This Goop Author is Spreading Discredited Pseudoscientific Theories About the Coronavirus

Kelly Brogan, M.D., a New York Times bestselling author/psychiatrist who writes for Gwyneth Paltrow’s alt-med Goop newsletter, has accrued over 30,000 views on Instagram by claiming the coronavirus likely doesn’t exist. [UPDATE: Click here for my follow-up to this story in The Daily Beast.]

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Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a self-proclaimed “lifestyle brand” and online newsletter aimed at “start[ing] hard conversations, crack[ing] open taboos, and look[ing] for connection and resonance everywhere we can find it.”

It’s also a major proponent of pseudoscientific claims and such questionable products as the Jade Egg, an egg-shaped gemstone that purportedly “harness[es] the power of energy work, crystal healing, and a Kegel-like physical practice” when inserted in the vagina. (In 2018, Goop was fined $145,000 in civil penalties for falsely claiming that the $66 egg was able to “balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control.”)

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Now one of Goop’s high-profile contributors is spreading false claims that the novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe, and which has caused over 20,000 deaths worldwide, potentially does not exist.

Kelly Brogan, M.D. — a Manhattan-based holistic psychiatrist and co-author of New York Times bestselling book, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives — made the claim in a March 16 video she originally shared with subscribers of her online “health reclamation” programme, Vital Life Project, then subsequently reposted on her personal site and social media accounts.

In the video, “A Message to Help Dispel Fear,” Brogan claimed that “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus” because “it’s not possible to prove that any given pathogen has induced death,” and that the rising death toll is “likely being accelerated by the fear [of the virus] itself.”

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As of publication, the video has accrued approximately 30,000 views on Brogan’s Instagram account, and has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook. (Brogan has also twice uploaded a version of the video — “by popular request!” — with Spanish subtitles).

Brogan attributed her claims to the late Ryke Geerd Hamer, a German doctor and virulent anti-Semite whose discredited theory of disease, German New Medicine, has resulted in dozens of patient deaths in Europe, the youngest being 12-year-old Susanne Rehklau, who “suffered a painful death” in 2010 after Hamer gave her the all-clear.

According to Hamer, illness and disease are caused by unresolved psychological trauma, with specific traumatic experiences said to correlate with specific physical symptoms. For example, a child who is forced to live under the conservative – or “inflexible” – rule of an overbearing parent might develop rigid joints. A recently-divorced woman might, in the absence of intimate physical touch, develop a skin condition. And so on.

To self-heal, Hamer claimed, patients must disavow conventional western medicine (which he believed was an elaborate Jewish conspiracy involving “death chips”), and learn to overcome their unresolved trauma using non-pharmacological — or “natural” — treatment methods, including talking therapy.

Ryke Geerd Hamer (source)

Medical authorities have widely denounced Hamer’s theories as lacking “any scientific or empirical justification,” and in 1986 he had his medical license permanently revoked in Germany after a number of patients in his care died. He was later convicted and imprisoned multiple times for illegally continuing to put his theories into practice.

In her video, Brogan took a more positive view of Hamer’s contributions to science and medicine.

“German New Medicine has really given me a lot of material to work with around identifying potential emotional conflicts that […] have a method of explaining cancer and contagion that have nothing to do with pathogens,” she said. “Could it be that so-called viruses and bacteria are bystanders […] blamed for being at the scene of the crime, which has another origin that is more complex?”

She also hinted at a global conspiracy orchestrated by an unnamed pro-vaccination group, suggested that viewers should not believe mainstream news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraged them to seek alternative theories in order to “feel that you can live in a story that eases your fear and stablises your nervous system,” and offered her own unfounded fears for the future, as follows:

Because I believe any story other than the one we’re being fed, I can also find myself in a place where I begin to look at future government plans to link our passports with our vaccination records and restriction of travel, and that this being a new normal of this level of totalitarian governmental control that is not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust. This is where my mind can go, and that is extremely fear-inducing for me. Right? And probably as fear-inducing as those who are washing their hands dry.

Comments on posts of the video show that many viewers accepted Brogan’s interpretation of Hamer’s theories.

“MIND BLOWN I needed this message more than I could ever say in words,” read one comment.

“Wondering what you recommend to help start transitioning thought patterns,” read another. “I’d love to look back and say, ‘Oh, that old Steph – bless her, but she believed in infections.'”

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Brogan isn’t the only high-profile Goop contributor who advocates GNM. Habib Sadeghi — a California-based alternative medicine practitioner and author of “Clarity Cleanse: 12 Steps to Finding Renewed Energy, Spiritual Fulfillment, and Emotional Healing” (foreword by Paltrow), and whose fans include Hollywood actors Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, and Tim Robbins — on his site says that he uses GNM to treat patients with chronic illness, including cancer sufferers.

Support for Hamer’s discredited theories has been steadily building in the U.S. and Canada for the past decade. Organisations and people who practice Hamer’s theories include: The International Meta-Medicine Association (IMMA), an LA-based alt-med organisation blamed for causing patient deaths in Norway; The Lifestyle Prescriptions Foundation, run by the founder of IMMA; Melissa Sell, based in California; Biologie Totale, based in Quebec; New Medicine CA/GNM Online Seminars, based in Toronto; and GNM Education, based in Vancouver.

Tommy Robinson Praises Putin, Slams “British Presstitutes” During Whirlwind Tour of Russian Media

The anti-Islam activist pandered to pro-Kremlin media, mingled with a U.S.-sanctioned propagandist, and had some choice words for the British press.

RIA FAN headline (source)

Tommy Robinson, the co-founder and former leader of the anti-Islam English Defence League (EDL), landed in St. Petersburg last week for a whirlwind tour of Russian media, during which he praised Russia’s president, obfuscated Russia’s role in the 2018 poisoning of an ex-KGB agent, mingled with a U.S.-sanctioned propagandist, floated the idea of hosting his own show on Russian TV, and slammed the British press.

Robinson is a controversial figure in Britain. In addition to co-founding the EDL, Robinson has criminal convictions for mortgage fraud, instigating a football riot, assaulting an off-duty police officer, and illegally entering the U.S. using someone else’s passport, among other offences. He also seemingly has a deep affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, naming him “the strongest man in the West” in an interview last Friday with Russian newspaper Evening Moscow. It’s unclear if the feeling is mutual.

Evening Moscow headline (source)

In the same interview, Robinson said that, if the opportunity arose, he would ask Putin to help him fight anti-Russian “censorship and propaganda,” and envisioned a scenario in which Putin let him host his own TV show. Robinson also denied that Russia was responsible for the 2018 poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia, and said if Russia had wanted to “take out” the Skripals, they would have done so quietly without using chemical weapons.

Robinson’s other engagements last week included a speaking gig at a meeting of the Libertarian Party of Russia, a bumpy interview on Russian state-backed TV network Russia Today, and a press conference at the headquarters of Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), a pro-Kremlin tabloid that once suggested that the U.S. orchestrated the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.

At the KP conference, Robinson gave a presentation titled “Rape of Britain,” in which he claimed that “migrants attack young girls or adopt girls and turn them into prostitutes” (possibly referring to a recent report in the Independent). That’s according to the Federal News Agency (FAN), a Russian news site that U.S. prosecutors have linked to Russia’s efforts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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“This is not just about one-off crimes by individuals but about gangs of migrants raping underage British girls,” the FAN quoted Robinson as saying (translation courtesy of Byline Times). “You can’t believe the British media!” he continued. “I’ve seen their manipulations, how they make up lies about me […] That’s why I’m here! Because all these issues are relevant in Russia.”

Robinson shared the stage with, among others, Alexander Malkevich, the former editor of the FAN’s English-language subsidiary USA Really, which is responsible for such false, misleading, and purposefully offensive content as the anti-Semitic “Star of David Spotted Amidst Migrant Caravan: Who’s Behind the Invasion?” Malkevich currently chairs the Civic Chamber Commission on mass media, from which he advises the Russian government on media policy and has called for “information war” in America and Europe.

Malkevich and Robinson (source)

In December 2018, Malkevich, USA Really, and the FAN were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference.” An accompanying statement cited USA Really’s error-ridden, politically divisive content, as well as Malkevich’s calamitous attempts to stage a flash mob at the White House on Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday (the statement mirrored information first reported by this blog). Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the event — which originally included a symphony orchestra — after applying for the wrong permit. USA Really later blamed the error on a deep state conspiracy.

Malkevich returned to the States in November 2018 as a journalist covering the U.S. midterms for the FAN. During that trip, he gatecrashed a November 6 election night party at Washington D.C.’s National Press Club, from which he spuriously reported that he’d been accosted by security for Trump nemesis/Nike blackmail lawyer Michael Avenatti. Malkevich was later briefly detained and questioned by the FBI.

On Friday, Malkevich posted on Russian social media that he is acting as Robinson’s “producer,” and is “ready to consider offers” for Robinson to “become a host on Russian TV.” He also said that he and Robinson planned to launch the “StopTwitter international public initiative,” aimed at fighting against “Internet monopolists” (both men have been banned by various social media platforms, including Twitter). The post included a photo of the two men shaking hands at the KP event.

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Robinson didn’t return a request for comment. Instead, he posted a screenshot of tweets by me and Brendan Cox — husband of murdered British politician Jo Cox — on his recently launched Telegram account. In an accompanying comment, he called us “British Presstitutes” and denied any suggestion that he’d made money from his various engagements in Russia.

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BBC Monitoring: Russian “Troll Factory” Cries Foul Over U.S. Ad Removal

I wrote this story for BuzzFeed News, then I was targeted by a Russian disinfo campaign. BBC Monitoring reports

Earlier this month, I bylined a story in BuzzFeed News, “A Russian Propagandist Ran An Ad In The Washington Post — And Then Ran Victory Laps In Russian Media.”

After that story was published, a bunch of Russian news sites — including members of Patriot Media Group, which is run by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal chef — ran what appeared to be a coordinated disinformation campaign in a seeming effort to discredit my reporting.

Via “Russian ‘troll factory’ cries foul over US advert removal” by Olga Robinson, BBC Monitoring, February 21, 2020:

Russian news outlets with links to a St Petersburg “troll factory” have accused US media of “censorship” after the Washington Post removed a controversial pro-Kremlin advert that briefly appeared on its website.

The advert — written in the form of an open letter — was placed in late January by Alexander Malkevich, the former editor of the English-language USA Really site, which has been linked by the US Treasury to Russia’s troll operation.

It called for the release of political strategist Maxim Shugalei, who was arrested along with his interpreter, Samer Hassan Ali Seifan, in Libya last year, on suspicion of trying to influence upcoming elections in the country…

The removal of the advert hit the headlines of at least three dozen sensationalist and pro-Kremlin Russian news websites, including USA Really and at least four other outlets that have links to the troll factory…

The Russian websites also hit back at another US publication, BuzzFeed News, over its reporting of the story. They quoted Malkevich as saying that the US security services interfered with the BuzzFeed reporting of the ad controversy and forced its journalists to twist his comments.

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“BuzzFeed has confirmed that ahead of the publication of the article about censorship in the US media, employees of the security services approached the editorial office and strongly recommended that the essence of the article be changed,” the RIA FAN article said.

As a result, RIA FAN added, the report became a “powerful anti-Russian article in which Malkevich was described as a propagandist”.

Speaking to the BBC, the author of the Buzzfeed story, Dean Sterling Jones, denied the allegations. “In reality, I was never contacted by US security agents and all comments attributed to Malkevich are exactly as he provided,” he said.

When contacted by BuzzFeed, Malkevich “spuriously claimed that the US National Security Agency had forced the Washington Post to pull his ad”, Sterling Jones added.

“BuzzFeed News chose not to publish that claim because we didn’t want to give him a platform to spread false information…”

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[Malkevich] has a history of spreading conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims about the West in Russian media. Earlier this year, he claimed — without any evidence — that the Ukrainian Boeing shot down by Iran may have been downed by a US drone and accused the West of spreading fake news about the new coronavirus.

“This is just another attempt by Malkevich to, in his words, wage ‘information war,’ seemingly in order to pollute the narrative and stir up anti-American feelings back home,” said Sterling Jones, commenting on Malkevich’s latest allegations about the US media.

Click here to read the full story.

Muck Rack Verified (Then Unverified) These Seemingly Fake Journalists

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

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

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

You can check out Vujinovic’s feminist credentials here:

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

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

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

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

Here’s Mikonoss’ verified profile on Muck Rack:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Equally unsurprising 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.