appeared to comment on the two stories by Michel and me, falsely claiming that we had launched a campaign to block the transfer of money.

Via “In Russia, it is Necessary to Create a Fund to Support Compatriots” by Alexander Malkevich, FPNV, July 4, 2019:

Alexander Ionov said that the task now is to do everything possible so that the legal interests and rights of Maria Butina are respected, and this requires the work of lawyers. He hopes that the support provided will help shorten the term of the Russians in prison.

At the same time, he noted that now in the USA psychological pressure is being put on them, including from a number of American media.

“When they saw that there were citizens concerned about the situation, funds transferring money, they began a campaign to counteract the receipt of money by lawyers, so that they would refuse protection,” said Alexander Ionov [emphasis added].

When Butina eventually returned to Moscow, Ionov and Malkevich (holding a bouquet of flowers) were waiting for her at the airport. Butina later penned an article for FPNV headlined “Oh Please, Make Me a Tool of American Propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system.

In April, I wrote my first story for BuzzFeed News, “How A Popular Women’s Website Became A Pay-To-Play Nightmare,” detailing the weird but not-so-wonderful afterlife of once-popular women’s site The Frisky (the story was later cited by the New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review).

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.

In July, I wrote my second deep dive into the often murky world of SEO, “There’s An Underground Economy Selling Links From The New York Times, BBC, CNN, And Other Big News Sites,” about digital marketers who find dead links on mainstream news sites and redirect them to their clients’ sites in order to manipulate Google search results (the story was subsequently translated and republished on BuzzFeed Japan).

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.

In December, I proudly shared my final BuzzFeed News byline of 2019 with the site’s media editor Craig Silverman, a leading authority on online mis/disinformation and author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech (based on the blog of the same name). Our story, “Hackers Are Breaking Into Websites And Adding Links To Game Google,” investigated hackers who break into sites in order to sell backlinks and — yes — manipulate search results.

…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.
Click here for a list of sites not included in our story.

Techdirt Skewers Turkey

Techdirt publishes article based on my blog post re: Erdoğan’s takedown demand of “humiliating” news reports comparing him to Hitler

source

Via “Turkish President Demands Google Delist a Bunch of Websites Comparing Him to Hitler” by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, May 24, 2017:

from the ‘Hitler-was-an-amateur-authoritarian,’-the-president-complained dept

The world’s most thin-skinned “leader” is at it again. Perpetually-insulted Turkish super-villain Recip Erdogan is still firing off court orders to Google, expecting the immediate banishment of anything he finds offensive. Dean Jones of the invaluable Shooting the Messenger has more details:


The Turkish tyrant ordered Google
[Note: actually, Google only dealt with three Blogspot URLs; the rest is addressed to the Internet in general, I guess.] to delist over 40 URLs including a critical report by The Washington Times, plus an AOL image search for “Adolf Erdoğan,” because they allegedly link to “hurtful, humiliating” images and memes.

[…]

The targeted sites had reported about Erdoğan’s recent crackdown on journalists and other critics of the Turkish government, comparing him to Hitler.


Not helping these comparisons is Erdogan’s similar facial structure and his endless vindictive actions against anyone who’s hurt his feelings.

Turkish law gives him considerable leeway to do this. Unfortunately, a small handful of countries have extended helping hands rather than middle fingers in response to censorship and/or prosecution demands. It’s unknown why the Turkish government thought Google could help it out with an AOL image search, but it’s equally unclear why it didn’t ask for the delisting of Google’s image search, which shows virtually-identical results.

The more someone humors this tyrant, the worse he’s going to get. And it certainly doesn’t help that Jones’ report comes on the heels of the Erdogan’s US visit, during which his personal bodyguards beat up American protesters. This prompted a tepid display of disappointment from the US State Department and a much more hot-blooded demand for an apology from the Turkish government US law enforcement daring to interrupt Erdogan’s bodyguards while they were beating up US citizens.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Q&A with Peter Tatchell

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights” – Renowned human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell answers my questions on racism, transphobia and freedom of speech

For over 40 years, British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has worked tirelessly to advance the causes of freedom, civil rights and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

As a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front, Tatchell helped organise Britain’s first gay pride rally in 1972. He is also a founding member oLGBT activist group Outrage!, known for its theatrical style of campaigning and flair for political agitprop.

In February this year, Tatchell was forced to fend off unsubstantiated accusations of racism, transphobia and of having incited violence against transgender people from National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT officer” Fran Cowling.

To recap: Tatchell and Cowling were scheduled to speak at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University on Feb. 15. However, Cowling declined to appear on stage with Tatchell, citing an open letter he had signed in the Observer newspaper last year decrying the NUS’ policy of deplatforming politically unpopular individuals from speaking at universities.

On Feb. 22, over 160 academics and activists signed an open letter condemning Tatchell for “bullying, vilifying, and inciting a media furor” against Cowling (you can read Tatchell’s account of what happened by clicking here).

I contacted Tatchell a few months ago to ask him about the incident with Cowling and the broader issues around freedom of speech. He generously agreed to answer my questions.

Q. Why do you think freedom of speech is so important?

A. Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights and should be defended robustly. It can only be legitimately restricted by the law when it involves harmful libels, harassment, menaces, threats and incitements to violence.

As someone who has risked life and limb for LGBT rights, how do you respond to Cowling’s accusations of transphobia and of inciting violence against transgender people?

She has produced no evidence for those preposterous claims – nor has anyone else. It is pure fabrication.

Are you disappointed in the response from the 160+ academics and activists who signed an open letter condemning you for leaking Cowling’s emails?

Those academics are part of a global network of sectarians who have been attacking me and other activists for several years. They spend more time [complaining] than fighting real racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and corporate power. Their open letter is full of the usual fabrications and unsubstantiated allegations.

What’s your opinion of the NUS policy on “no-platforming” speakers with offensive or politically incorrect views?

No-platforming should be restricted to people who incite violence, such as some far right and Islamist demagogues.

Why is it important that students listen to, engage with and debate people who hold these views?

Hateful and extremist ideas should be challenged, protested and refuted. Bad ideas are most effectively countered by good ideas backed up by rational argument and evidence. Heavy-handed legal restrictions on free speech undermine the democratic, liberal values that extremists oppose and that we cherish.

Bans and censorship don’t defeat bigotry. They merely suppress it. Whereas, exposing bigotry in open debate helps discredit and defeat it, as happened to Nick Griffin and the BNP. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas.

How would you persuade student activists like Cowling, who perhaps don’t know what it’s like for people living in places such as Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe, that free speech is worth fighting for?

Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. It can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence.

A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.

Generations of British people fought and suffered to secure the right to free speech. In many parts of the world people are still suffering for speaking out, including in Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. It is an insult to their sacrifices when students and others are so quick to suppress the free speech of others they disagree with.


To learn more about Peter Tatchell’s humanitarian work, click here.
To subscribe to the Peter Tatchell Foundation’s email bulletins, click here

Disappearing Act

18 co-signers of BMJ retraction request letter are now MIA

I co-authored this item with U.S. (Atlanta, GA) investigative reporter Peter M. Heimlich, who’s cross-posting it at his world-beating blog, The Sidebar.

On November 5, a letter signed by over 180 credentialed professionals, including a number of prominent faculty members at major universities, was sent to the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).

Bonnie Liebman

The letter – organised by Bonnie Liebman MS at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, DC-based advocacy nonprofit – requested that the journal retract The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?, a September 23 article by journalist/author Nina Teicholz that criticised the methodology and findings of the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).

Never heard of the DGAC? Until recently, neither had we.

Dietary Guidelines

We’ll leave it to experts – including the National Academy of Medicine – to debate the scientific issues and the merits of Teicholz’s article.

We’re interested in these journalism-related questions. 

• Why the pile on? Is her article a danger? If so, to whom?
• Instead of trying disappear her article, why not write a letter to the editor or a rebuttal?
• Has CSPI ever organised retraction letters for other articles?
• Have any of the signatories ever requested retractions of other articles?

Re: that last question, part-time unpaid bloggers that we are, Peter and I don’t have the time to ask everyone who signed. However, we will ask the CSPI and the 14 members of the 2015 Guidelines Advisory Committee, all of whom signed the letter.

At the moment we can report that 18 co-signers of the original letter have been deleted from a subsequent version.

What happened is that after receiving the November 5 retraction request, the BMJ published a November 19 post by Executive Editor Theodora Bloom that included:

In line with our usual practice, this will require all signatories to declare their competing interests, which are not provided in a version of the letter posted on the website of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

On December 17, the BMJ posted an updated version of the CSPI letter, absent the names of 18 scientists and grad students.*

We know why one of the co-signers is MIA. As reported on The Sidebar last month, University of Colorado professor and former American Heart Association president Robert Eckel MD e-mailed Peter that he’d removed his name after Peter filed a related public records request with the University.


The names deleted from the letter:

1. Sharon R. Akabas, PhD
Director, MS in Nutrition
Associate Director for Educational Initiatives
Columbia University
Institute of Human Nutrition
New York, New York, USA

2. Carol J. Boushey, PhD, MPH, RD
Associate Research Professor
Epidemiology Program
University of Hawaii Cancer Center
University of Hawaii at Manoa Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

3. Robert H. Eckel
Professor of Medicine
Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes
Division of Cardiology
Professor of Physiology and Biophysics
Charles A. Boettcher II Chair in Atherosclerosis
University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus
Director Lipid Clinic, University Hospital
University of Colorado, Denver
Denver, Colorado, USA

4. Wafaie Fawzi, DrPH
Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences
Professor of Nutrition, Epidemiology, and Global Health
Chair, Department of Global Health and Population
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

5. Enrique Jacoby, MD, MPH
Regional Advisor on Nutrition and Active Living
NMH Pan American Health Organization
World Health Organization
Washington, D.C., USA

6. José Lapetra, MD, PhD
Médico de Familia
Responsable del Grupo de Investigación “Dieta, Nutrición y Prevención de Enfermedades en Atención Primaria”
CIBEROBN, Instituto de Salud Carlos III
Unidad de Investigación del Distrito Sanitario Atención Primaria Sevilla
Sevilla, Spain

7. Graham MacGregor, MA, MB, BChir
Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine
Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine
Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary
University of London
London, United Kingdom

8. Meena Mahadevan, PhD
Associate Professor Program
Coordinator for Applied Nutrition
Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences
Montclair State University
Montclair, New Jersey, USA

9. Salvatore Panico, MD, MS
Professor of Internal Medicine
Federico II University
Naples, Italy

10. Emma Patterson, PhD
Project Manager for School Food Sweden
Community Nutrition and Physical Activity
Karolinska Institutet
Stockholm, Sweden

11. Mike Rayner, DPhil
Professor of Population Health
Director, British Heart
Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention
Nuffield Department of Population Health
University of Oxford
Oxford, United Kingdom

12. Lesley Schmidt Sindberg, MPH
Senior Research Coordinator
Healthy Eating Research
University of Minnesota School of Public Health
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

13. Francisco J. Tinahones, MD, PhD
Professor of Medicine
Director, Endocrinology and Nutrition Services, Hospital Universitario Virgen de la Victoria
Coordinator, Complications of Obesity, CIBEROBN
University of Málaga
Málaga, Spain

14. Dianne S. Ward, EdD
Professor, Department of Nutrition
Gillings School of Global Public Health
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

15. Julia Wärnberg, PhD
Nutritionist
University of Malaga
Malaga, Spain

Graduate Students

16. Stacy Blondin, MSPH
USDA Doctoral Fellow
ChildObesity180
Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
Tufts University
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

17. Larissa Calancie
Doctoral Candidate – Nutrition Interventions and Policy
University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health
UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

18. Violet Kiesel
Graduate Student
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

*Not on the original November 5 letter, but she signed onto the December 17 version.

Rosemary Stanton, PhD, OAM
Visiting Fellow
School of Medical Sciences
University of New South Wales
Sydney, Australia