Muck Rack Verified (Then Unverified) These Seemingly Fake Journalists

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

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

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

You can check out Vujinovic’s feminist credentials here:

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

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

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

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

Here’s Mikonoss’ verified profile on Muck Rack:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

More on the Global Trade in Hacked Links

“None of this surprises me. Every one of my accounts including my IRS account has been hacked,” said former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin

This is an addendum to a recent story I co-bylined with BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman (click here to read). Our story — about online marketers who sell links from hacked sites in order to game Google search results — included an investigation of Russia’s Sape.ru, a major player in the hacked links industry.

Here are some notable sites found in Sape’s database that weren’t included in our story. I’ll continue to add sites as I find them.

NiemanStoryboard.org

An offshoot of The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. No Sape links were found on this site. The site’s editors did not reply to requests for comment.

TheVeteran.org

The online home of VVA Veteran, a magazine published by the U.S. government-chartered Vietnam Veterans of America. A review of the site found links to sites advertising replica watches and online gambling. It appears that an online marketer bought over and plagiarised the site’s content after VVA dropped the domain in 2014. Asked to comment, VVA’s chief investigator Kristofer Goldsmith confirmed that VVA no longer owns the site.

“VVA’s brand is often exploited because over the decades it’s become a trusted source for information and opportunities for veterans,” Goldsmith explained.

MariaCristinaFoundation.org

Official site of the Bill Clinton-endorsed UK children’s charity, founded in 2005 by namesake Maria Conceição. A review of the site found links to online product reviews. Conceição did not return multiple requests for comment.

Shirley-Franklin.com

The personal website of the former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. A review of the site found links to sites advertising an electric spice grinder and “MILF Porn.” Asked to comment, Franklin said:

None of this surprises me. Every one of my accounts including my IRS account has been hacked. No one tells you to expect such, when you run for office or share your email address and phone number with 7000 APS seniors over 5 years as you help them with college planning or answer hundreds of your own emails as an elected official. Your name gets around.

It’s unclear whether or not Franklin currently owns the site.

Wyandotte-Nation.org

Official website of the Oklahoma-based Native American tribe of the same name. A review of the site found links to sites promoting online gaming, testosterone boosters, and car insurance deals. The site did not reply to requests for comments.

SandiToksvig.com

Promotional site for the British comedienne and QI presenter of the same name. No Sape links were found on this site. Unable to reach Toksvig for comment.

LennyHenry.net

Official site of the British comedian of the same name. No Sape links were found on this site. Unable to reach Henry for comment.

WomansCoop.com

An online meeting place for “low and no-income women” from Battle Creek, Michigan. After appearing on the Sape network, pages on the site were visibly bombarded with lines of code, including numerous direct references to “$sape_links.”

The site did not return multiple requests for comment, although the code was subsequently removed.

BadJens.com

Online feminist newsletter founded by the late Mahsa Shekarloo, an Iranian women’s rights activist. A review of the site found links to sites advertising online gambling and betting apps. It’s unclear who currently owns the site.

NWARapeCrisis.com

Official site for Arkansas-based rape crisis center. A review of the site found links to one site selling wireless headphones and another site for reporting Russian and Ukrainian dating scams. The site’s executive director did not return a request for comment. It’s unclear who currently owns the site.

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.

Twitter and Reddit Suspend Accounts Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Russian Propaganda Site

Russian troll factory-linked news site USA Really is struggling to connect with American voters ahead of 2020 election

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For the second year in a row, Twitter and Reddit have suspended accounts belonging to sanctioned Russian propaganda website USA Really, one of a number of shady news outlets allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s Cook.”

It’s the latest setback in a series of misplaced attempts by the site to cultivate an American audience.

Launched in May last year as a U.S.-facing adjunct of Russia’s Federal News Agency, the site initially presented itself as a homegrown, independent news and storytelling platform. However, the site quickly gained notoriety when its calamitous efforts to stage a flash mob at the White House fell flat.

In December, the site, its parent company, and its founder, bumbling Kremlin policy adviser Alexander Malkevich, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in connection with Project Lakhta, a massive social media influence campaign that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Under Malkevich’s leadership, USA Really “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies,” the Treasury Department said in an accompanying statement, which mirrored reporting first published by this blog.

In February, as U.S. tech companies severed ties with USA Really and the site’s American contributors fled, Malkevich resigned his editorship. Under current editor Leonid Savin — who previously edited the pro-Putin think tank Katehon — the site has continued to publish politically contentious content.

Leonid Savin (source)

In July, the site quietly registered new Twitter and Reddit accounts in a seeming attempt to mount a second social media influence campaign ahead of the upcoming 2020 election. The site’s reappearance highlights how propagandists and other bad actors are easily able to thwart even the most vigilant of social media platforms.

Asked to comment, Twitter quickly suspended the new account, which USA Really had been using primarily to post links back to its site.

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After multiple inquiries, Reddit also removed USA Really from its platform, putting an end to a racist, sexist, and homophobic commenting campaign that appeared to follow Russian troll factory directives for posting online.

“The account in question has been banned in accordance with our site-wide policies,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement.

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The intentionally offensive comments were posted across at least 25 different hot-button subreddits, including r/progun, r/republicans, r/SandersForPresident, r/conspiracy, r/WikiLeaks, r/Feminism, r/MensRights, and even r/gaybros, a support group for “those of us who are gay and trying to leave the parTy scene.”

In other words, exactly what you might expect from a Russian troll account.

Surprisingly, the issues USA Really argued over most vehemently weren’t guns or politics, but climate change (“What is the essence of this whining about melted ice?”), and — stranger still — the legalisation of topless bathing (“We can only imagine how many lawsuits will be directed against men who, not knowing the age of a minor, but an adult looking, will look at her bare breasts”).

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Less surprising was the site’s targeting of Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, known for her advocacy of progressive policies such as the Green New Deal.

In July, someone posted a video of Tlaib heckling Donald Trump on the r/republicans subreddit. The video soon caught the attention of USA Really, who, using the handle “usaUNreally,” wasted no time firing off a disparaging comment.

“She need a better bra,” wrote usaUNreally, in perhaps one of the most childish examples of professional trolling ever published to the Internet.

Last month, usaUNreally struck again when a commenter on the r/Conservative subreddit asked why the House of Representatives had not opened a sexual misconduct investigation into Tlaib’s friend and colleague, Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

“[It’s] because she is only capable of incest,” replied usaUNreally, alluding to an unfounded rumour that she’d married her brother.

Ilhan Omar (source)

On the r/Conspiracy subreddit, usaUNreally turned to the topic of immigration, playing up xenophobic claims that illegal immigrants had secretly invaded a Californian town on a fleet of buses.

“Democrats,” wrote usaUNreally, “buy votes, but insolently bring ‘electorate’ from abroad. What we have in line … Reparations, bribery of Jewish communities, satisfaction of other ethnic minorities, gay voices will be valued twice as much as a heterosexual white man. Welcome aboard!”

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In a race-baiting rant on the r/PublicFreakout subreddit, usaUNreally just stopped short of using a racist expletive.

“the question is as old as the sea,” usaUNreally pontificated. “but explain why white people shouldn’t call African-Americans a n-word (they always say this to each other), but black can use the word “white” (snow white)?”

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Elsewhere, usaUNreally defended using violence against women.

“I’m not protecting this exact guy,” explained usaUNreally, referring to a video in which an alleged batterer gets his comeuppance. “But sometimes women behave as men, so if they demands the same attitude to themselves they should handle what they deserve.”

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DivestTrump, an online disinformation researcher who outed USA Really’s attempts to infiltrate r/The_Donald subreddit last year (as reported by Newsweek, BuzzFeed News, and NBC News), said that despite the site’s lack of success this time around, the end goal remained the same.

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“Their traffic plummeted after the previous bans and they’re clearly trying to rebuild an audience,” DivestTrump tweeted from an undisclosed location. “Their endgame hasn’t changed. They exist to heighten divisions, sow distrust in our own government, and push a Russian agenda in America.”

USA Really’s editor did not reply to a request for comment.

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 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)

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.

Rudy Giuliani and the Alleged Assassination Threat: Don’t Miss This Weird Subplot in the Trump-Ukraine Scandal

In May, indicted Rudy Giuliani stooges Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman claimed they were forced to flee Ukraine after their lives were threatened by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who’d rebuffed the two men’s dirt-digging request re: the Bidens

— On Twitter, Giuliani publicly pressured Ukraine’s president to prosecute Kolomoisky as a “test” of his commitment to Trump. Parnas and Fruman later sued Kolomoisky after taking Giuliani’s legal advice

Rudy Giuliani (source)

Donald J. Trump is facing the possibility of impeachment following allegations he tried to coerce Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating a domestic political rival.

The alleged quid pro quo involves claims that Trump threatened to withhold $400 million in foreign aid unless Zelensky agreed to investigate 2020 Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as part of a debunked conspiracy theory regarding the origins of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier.

Biden, Trump falsely claimed, had sought the dismissal of Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general in order to protect his son from a criminal investigation into Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose board the younger Biden sat on from April 2014 through early 2019.

The story escalated earlier this month when Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, clients of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, were arrested at Dulles International Airport trying to board a one-way flight to Ukraine. The two men, both foreign-born U.S. citizens, are accused of engaging in a complex campaign finance scheme “to circumvent the federal laws against foreign influence.” The alleged scheme was first reported last year by Daily Beast political reporter Lachlan Markay (to read stories I co-authored with Lachlan, click here).

Lev Parnas (source)

Since their arrest, Parnas and Fruman’s exploits have headlined every major news outlet in America, not least for their ill-fated attempts to help Giuliani dig dirt on Trump’s political rivals. But there’s a weird subplot in this story that has largely gone unreported.

In May, Parnas and Fruman claimed they were forced to flee Ukraine after Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky threatened to have them assassinated. According to Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, the two men claimed that Kolomoisky was “preparing to kill” them after he promised to bring them “to the light of God” in an interview. As it happens, it’s not the first time Kolomoisky has been accused of ordering contract killings, among other misdeeds.

source

Here is the relevant portion from that interview, in which Kolomoisky said that Parnas and Fruman — whom he described as Ostap Benders (a fictional conman from Russian literature) — had traveled to Israel to ask him “to communicate with Zelensky” about an undisclosed matter. Note Kolomoisky’s initial skepticism that the two men had any actual connection to Giuliani, as claimed.

There are two scams under investigation by the US. One seems to be Lev Parnas and the other [Igor Fruman]. And they go here Ukraine, collect money from people, tell them that they are close to Mr. Giuliani — and that they will resolve any question with [Ukraine’s former prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko]. Mr. Lutsenko does not even know it. And, I think, Mr. Giuliani doesn’t know about that either. Two Ostap Benders who walk between two countries and tell all sorts of things … And in the near future, believe me, we will bring these two “little ones” to the light of God. Lest they think … Remember these two names: Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They came to Israel and told me how I needed to communicate with Zelensky. I said — I have nothing to do with Zelensky. After that, they disappeared — and then began all these provocations…

One day later, Giuliani tweeted the following:

source

If you can’t read that, it says:

An American analyst describes Kolomoisky as “super dangerous.” The notorious oligarch returned from a long exile and immediately threatened and defamed two Americans, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They are my clients and I have advised them to press charges [emphasis added].

— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) 18 May 2019

In another tweet one minute later, Giuliani attempted to publicly pressure the Ukrainian president into prosecuting Kolomoisky as a “test” of his commitment to Trump.

source

If you can’t read that, it says:

This is a test for the Pres.-elect [Zelensky].He already has surrounded himself with some people that are enemies of Pres.Trump. Now this notorious oligarch is said to also have people around him. Kolomoisky should be prosecuted for the threat. Let’s see?It will tell us a lot about control?

— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) May 18, 2019

A few days later, Kolomoisky gave an interview to Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda, in which he clarified that Parnas and Fruman had in fact been seeking to strike a deal with Lutsenko to investigate the Bidens. Via The Washington Post, whose article on Kolomoisky’s involvement doesn’t go into detail about the alleged death threat:

“Look, there is Giuliani, and there [are] two clowns, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were milking the bull here. They are Giuliani’s clients,” Kolomoisky told the Ukrainska Pravda website. “They came here and told us that they would organize a meeting with Zelensky. They allegedly struck a deal with [Prosecutor-general Yuriy] Lutsenko about the fate of this criminal case – Burisma, [former vice president] Biden, meddling in the U.S. election and so on.”

Ihor Kolomoisky (source)

In July, Ukrainian attorney Alina Samarets filed a UAH 200 million (roughly $8 million) lawsuit on behalf of Parnas and Fruman, alleging that Kolomoisky had “damaged the honor, dignity and business reputation of two American citizens who are ‘respected businessmen in their country.'”

In comments to Radio Liberty, Parnas commented on the case:

It is all a lie that we are scammers, that we ask for money from someone, or that we have criminal cases in America … Why did he present such threats to us, such dangerous statements, I cannot explain, we are shocked. We fear for our lives. That’s why we wrote the statements. All we do is recommend our advocates. The lead lawyer is Rudy Giuliani [emphasis added].

Did Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman try to suppress Kolomoisky’s allegations by filing a frivolous lawsuit? What was Giuliani’s involvement in the case? Is the lawsuit ongoing? It’s unclear because nobody I contacted returned a request for comment.

I’ve requested a copy of any court documents related to the case and will post here if/when they become available.

Update, October 24, 2019: It appears the lawsuit has been settled after Kolomoisky countersued. Via Kolomoisky’s August 30 interview with Ukrainian news site, Censor.net:

I came from Israel to Ukraine. Two people who were somehow connected with Giuliani filed a criminal case against me in court, but I filed a counterclaim so that they no longer popped off. I think the reason is that some Americans came to Giuliani and said that this is what we are striving for, a certain oligarch is hindering us. Well, Giuliani said something there…

They needed a connection with Zelensky. They came to me by mistake, they were told that I can provide. [Former Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko said that Zelensky is someone’s puppet. Well, they obeyed this nonsense and ran to me: “Can I meet Zelensky?” Me: “You were mistaken with the address.” They were upset, offended, went to complain…

[But now] the conflict with Furman and Parnassus has been exhausted and will end with an amicable agreement.

BuzzFeed News reports that Giuliani does not appear to be replying to any requests for comments and, according to CNN, is currently shopping for a defence attorney. Early this morning, however — after I sent him a link to this post, and just a few minutes after I sent him a final invitation to comment — Giuliani tweeted the following from his iPhone:

source

If you can’t read that, it says:

With all the Fake News let me make it clear that everything I did was to discover evidence to defend my client against false charges.Dems would be horrified by the attacks on me, if my client was a terrorist.But they don’t believe @realDonaldTrump has rights. Justice will prevail

— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) October 24, 2019

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.

Who Asked Google to Delist Negative News Reports About Trump’s Pseudoscientific Urine Test Marketing Scheme?

Between May and August 2018, someone anonymously sent Google at least eight legal complaints in an effort to scrub the Internet of negative reporting about The Trump Network, a scammy multi-level marketing scheme that sold customised urine tests. Trump is currently being sued for his involvement in the scheme

source

President Donald J. Trump is currently being sued for lending his name to three multi-level marketing (MLM) companies plaintiffs allege amounted to massive consumer fraud. But just two months prior to that lawsuit being filed, someone sent Google a series of anonymous legal complaints in a surreptitious attempt to scrub negative news reports about one of those companies from the Internet.

Alleging defamation, the unknown complainant sought to remove reporting by The Washington Post, STAT News, and Quackwatch, that cast a critical eye on the now-defunct Trump Network, a new-age, pseudoscientific MLM scheme that purportedly offered “millions of people new hope with an exciting plan to opt-out of the recession” and “develop your own financial independence.”

At least, that’s how Trump pitched the company in a shouty 2009 pre-launch video aimed at prospective recruits. In reality, the company was a “thinly disguised pyramid scheme” that tried “to use people[’]s hopes and dreams to empty their wallets,” according to allegations published by The Washington Post in March 2016.

Originally named Ideal Health, the company invited independent salespeople to do their own marketing to sell a customised vitamin supplement package, which was determined by conducting urine hormone tests using the company’s signature product, the PrivaTest. But experts questioned the test’s medical value.

“Urine tests do not provide a legitimate basis for recommending that people take dietary supplements,” wrote Quackwatch founder Stephen Barrett in 2003 (to read STAT News’ definitive report on The Trump Network, click here).

source

In 2011, Trump’s licensing deal with Ideal Health expired and was not renewed. The assets were then sold to a “health and wellness” company named Bioceutica, which until last year was still selling the rebranded Trump Network vitamin packages and urine tests.

The identity of the mystery defamer claimer remains unclear, but the wording used by the unknown complainant strongly suggests that Bioceutica, or someone acting on behalf of Bioceutica, filed the complaints.

Here is an example of one of the complaints from June 2018 that sought to remove the Washington Post’s reporting. Via the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown demands:

Defamation Complaint to Google

SENDER
REDACTED
COUNTRY: US

RECIPIENT
Google LLC
[Private]
Mountain View, CA, 94043, US

SUBMITTER
Google LLC

Re: Unknown
SENT VIA: UNKNOWN

NOTICE TYPE: Defamation

Legal Complaint
Dear Google, I want to discuss the defamatory page that has been created, and I wish to submit it for removal from google searches for ‘Bioceutica’. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/23/the-trump-network-sought-to-make-people-rich-but-left-behind-disappointment/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.90919a6e392f I have familiarised myself with Google’s defamation policy and have determined that the web page was clearly made to make my company appear fraudulent and deceptive. Defamation is defined as “the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image.” This webpage is suggesting that the Bioceuitca brand runs under a multi-level marketing system, through the term ‘as part of a controversial business model known as multilevel marketing, in which companies pay salespeople commissions for se …

And here is another complaint from April 2018 that sought to remove Quackwatch’s “Scaremongerish claims against Bioceutica’s PrivaTest”:

Defamation Complaint to Google

SENDER
REDACTED
COUNTRY: GB

RECIPIENT
Google LLC
[Private]
Mountain View, CA, 94043, US

SUBMITTER
Google LLC

Re: Unknown
SENT VIA: UNKNOWN

NOTICE TYPE: Defamation

Legal Complaint
I would like this URL omitted from the search results for ‘Bioceutica’ and ‘Privatest’. I understand that this will not remove the above URL from the internet entirely, but it will prevent this URL from being prominent in the searches for the above terms. The above URL is for a site that states itself as ‘Your Guide to Quackery, Health Fraud, and Intelligent Decisions’. And makes outdated, false, and Scaremongerish claims against Bioceutica’s PrivaTest. It claims that the company is making ‘Illegal Health Claims’, However, the documents it cites containing these illegal health claims are the creation and property of ‘Ideal Health’. This is despite the author earlier confirming that Ideal Health sold the PrivaTest to Antoine Nohra of Montreal, Canada thus becoming the property Bioceutica. This means subsequently, that Ideal Health’s 28-page “Opportunity Presentation” which the author states contains illegal claims is in no way r …

To read the complaint against STAT News, click here.

It does not appear that Google has removed any of the targeted URLs from its search results.

Bioceutica’s founder Antoine Nohra did not reply to a request for comment, although a message on the Bioceutica website says the company ceased operations in September 2018.