Round-Up 2020: A Pandemic of False Information

My top stories of 2020, from Kelly Brogan’s coronavirus conspiracies to Charlie Sheen’s unwitting involvement in a bizarre Russian propaganda campaign.

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 saw an explosion of false information. On social media, purveyors of pseudoscience like David “Avocado” Wolfe, who claims that gravity is a toxin that can be combated by hanging upside down, peddled baseless conspiracy theories to their millions of followers. Meanwhile, Trump actively sowed distrust of science by pandering to the most irrational impulses of his supporters, even encouraging them to “rise up” against lockdown measures.

In other words, lots to write about.

One of 2020’s loudest coronavirus conspiracists was Dr. Kelly Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist associated with Goop, the pseudoscience company founded by actor Gwyneth Paltrow. I wrote about Brogan for The Daily Beast in March after she posted a video online falsely claiming, among other things, that the virus potentially does not exist. She is currently being investigated by the New York Department of Health related to those claims.

2020 also saw a widespread effort by the Chinese Communist Party to downplay its initial failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak, including running paid advertorials in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that pushed the party line. I scooped the story for BuzzFeed News in April, after which the Telegraph cut ties with the two Chinese state-funded news outlets that ran the ads.

Elsewhere, I co-reported my personal favourite story of the year with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon, published an exclusive in the Daily Beast, was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign, and saw my reporting cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, a joint Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory report on Russian disinformation, and an MIT-published book about Wikipedia’s first 20 years.

You can find links to all of the above-mentioned stories (and more) via the round-up below.

A big thank you to everyone who worked hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble, including (but not limited to): zen master blogger/independent reporter Peter M. Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman; BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman; BuzzFeed News deputy tech editor Scott Lucas; Foreign Policy global geopolitics correspondent Keith Johnson; Foreign Policy national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon; Daily Beast senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern; and Guardian media editor Jim Waterson.

1. “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” co-byline with Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy, September 23, 2020:

Russian headline touting Sheen’s video (source)

Do not give up, freedom will come,” said one-time sitcom actor Charlie Sheen, standing in what appeared to be his kitchen, jabbing his finger at the camera. “Freedom is, is, is, is in your future, on your horizon,” he stammered.

His audience? Maxim Shugaley, a Russian political consultant and operative who has been imprisoned in Libya for over a year, accused of meddling in the country’s chaotic internal conflict—a fight that Russia is very much in the thick of. Sheen, alongside actors Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren, seems to have been unwittingly recruited to record messages of support for Shugaley through the pay-for-videos website Cameo.

This story was listed in Foreign Policy’s top five Russia stories of 2020 (click here to read), and was cited in a joint report by Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory, published December 15, 2020 (click here to read).

2. “A British Newspaper Has Given Chinese Coronavirus Propaganda A Direct Line To The UK,” via BuzzFeed News, April 1, 2020:

Now-deleted People’s Daily Online feature via the Telegraph (source)

When medical authorities in China claimed they’d cured more than 750 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, using pseudoscience, one major British newspaper made sure there was space for China’s party line on the story.

“Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus,’” declared the March 3 headline, in the online version of the Daily Telegraph. Without any evidence, the article claimed that the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine had tested an unidentified “prescription” on 804 patients, and that “by the end of 14 February,” it had proven “effective in 94 per cent of the cases.”

The article was published in a section of the Telegraph’s site called People’s Daily Online […] the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.

Shortly after publication, this story was updated to reflect that “the Telegraph appeared to have removed the People’s Daily Online site in its entirety” and “also appeared to have removed China Daily’s China Watch feature.”

3. “Daily Telegraph stops publishing section paid for by China,” co-byline with Jim Waterson for The Guardian, April 14, 2020:

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The Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing paid-for propaganda on behalf of Chinese state media, amid growing scrutiny of how Beijing is using the pandemic to grow its influence in English-language media aimed at western audiences.

The long-running China Watch section, funded by the government-controlled China Daily news outlet, has appeared in the Telegraph for more than a decade. The content, written by Chinese state journalists, presents relentlessly upbeat views on China’s standing in the world in both print supplements and on a branded section of the Telegraph’s website.

However, in recent days the dedicated content has been wiped from the Telegraph’s website along with another section that reproduced material from China’s People’s Daily Online – the official outlet of the country’s ruling communist party.

This story was cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, published November 18, 2020 (click here to read).

4. “The Gwyneth Paltrow-Approved Doctor Pushing Wacky Coronavirus Conspiracies,” via The Daily Beast, March 25, 2020:

Kelly Brogan’s website (source)

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “modern lifestyle brand” Goop announced it was closing stores in the U.S. and U.K. to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, Paltrow’s psychiatrist-associate Kelly Brogan, a high-profile Goop contributor, has racked up tens of thousands of views on social media spreading discredited pseudoscientific claims that the coronavirus might not even exist, and that symptoms attributed to the virus are likely being caused by widespread fear.

The claims were made in a widely shared video posted on Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), and Vimeo last week by Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist, New York Times bestselling author, AIDS denialist, anti-vaxxer, and, according to Goop, a “trusted expert” and recent contributor to its site and live events…

In a March 22 letter shared with The Daily Beast, [medical fraud researcher Peter M. Heimlich] asked the Office of Professional Medical Conduct [OPMC], which is a branch of the New York State Department of Health, to determine whether Brogan misrepresented her board certifications online.

This story made international headlines, with coverage in BBC News, The New York Post, The Independent, the Evening Standard, Business Insider, and more. Shortly after publication, Brogan removed all three claimed board certifications from her site. Goop has since scrubbed all of Brogan’s content from its site and the OPMC has opened an investigation of her psychiatry license.

5. “A Russian Propagandist Ran An Ad In The Washington Post — And Then Ran Victory Laps In Russian Media,” via BuzzFeed News, February 6, 2020:

Malkevich’s ad in the Washington Post (source)

The Washington Post may have violated US government sanctions when it ran an ad online from Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich — and handed a propaganda coup to a man who appears to have been part of Russia’s interference with the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and has been pushing false information to sow political chaos across the globe.

Malkevich, the chair of the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP), a Moscow-based think tank, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he paid for the ad posted on Jan. 30, an open letter addressed to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, calling on him to release two Russian nationals…

The United States currently forbids business transactions with Malkevich after he was sanctioned in 2018 for “attempted election interference” while working as the editor of the Russian propaganda site USA Really (he has since left the site).

This story was cited in the above-mentioned Graphika/Stanford report. It was also the subject of controversy in Russia, making headlines on news sites controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin. As reported by BBC Monitoring (click here to read), Malkevich falsely accused me of taking orders from the U.S. government. “The death of American journalism,” read one of the Russian headlines.

6. “How a Playboy Model Exposed an Online Child-Porn Scam,” via the Daily Beast, May 6, 2020:

Leng Yein (source)

Earlier this year, Malaysian DJ and Playboy model Leng Yein began receiving messages from young and underage female fans begging her for help. They said they were victims of an elaborate scam orchestrated by users on Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and other popular social media platforms.

Posing as modeling agents, friends, and ex-lovers, among other fake and stolen identities, the perpetrators falsely promised money and prizes, such as iPhones, in exchange for nude photos and videos, which were later sold and published online without victims’ consent…

Yein’s fans are victims of a massive, highly organized online porn ring, according to Internet Removals, an Australian reputation management and takedown company. Since February, the company has worked with Yein […] to remove more than 136,000 of the offending photos and videos from Mega, the New Zealand hosting site.

This story was picked-up by The Sun and Inside Hook, available to read by clicking here and here.

7. “The Economist Disappears ‘Advertisement Feature’ Paid for by Chinese State-Backed Paper,” via this blog, August 10, 2020:

Now-deleted Beijing Review feature via the Economist (source)

…The Economist, the international weekly newspaper, has disappeared an “advertisement feature” on its site paid for by the CCP-backed Beijing Review.

The section, dubbed “China Focus,” included titles such as “Western Take on Coronavirus: Schadenfreude, Xenophobia and Racism” by Beijing Review associate executive editor Liu Yunyun. Her article claimed that “Accusations [by western news and media outlets] of the [Chinese] government hiding the scope of the disease” are based on “Rumors, misinformation and fears,” and that “Global readers are largely kept in the dark” about how “China is sacrificing its own economy to keep the world safe.”

That article, and others like it, were previously available via the subdomain, chinafocus.economist.com. But now when you click on that link, you’re directed to an HTTP 503 error page…

The 503 error page went up shortly after I emailed The Economist’s global communications SVP Lauren Hackett on April 16 asking her to comment on a petition by British non-profit advocacy group Free Tibet, calling on western media outlets to “STOP SPREADING CCP PROPAGANDA…”

Hackett and The Economist did not reply to multiple follow-up emails I sent asking the paper to clarify whether it had cut ties with the Beijing Review.

This story was covered by Radio Free America’s Tibetan service, which interviewed me for my first-and-only video interview (complete with shaggy coronavirus-lockdown hair):

8. “Rupert Murdoch-Owned Tabloid Retracts Article That Shamed NY Paramedic For Selling Nude Photos During Pandemic,” via this blog, December 14, 2020:

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“HEARTS RACING: Paramedic is ‘making ends meet’ by sharing XXX-rated pics on OnlyFans,” read the now-deleted Dec. 12 headline, published on The Sun’s website.

The article, by reporter Danielle Cinone, detailed the online exploits of 23-year-old Lauren Caitlyn Kwei, a paramedic from New York who began selling nude photos on subscription content website OnlyFans to supplement her income during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sun deleted its article — a re-reporting of an equally salacious New York Post story — after the Post was accused of shaming Kwei for (her words) “just trying to make ends meet…”

The Post and The Sun are owned by News Corp, a U.S. media conglomerate founded in 2012 by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This story was picked-up by The Wrap and Mediaite, available to read by clicking here and here.

Cambridge Analytica-Linked Data Company Behind Trump Phone-Canvassing Campaign

GOP-funded websites managed by data-mining firm Bridgetree, Inc. allowed users to canvass for Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania.

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In an effort to rally support for incumbent Donald J. Trump in the lead-up to election day, the Republican National Committee hired a data-harvesting firm whose services were once sought by Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced U.K. political consulting company behind Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign.

Bridgetree, Inc., based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has been driving votes for Trump in battleground states going back as far as April this year, via the websites TrumpTalk.gop and TrumpTalk20.gop. The sites allowed users to “make calls to Americans across our great country” by “[turning] your computer into a anonymous phone system,” according to a Facebook post by Edwin Boyette, Vice Chair of Communications for the Hawaii Republican Party.

Once logged in, users were given access to a database of voter information (including full names, phone numbers, and addresses), then instructed to call voters to ask them to vote for Trump using scripted questions, such as “can President Trump […] count on you to vote early?” and “will you commit [to] vote absentee for President Trump?” Calls could be placed automatically from one voter to the next using the communications system LiveVox, with seemingly no oversight.

The sites were “Paid for by the Republican National Committee,” and directed users to “please contact us at gophelp@bridgetree.com.”

Here is a video tutorial by Bridgetree explaining the process for calling voters:

Bridgetree’s association with the two Trump Talk sites was first highlighted in a Twitter thread by disinformation researcher @DivestTrump. Bridgetree’s “advertised focus,” @DivestTrump notes, was “Operation Keystone,” a “massive grassroots […] phone-banking effort” in which “the fate of Pennsylvania” was said to “[hang] between the raging forces of good and the evil communists,” according to a pseudonymous post on TheDonald.win, named after the recently banned subreddit.

As of publication, Biden is leading in Pennsylvania with a clear path to the presidency.

Services listed on Bridgetree’s site include “NextGen microtargeting” and “data acquisition,” which involves “[multi-sourcing, combining and scraping data] in a unique manner that delivers the most accurate, robust and relevant information to deliver optimal results.” “Operation Keystone” is not listed among the site’s case studies.

A poorly reviewed app version of the Trump Talk service is currently available to download on the Google Play store. The app’s developers are listed as Bridgetree and Advantage, Inc., a Republican strategy firm based in Alexandria, VA, which has published an instruction manual on how to use the Trump Talk service.

Here are promotional screenshots of the app in action:

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Bridgetree’s association with Cambridge Analytica was brought to light in emails leaked by Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director. In one email dated February 2, 2016, Bridgetree’s business development manager Tom Boschwitz told Cambridge Analytica he could provide data scraped from Facebook and other sources in service of Ted Cruz’s 2016 failed presidential bid. The recipient of that email, Matt Oczkowski — then Cambridge Analytica’s head of product — joined Trump’s 2020 campaign earlier this year.

Cambridge Analytica’s shady tactics in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign were exposed in an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4, which determined that the company had scraped data from millions of profiles without users’ consent. The company later pleaded guilty to violating U.K. data laws.

Roger Stone’s Style Blog is Now a Spammy Marketing Site

StoneOnStyle.com was a fashion and politics blog run by Trump’s flamboyant campaign trickster. Now it’s used to promote hair loss treatments and online gambling.

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In the midst of an ill-judged media blitz last year after being charged in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, it appears that Trump’s former campaign trickster Roger Stone either sold off or forgot to update his fashion and politics blog, Stone On Style.

Launched in 2013 with help from “Manhattan Madam” Kristin Davis, the blog was an unapologetic self-tribute to Stone’s swankiness, complete with an annual “Best and Worst Dressed” list, readers advice column, hard-hitting posts like “Turtlenecks – The Cold Hard Truth,” and several photos of Stone dressed as Sean Connery’s James Bond.

askstone

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But if you visit the site today, you’ll find noticeably unswanky content like “Shampoo Ingredients to avoid hair loss” and “Truth or Dares I Asked My Teenage Daughter That Got Her Thinking Hard.”

Last June, the site was taken offline. According to online records, it was then purchased by an unknown buyer for $450 and relaunched with the site’s original branding and bio.

All but five of Stone’s original posts have been scrubbed from the site. The rest appear to be thinly disguised ads for dubious hair loss treatments and online gambling, among other posts written in Indonesian.

“To one loosing hair is like having a crushed image and maximum suffers it in silence,” reads one post. “If you are tired of all the unwanted hair on your body, then you can go for the hair removal laser treatment without any risk factor,” reads another.

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Buying once-popular domains for marketing purposes is a known SEO strategy. For example, in 2018 former women’s site The Frisky was bought by a Serbian music producer, who currently sells backlinks on the site from his Fiverr account.

Stone — currently facing a 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress — did not return a request for comment.

Update, June 10, 2020: According to domain records, Stone’s site was re-registered on this date by Finixio Limited, a London, UK-based “Personal Finance Comparison Network.” The site has been returned to its original glory and its old content has been archived.

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

• In May, 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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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

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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).

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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

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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.

Round-Up: Maria Butina’s Russian Fundraiser

Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about the Kremlin-backed company paying for Maria Butina’s legal expenses

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.

Via “New Details Revealed About a Mysterious Russian Who Funds Maria Butina’s Defense” by Tana Ganeva, Raw Story, March 20, 2019:

Maria Butina, the Russian woman who’s alleged to have infiltrated gun rights and conservative circles to sway the outcome of the 2016 election, is still in custody awaiting her sentencing. She’s been in jail since July. According the Washington Post, Butina is cooperating with authorities

Ionov is raising money for Butina’s defense through a group called the Anti-Globalization Movement. The website, peppered with glossy photos of Butina, purports to tell “Maria’s story.”

“Help me change my situation,” it reads in Russian.  Freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones first unearthed the site and detailed Ionov’s history and potential Kremlin ties.

Writing on his blog Shooting the Messenger, Jones observes that the group that’s hosting the site for Butina’s legal bills got a Russian presidential grant of 3.5 million rubles (approximately $53,000) to bring members of Texas and California secessionist groups to a Russian conference in September of 2016.

Click here to read the full story.

Investigate Russia and Law & Crime also picked up the story.

Update, via “Here are all the Russian interference efforts that didn’t make it into Barr’s letter” by Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, March 27, 2019:

Special counsel Robert Mueller may not have found the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but plenty of Americans — wittingly or otherwise — have helped Moscow’s election meddling efforts in recent years. Secessionists, Jill Stein and her campaign, and members of groups organized around gun rights and far-right Christian movements have spent the past few years cultivating ties with those close to the Kremlin and using their platforms to promote Russia-friendly ideas.

None of these groups were mentioned by Attorney General William Barr, who issued a letter on Sunday confirming that Russia conducted coordinated campaigns to interfere in America’s elections…

Russian cultivation of American secessionists — for example, groups who look back fondly on the days of the Confederacy or advocate for states separating from the U.S. to form their own country — date back to at least 2014, in the midst of the Kremlin’s attempts to disintegrate Ukraine. Multiple conferences held in Moscow in 2015 and 2016 brought separatists from places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico to Russia, gathering supporters with other secessionists from Italy and Spain. They were hosted and feted by Alexander Ionov, the head of an organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR)…

Ionov, meanwhile, has been busy. Not only has be apparently gained more cachet in Moscow — he recently had a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador — but as journalist Dean Sterling Jones recently uncovered, he’s been helping raise money for Russian agent Maria Butina.

SCOOP: Maria Butina’s Russian Fundraiser Hosted and Boasted U.S. Separatists Prior to 2016 Election

The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia was paid by the Kremlin to fly Texas and California separatists to Moscow in September 2016

Maria Butina (source)

Maria Butina’s legal defense fund is being handled by a Kremlin-backed Russian company that hosted and boasted U.S. separatist groups shortly before the 2016 presidential election.

The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), which is accepting donations on Butina’s behalf through a fundraising website set up last year by her lawyers, received a Russian presidential grant of 3.5 million rubles (approximately $53,000) to fly the leaders of Texas and California secessionist movements to Moscow for a sovereign nation-building conference in September 2016.

The second annual Dialogue of Nations conference, financed by a charity overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin, brought together representatives from around a dozen self-styled national liberation movements including Nate Smith, executive director of the neo-confederate Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), and Louis J. Marinelli, co-founder of the Yes California Independence Campaign.

“[AGMR] supports the full sovereignty of nation-states including the sovereignty of Russia as an independent player on the political, economic and cultural world stage,” reads AGMR’s mission statement. “The movement aims to promote all aspects of the national security and traditional moral values. It opposes the attempts to impose a ‘new world order’ and the disastrous unification, which might result in the emergence of a single mega-totalitarian world state.”

The exact history of AGMR’s involvement with Butina—who in December pleaded guilty to engaging in a Kremlin-backed conspiracy to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America—is unclear. But according to domain registration records, AGMR began its fundraising efforts in October with the launch of MariaButinaFund.ru, a Russian language mirror of Butina’s U.S. fundraising site, MariaButinaFund.com, launched two months earlier.

“The Maria Butina Foundation was created by her lawyers to collect donations in order to ensure her best possible protection in court,” reads a message on the Russian version of the site, which includes payment details for AGMR’s Alfa Bank account in Moscow.

Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll, listed as the fund’s co-founder, declined to comment for this item.

Gregory M. Wade, an Alexandria, VA-based bankruptcy attorney listed as the administrator of both sites, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

AGMR was founded in 2012 by Alexander Ionov, a prolific Russian lawyer and businessman whose “work to strengthen friendship between peoples” has been commended by Putin himself. Ionov denies working at the behest of the Kremlin. However, a close look at his various pursuits, including a prominent position on the public council of Moscow’s interior ministry, suggests they enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.

Alexander Ionov (source)

Ionov’s involvement with TNM and Yes California, for instance, came shortly after both groups were reportedly approached by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory, to participate in a series of anti-Hillary Clinton rallies. Yes California later relocated its headquarters to AGMR’s offices in Moscow.

In 2017, Ionov represented Russian hackers Pyotr Levashov and Stanislav Lisov against claims by Spanish security services that they’d used fake social media accounts to promote Catalonia’s independence from Spain, a cause both AGMR and the IRA have also actively helped to promote. The pair were later extradited to the U.S. where they pleaded guilty to various cyber crimes.

In December, Ionov even attempted to visit Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen currently being detained in Moscow on spying charges. Experts in Russian politics, including former CIA officer John Sipher, believe Whelan was arrested in retaliation for Butina’s prosecution in the U.S., claims denied by Putin’s spokesperson.

Ionov’s other connections to Butina include Vladimir Ovsyannikov and Roman Khudyakov, high-ranking State Duma officials who helped support Butina’s gun rights group, the Right to Bear Arms (RTBA). The two men currently work under Ionov at his private contracting firm Ionov Transcontinental (IT), which provides a range of legal, financial and security services, as well as helping to facilitate business relationships between foreign clients and Russian government agencies.

Ovsyannikov, IT’s Vice President for Government Relations, became involved with RTBA in 2013 after giving a speech at one of its rallies. Khudyakov, IT’s Vice President and a former Russian presidential candidate, joined the group that same year in an initiation ceremony along with: Alexander Torshin, the former Central Bank governor who allegedly directed Butina’s activities in the U.S.; and David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, one of many prominent conservative groups Torshin allegedly used to gain access to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.

When prosecutors indicted Butina last July, alleging, among other things, that she had traded sex for political access, Khudyakhov quickly rushed to her defense.

“She was friends with many men, with me, with other men, with men from all over the world,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Prosecutors later retracted the allegation.

Recently, Ionov came out in support of Butina, describing her in an interview with Voice of America (which did not disclose their affiliation) as a “human rights activist…who did not (collaborate) with Russian state bodies.”

Ionov did not reply to multiple requests to comment for this story.

Butina is currently awaiting sentencing. To date, she has raised approximately $16,700 towards the cost of her legal fees, but still owes her lawyers $610,000, according to a recent interview with her father, Valery Butin, in Russian media.

Former Trump Campaign Aide Michael Caputo Is Enlisting MAGA Supporters to Shield Him From Antifa

200 members of the MAGA Quick Reaction Force are prepared to face down anti-fascist protesters at Michael Caputo’s home and office

Michael R. Caputo (source)

Former Trump campaign communications adviser Michael R. Caputo has created a new mass text system to alert nearby Donald J. Trump supporters to Antifa protests of his home and office.

The new system was announced on the MAGA Quick Reaction Force website (MAGA-QRF.com), which was registered by Caputo’s public relations company in November shortly after anti-fascist protesters targeted the Washington, D.C. home of Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“My family has endured dozens of threats of death and violence due to my high-profile Trump connection and my involvement as a witness in the bogus Russia investigation,” Caputo said in a statement published on MAGA-QRF.com. “I’ve developed a way to push back on Antifa protesting outside my home or office, which is more likely than you might think…I assembled a group of 200 nearby Trump supporters who have pledged to come on a moment’s notice to assemble peacefully between my house and the Antifa protestors to assure my wife and children don’t even see them.”

Antifa, a loosely organised, militant anti-fascist movement whose tactics involve physical violence and harassment, gained notoriety in 2017 following its protests of prominent alt-right figures such as professional provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos and white supremacist Richard Spencer.

source

“I’ve installed a mass text capacity on my smartphone to reach them [members of the MAGA Quick Reaction Force],” Caputo explained in his statement. “I’ve tested the system. Within minutes, Antifa will be vastly outnumbered.”

It’s not Caputo’s first attempt to mitigate the damaging personal repercussions of his involvement in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference. 

Caputo recently set up two legal funds, one to cover the costs of his “voluntary cooperation with multiple US Government investigations,” and another to raise $100,000 on behalf of former Trump campaign adviser and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who was indicted last month for allegedly lying to congress about his interactions with Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential election.

source

Shortly after his own testimony to the U.S. House Intelligence Committee in July 2017, Caputo initiated a surreptitious campaign to purge his Wikipedia biography of his work for Russia state-backed media company Gazprom.

Via “Ex-Trump Aide Scrambles to Scrub Russia From Bio” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, November 6, 2017:

Former Donald Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo is determined to prove that he did not work for Vladimir Putin, and he’s using every tool at his disposal to do so—from a congressional ethics complaint, to a defamation lawsuit, to a surreptitious Wikipedia edit campaign.

Sean Dwyer, an employee of Caputo’s PR firm, Zeppelin Communications, was blocked from Wikipedia in August after he was caught using multiple pseudonymous accounts to purge Caputo’s page of alleged Putin ties, according to an investigation by the site’s editors. After the accounts were exposed as what Wikipedia calls “sock puppets”—multiple accounts run by the same person as part of a coordinated editing campaign—Dwyer admitted he had financial ties to the subjects of his edits…

Given what Caputo characterizes as widespread—and even malicious—misrepresentations of his work in Russia, “Wikipedia inaccuracies barely even make it on my radar,” he said.

And yet, Dwyer’s editing campaign, which was first reported by independent blogger Dean Sterling Jones, shows that Caputo was at least aware of the claims and determined to purge them. Dwyer did so through four different “sock puppet” accounts, according to Wikipedia’s investigation, and edit logs show he repeatedly attempted to remove language from the page that tied Caputo’s work for Gazprom to any efforts to burnish Putin’s reputation abroad.

Though it’s fairly common, “sock-puppetry is one of the cardinal sins of Wikipedia,” according to William Beutler, the president of digital marketing firm Beutler Ink and a longtime personal and professional Wikipedia editor. “We do this legitimately every day. But our approach is different from what they do here,” Beutler said in an interview. Unlike Dwyer, “we disclose who our clients are at the starting point.”

Caputo denied that Dwyer had run afoul of any Wikipedia guidelines. “Sean has done nothing wrong except engage with Wikipedia according to their rules, which apparently put him in the sights of a wanker trolling me from his mommy’s basement,” he said.

It’s unclear if Caputo has had to deploy the MAGA Quick Reaction Force, as he didn’t respond to a request for comment. But his site does include this entertaining speech by Christopher Walken from the 2002 cult film Poolhall Junkies.

You got this lion. He’s the king of the jungle, huge mane out to here. He’s laying down under a tree, in the middle of Africa. He’s so big, he’s so hot. He doesn’t want to move. Now, the little lion cubs, they start messing with him, biting his tail, biting his ears. He doesn’t do anything. The lioness, she starts messing with him, coming over, making trouble. Still, nothing. Now, the other animals, they notice this, and they start to move in. The jackals, hyenas. They’re barking at him, laughing at him. They nip his toes, and eat the food that’s in his domain. They do this, and they get closer and closer, bolder and bolder. ‘Til one day, the lion gets up and tears the shit out of everybody. Runs like the wind, eats everything in his path. Cause every once in a while, the lion has to show the jackals who he is.

Twitter is Censoring Criticism of Turkish President Erdoğan

Twitter deletes ‘insulting’ tweets/accounts by critics of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following court order

Since 2016, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sued, arrested, and detained thousands of opposition journalists, academics, civil servants, and other critics of his government’s increasingly authoritarian policies.

TOPSHOT-TURKEY-POLITICS-VOTE

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (source)

Online, Erdoğan’s efforts to control his public image have been equally aggressive, with a seemingly endless string of takedown requests, censorship demands, and court orders demanding the removal of mocking satirical cartoons and images, “hurtful, exaggerated words,” and “humiliating” news reports comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

Now it appears that Erdoğan has found an ally in U.S. social media platform Twitter.

Within the past month, Twitter has deleted over a dozen tweets and suspended a number of users for violating “[Erdoğan’s] personal rights by being insulting,” in compliance with a December 28, 2018 court order obtained by the Turkish leader and subsequently posted by the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests.

source

The court order does not specify the substance and manner of the insulting content. However, details gleaned through a review of a few remaining uncensored tweets suggest that Erdoğan objected to the online dissemination of a Guardian newspaper article titled “2018: Year of the Autocrat” by foreign affairs reporter Simon Tisdall.

That article, which included stinging criticisms of “America’s first ‘rogue president'” Donald J. Trump, Russia’s “rigged poll” president Vladimir Putin, and North Korea’s “ever-grinning dictator” Kim Jong-un, described Erdoğan as having “bullied his way to another presidential term and sweeping extra powers.”

The court order also sought to halt the dissemination of news of a corruption scandal involving Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and at least one tweet that appeared to mock Bilal’s moustache.

source

According to Twitter’s biannual transparency report, Turkey leads the world in Twitter censorship demands, accounting for 508 of 628 of all court orders filed in the first half of 2018.

According to that same report, in 2018 Twitter withheld 1464 tweets and “filed 113 legal objections with Turkish courts in response to 508 court orders on the grounds that they did not comply with the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of press, and/or did not specify the content at issue. Four objections were accepted in full and one was partially granted.”