Round-Up 2018: Here’s the Scoop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felix Sater (source)

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

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

HuffPost scrubbed the article, written in December, from its website after a blogger in Northern Ireland, Dean Sterling Jones, inquired about the piece, which hailed the dismissal last year of a $250 million tax fraud case against Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive.

The article’s author, listed on HuffPost’s website under the name Waqas KH, runs a Pakistani company called Steve SEO Services. That company offers to ghostwrite articles and organize internet commenting campaigns for paying clients. On the freelancer website Fiverr, Waqas goes by the username “nico_seo” and offers to place articles on HuffPost for an $80 fee. For an extra $50, he will write the article himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Malkevich (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Really (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Butina (source)

Via “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA)…

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it.

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

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

David Pecker (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Putin (source)

Via “Here Are Some Job Ads For The Russian Troll Factory” by Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News, February 22, 2018:

The Internet Research Agency, now commonly known as the Russian troll factory, has gained international fame for its work during the 2016 US election, and the resulting indictments of 13 people announced by the Department of Justice last week.

Job ads from the IRA posted before the election give a sense of the kind of person the agency was looking for and how it helped weed out candidates. The ads were posted on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015 and the address listed in them matches the known location of the IRA’s headquarters. The blog Shooting the Messenger first posted some of the job ads.

One ad posting was for a social media specialist, offering a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles, or about $700.

The responsibilities included preparing “thematic posts,” publishing content, growing social audiences, and monitoring social media, blogs, and groups.

When it came to skills, the IRA wanted candidates he knew how to write “informational texts” and create an online community. It also asked for applicants with a sense of responsibility, initiative, and an “active life position”…

One uniting factor for all of these ads is a desire for energetic applicants. The ads also sought out people with “active life position,” “vigor,” “perseverance,” “ambition,” and the “ability to clearly and structurally express their thoughts.”

But with job postings come job reviews, and one reviewed by BuzzFeed News was not positive about work at the troll factory.

The review, from 2014, complained about being asked to do unpaid work for two days before being hired.

“The company invites you for the content manager for a vacancy, they give you a test task, when you do it, they invite you to an internship, 2 days for 8 hours. When you try to hint that it’s already full-time work and it would be nice to negotiate the terms of the employment contract, you hear ‘I’m sorry, you’re not a good fit’ in return,” the reviewer wrote said.

The story was subsequently covered by The Hill.

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

Job postings for the Russian troll factory that allegedly meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election sought prospective employees with coding and social media skills and promised work on “interesting projects.”

The job listings for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency were placed on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015, BuzzFeed News reported Thursday. Some of the listings first surfaced on a blog Wednesday.

One listing for a social media specialist position advertised a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles – about $700 – and said the job would require composing “thematic posts,” monitoring social media and growing social followings, according to BuzzFeed.

Another listing for a web programmer job offered prospective employees 60,000 rubles per month, or about $1,060, and advertised that the successful candidate would be part of a “friendly team” and work on “interesting projects.”

Click here for more stories from 2018.

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Byline at the Beast

— I just co-authored this investigative piece with The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay

Since late last year, I’ve been researching an online PR campaign seemingly intended to manipulate Google’s search results in order to obscure unflattering news articles about Donald Trump’s Russian business ties.

Yesterday, the story was published in The Daily Beast.

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

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

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

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

Sater—who once had an office at New York’s Trump Tower, Trump Organization business cards, and claims to have worked as a senior adviser to Trump—has recently emerged as a key figure in the federal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

[…]

The Daily Beast previously reported that a Pakistani blogger had been paid to write an article for the Huffington Post’s now-defunct contributor platform hailing the dismissal of [a civil tax fraud lawsuit against Sater]. That blogger, who went by the handle Waqas KH, said his client, whom he declined to name, had provided the text of the piece in full.

HuffPost is a prominent U.S. news source, but on more obscure platforms, used explicitly for search-engine optimization, over 50 other stories have popped up hyping the lawsuit’s dismissal and attempting to insulate Trump from controversy involving Sater and Bayrock. The articles were published over an eight-month period, from September 2017 through June 2018.

“Certainly now that Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” declared a November article at a since-deleted website billing itself as a forum for a “business development specialist.” The article was written by Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns an Indian SEO business that offers to place articles on a network of 900 websites for $20 apiece.

Click here to read the full article.

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

Via “The Daily 202: 10 stories illuminate the Trump doctrine on foreign policy” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, July 5, 2018:

Via “POLITICO Playbook Power Briefing: Trade wars escalate as duties on some Chinese goods take effect at midnight” by Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, Daniel Lippman, and Akela Lacy, Politico, July 6, 2018:

Via “The Note: For Trump, a week of big moves could have big blowback” by Rick Klein and Maryalice Parks, ABC News, July 6, 2018:

HuffPost’s Blogger Platform: A Brief History of Fake News

— The HuffPost’s discontinued blogger platform was used to publish politically motivated fake news articles and unvetted opinion pieces. Here are a few of the most notable examples.

Last week, the HuffPost announced it was ending its contributor platform, which permitted anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection to self-publish articles on the HuffPost website.

The decision to shutter the platform followed a story first published on this blog, and subsequently reported by The Daily Beast, about a now-deleted paid puff piece that was intended to burnish the reputation of former Donald Trump advisor Felix Sater.

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

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

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

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

It’s not the only time the HuffPost has deleted a contributor’s fake news story.

— In June 2017, the website deleted an article by Shakir Akorede, a self-proclaimed “expert copywriter” who falsely claimed that Trump’s fundraising committee had paid a non-existent PR firm $30,000 to publish promotional material about Trump’s presidential campaign on popular social media website Reddit.

source

Via “It Wasn’t Just The Russians That Made Trump Win” by Shakir Akorede, HuffPost, June 4, 2017:

A private source from Trump’s campaign has leaked an invoice from Oak Park Alliance, a high-profile marketing agency specializing in digital marketing. Among the largest charges on the invoice is a $30,000 charge for “30 front-page posts — /r/the_donald.” Among Reddit users, “the_donald” is a well-known community that focused on championing Donald Trump throughout the campaign season. Also included on the invoice are several services, such as downvotes on subreddits supporting democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, publications of high-profile articles, content creation, and one listed as “damage control.”

Via “HuffPost Deletes Blog Falling for Highly Suspect ‘Leaked Trump Memo’” by Alex Griswold, The Washington Beacon, June 15, 2017:

“It Wasn’t Just the Russians That Made Trump Win,” HuffPost contributor Shakir Akorede wrote on Sunday. Akorede alleged that “a private source from Trump’s campaign has leaked an invoice from Oak Park Alliance, a high-profile marketing agency specializing in digital marketing”…

But there is no public record of an Oak Park Alliance receiving a disbursement from the Donald Trump campaign in October 2016. What’s more, the memo misspells the name of the campaign (omitting the “for” in Donald J. Trump For President, Inc.) and only gives a P.O. box address for the Oak Park Alliance.

For a supposedly “high-profile marketing firm,” there is also no evidence of Oak Park Alliance’s existence outside of its barebones website, which was registered in 2014 and updated a week before the HuffPost blog post went live. The website was registered by Domain Protection Services, a service that registers domains on the behalf of clients who want to keep their identities anonymous.

— In May, the website deleted an article by H.A. Goodman, an anti-Hillary Clinton political pundit who perpetuated a debunked conspiracy theory that connected the unsolved murder of Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer Seth Rich to the DNC e-mail leak of 2016.

source

Via “Why Is It Blasphemous for Kim Dotcom to Testify Under Oath in Congress?” by H.A. Goodman, HuffPost, May 26, 2017:

Because I respect The Huffington Post, I’ll keep this piece short, and to the point; nobody is claiming anyone caused the death of Seth Rich.

On the other hand, more information on Seth Rich’s death is needed.

If indeed Seth Rich was the WikiLeaks source, we need to know, or at least evaluate added evidence. It’s unheard of to simply disregard new evidence, or prevent a witness from testifying under oath, even in “botched robbery” cases…

Again, I’m not claiming anyone in particular killed Seth Rich.

What I’m saying is new evidence, or the possibility of new evidence is vital to finding out what happened to Seth Rich.

Via “The Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory” by Bethania Palma, Snopes, May 25, 2017:

Seth Rich was shot and killed on 10 July 2016 near his home in Washington, D.C. in what Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators believe to have been a botched robbery, due to a string of similar crimes in his neighborhood at that time. In an e-mail, MPD confirmed that is still the suspected motive:

At this point in the investigation, it is believed that Seth Rich was the victim of an attempted robbery. MPD does not currently have evidence to suggest otherwise; should anyone be in possession of such evidence, they are urged to turn it over to the police.

There is no evidence to date that thousands of e-mails were found on Rich’s computer linking him to WikiLeaks, or that he was killed as part of a conspiracy or coverup.

— In November, the website deleted an article by contributor David Fagin, who perpetuated false claims that a now-infamous photo of Al Franken, in which the former senator appeared to grope radio broadcaster Leeann Tweeden while she slept, had been staged.

source

Via “The Framing of Al Franken by Two Trump Supporters; and the Dems Are Playing Right Along” by David Fagin, HuffPost, November 17, 2017:

Leeann Tweeden, a former Playboy Playmate who’s spent half her life nude, or nearly nude, and the other half appearing on shows such as Hannity, also just happens to be a Trump supporter, as well. Isn’t it interesting how she’s decided to share her nightmarish tale of horror and humiliation in the form of an unrequited kiss on behalf of a liberal-leaning Senator with us, now?…

[The] photographer who took the photo in which Franken is supposedly ‘groping’ Tweeden while she sleeps says it was staged and that she wanted him to do it. Granted, this could be a Facebook hoax, or another bit of fake news, but if it’s true…

Via “Did Franken Photog Say Groping Image Was Staged?” by Dan Evon, Snopes, November 17, 2017:

The person who took the picture of Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden has not been identified, nor have they issued a statement regarding the incident. Which means there is no credible claim the image was staged, that Tweeden was “playing dead,” or that “she wanted him to ‘revive’ her” in the picture. This quote was made up out of the whole cloth in an apparent attempt to discredit Tweeden and her account.  

Last year, the HuffPost also deleted a number of controversial unvetted opinion pieces.

— In February 2017, the website deleted an article by René Zografos, a Norwegian photographer who said he agreed with Trump’s closed-border view on immigration and that Sweden’s open-door immigration policy had caused crime rates to rise in that country.

source

Via “Trump is Absolutely Right About Sweden” by René Zografos, HuffPost, February 22, 2017:

Many journalists around the world are eager to condemn Donald Trump no matter what. When he tweeted about immigration in Sweden few days ago, the social media exploded. Most of the opponent said that Trump has made up the immigration problem Sweden have. They are wrong.

Only hours later there was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he is actually spot on.

It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence. Additional to that we see the respective nations cultures fading away, for good and for bad.

Via “Riot Breaks Out in Immigrant Suburb of Stockholm, Sweden” by David Emery, Snopes, February 22, 2017:

Days after President Trump referenced a nonexistent instance of immigrant violence in Sweden, a riot broke out in a predominantly immigrant district of Stockholm…

Sweden has long been in the forefront of European countries accepting refugees from elsewhere in the world, prompting those opposed to open-door immigration policies to claim the influx of foreigners has caused crime rates to rise in the country. The actual statistics don’t bear that out, however. Despite a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers in 2015, an analysis cited by the Washington Post found that fewer than one percent of all crimes in Sweden during the final three months of 2015 were committed by refugees.

— In June, the website deleted an article by contributor Jason Fuller, who called for the prosecution and execution of Trump for treason.

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Via “Impeachment Is No Longer Enough; Donald Trump Must Face Justice” by Jason Fuller, HuffPost, June 11, 2017:

Impeachment and removal from office are only the first steps; for America to be redeemed, Donald Trump must be prosecuted for treason and — if convicted in a court of law — executed…

[The] interference of the Russian government to circumvent our democratic procedures for electing the President of the United States is an act of war. There is no other way to characterize it; this was an all-out attack by the government of Russia on our democratic process, the very foundation of our country. This elevates Trump’s simple obstruction of justice to high treason under the Constitution.

Via “HuffPo Pulls Article Calling For ‘Ultimate Punishment’ Of Trump” by Will Ricciardella, The Daily Caller, June 6, 2017:

The Huffington Post pulled a piece calling for the “execution” of President Donald Trump published Saturday by contributor Jason Fuller…

Fuller’s “ultimate punishment” is not only reserved for the president, but also for “everyone assisting in his agenda,” including Republican Reps. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and White House strategist Steve Bannon. Fuller claims that “all must face justice” by being tried, convicted and ultimately executed for treason…

In light of the shooting of Majority Whip Steve Scalise, two Capitol Hill police officers, a congressional staffer and a lobbyist, concerns about over-the-top political rhetoric are at an all time high.

If you visit the link where his diatribe used to be on HuffPost, you’ll receive the message that “this post from The Huffington Post Contributor Platform is no longer available on our site.” You can recover the cached version here.

As of publication, the HuffPost’s contributor platform is still available in Canada and the U.K.

HuffPost Ends Unpaid Blogger Platform

— HuffPost ends its platform for unpaid bloggers after “puff piece” about Donald Trump’s criminal ex-business partner

Last month, I blogged about the HuffPost’s retraction of a paid article published via its contributor platform that was intended to burnish the reputation of former Trump advisor Felix Sater.

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

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HuffPost scrubbed the article, written in December, from its website after a blogger in Northern Ireland, Dean Sterling Jones, inquired about the piece,* which hailed the dismissal last year of a $250 million tax fraud case against Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive.

The article’s author, listed on HuffPost’s website under the name Waqas KH, runs a Pakistani company called Steve SEO Services. That company offers to ghostwrite articles and organize internet commenting campaigns for paying clients. On the freelancer website Fiverr, Waqas goes by the username “nico_seo” and offers to place articles on HuffPost for an $80 fee. For an extra $50, he will write the article himself.

Waqas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he placed the article hailing the dismissal of tax charges against Sater, and said that his client had written the actual text. He said Sater himself did not pay to place the article, but would not say who had compensated him for it.

Citing the above story, today The New York Times reported that the HuffPost is ending its contributor platform in order to “minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.”

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

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

An early example of the unfiltered amateur journalism that propagated on the internet, the contributor pages were a mix of reported pieces and personal essays, and even generated national news. In 2008, Mayhill Fowler, a woman who said she had sold her car to fund travel on the campaign trail, set off a firestorm when she quoted Barack Obama at a fund-raiser saying that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.”

But the site’s days of encouraging everyday citizens to report on the news are over. On Thursday, it said it was immediately dissolving its self-publishing contributors platform — which has mushroomed to include 100,000 writers — in what is perhaps the most significant break from the past under its editor in chief, Lydia Polgreen, who joined the news site, which is now called HuffPost, a year ago.

The decision was rooted as much in a move to declutter the site as in Ms. Polgreen’s desire to focus on quality reporting and minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.

The site’s everyone-is-welcome ethos was once seen as a democratizing force in news. But Ms. Polgreen said in an interview that unfiltered platforms had devolved into “cacophonous, messy, hard-to-hear places where voices get drowned out and where the loudest shouting voice prevails.”

“Certainly the environment where fake news is flourishing is one where it gets harder and harder to support the idea of a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ kind of publishing platform,” Ms. Polgreen said.

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

In place of the unpaid contributors platform, the site introduced new opinion and personal sections that will include paid contributors who will work with HuffPost editors.

The closedown was subsequently covered by Politico, Variety, The Chicago Tribune, and Fox News, among others.

*Actually, the article had already been deleted when I inquired about it.

InfoWarrior$

— Fiverr accounts are charging up to $135 to publish sponsored content on conspiracy website Planet InfoWars

Alex Jones (source)

Last month, I blogged about the HuffPost’s retraction of a sponsored article it appears was part of a coordinated PR campaign to burnish the reputation of former Trump advisor Felix Sater.

The author, an Indian content marketer who goes by the name Waqas KH, was paid via freelancing website Fiverr to publish the now-retracted story.

He’s not the only one running the pay-to-publish scheme.

At least seven Fiverr accounts are offering similar services, with some accounts charging up to $135 to publish sponsored content on Planet InfoWars, a self-described “activist network” and the sister website to conspiracy news website InfoWars.

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InfoWars and Planet InfoWars are owned by Alex Jones, once described by New York magazine as “America’s leading conspiracy theorist.”

Planet InfoWars allows paying members to contribute content, but doesn’t necessarily prohibit them from publishing sponsored content – as long as they agree not to link to unrelated websites, or to solicit the buying or selling of products.

It’s unclear what, if any, editorial vetting processes are in place.

HuffPost Deletes Sponsored Trump-Russia Article

— HuffPost deletes sponsored news story about controversial “Russia-gate” figure/former Donald Trump business partner Felix Sater

Last week, I blogged about a coordinated PR campaign seemingly intended to burnish the reputation of controversial Russian-American real estate investor Felix Sater, who collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects.

Now it emerges that U.S. news website, HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post), has retracted an article it appears was part of the fake news campaign.

The deleted article, “Case Against Felix Sater Dismissed By New York Court,” was published by Waqas KH, founder of Pakistani SEO marketing website, SteveSeos.com.

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On Fiverr, Waqas goes by the name “niko_seo.”

For roughly $80, niko_seo will “publish your story or business story on Huffingtonpost with my contributor account.”

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In an e-mail, Waqas confirmed that someone paid him to publish the article, but wouldn’t say who.

Meanwhile, HuffPost has deleted all of Waqas’ content. Click the link to the former contributor’s article and you’ll see a message which states: “This post from The Huffington Post Contributor Platform is no longer available on our site.”

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The article is just one of several recent news items about Sater that have popped up on pay-to-publish digital marketing websites, and which are currently being spread by dozens of fake Twitter accounts.

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Sater denies knowing about any efforts to burnish his reputation.

Update, December 14, 2017: Yesterday, I sent an e-mail asking HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen to comment. Today, a spokesperson for HuffPost sent me this statement:

Anyone found to be self-publishing paid content on the HuffPost Contributors Network is in violation of our terms of use. Anyone we discover to be engaging in such abuse has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.

Top Trumps Endorse Sater

— Top Trump Organization executives endorse controversial “Russia-gate” figure Felix Sater on business networking website LinkedIn

As the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling heats up, a controversial Moscow-born real estate investor and former “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” is back in the spotlight.

Felix Sater gained notoriety during the 2016 election when his criminal past became a focal point for journalists investigating Trump’s business ties to Russia.

Sater (right) at the launch of Trump SoHo (source)

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Sater collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects, including the troubled Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan.

After his collaborative work with Trump, Sater is best known for stabbing a man in the neck with a broken margarita glass, and for his involvement in a $40 million mafia-linked racketeering scheme that robbed two elderly holocaust survivors of their savings (when the couple tried to recoup their money, Sater threatened to sue).

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In recent years, Trump has sought to distance himself from his former business partner, and in a 2013 video deposition for a civil lawsuit testified that “if [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

However, recent reports by The New York Times suggest Trump has an ongoing relationship with Sater reaching far beyond the now-president’s business empire.

In a 2015 e-mail, Sater promised Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen that he would engineer a real estate deal with the aid of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, which he said would help Trump win the presidency.

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Earlier this year, Sater met with Cohen to discuss a plan to lift sanctions against Russia. Cohen subsequently hand-delivered the proposals to the office of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who last week pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

Now new details have emerged that shed light on Trump’s shadowy relationship to Sater, whose LinkedIn profile states that he worked for The Trump Organization as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” between 2010 and 2011.

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According to LinkedIn, no fewer than four top executives who were “Felix’s colleagues at The Trump Organization,” including executive vice president and counsel George A. Sorial, have endorsed Sater using the site.

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Sorial, sometimes referred to as Trump’s “right-hand man,” endorsed Sater in the categories of “Real Estate,” “Real Estate Development,” and “Due Diligence.”

Sater’s other endorsements include former senior advisor to Trump, Michael Boccio; former vice president of The Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Matthew Brimhall; and former Trump Organization purchasing director, Sid Leibowitz.

Tying together his business and political interests, Sater’s Linkedin profile also includes two noteworthy congratulatory posts about his former boss.

The first, from May 4, 2016:

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And the second, from November 11, 2016:

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Sekulow Gets Blindsided

— Watch Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow’s rambling on-air response to news that former Trump adviser Michael Flynn had been charged with lying to the FBI

Amid the American carnage of yesterday’s news that former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, you might have missed this gem via Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Sekulow is the son of ACLJ’s chief counsel Jay Sekulow, who is part of the legal team charged with advising Trump during the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Jordan and Jay Sekulow (source)

Yesterday, the younger Sekulow went on Fox News to give his opinion on an unrelated story about Bill Clinton.

During that segment, Fox host Bill Hemmer interrupted Sekulow to break the news about Flynn.

Here’s Sekulow’s unscripted response:

Hemmer: The charge is about making false statements, so that could be what he is going to address at 10:30 a.m. eastern time, the charge of lying.

Sekulow: Yeah, and I think that that could still work with the plea deal itself, it depends on who is taking him to court, whether it is the special counsel or another matter. But if it is the special counsel – it should be under that jurisdiction – then those false statements, it could be that he is being with them, that could then lead to, if it is correct, and we don’t know if he actually does have a plea deal or not, but if it’s correct that could be the catalyst against the actual plea deal.

For the characteristically cocksure Sekulow, his response here is quite the turnaround.

In August, Sekulow went on Fox’s America’s Newsroom to dismiss the Mueller investigation and to personally attack me and other independent researchers including Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes, for having published critical statements and unflattering news stories about Trump, claiming our efforts served to underscore “just how much hatred there is out there for this President of the United States, who was elected so overwhelmingly by the American people.”

You can read more about our efforts via this article by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, which includes these three Shooting the Messenger scoops:

1. That former Trump business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub online details about his 2010 arrest aboard Turkey’s presidential yacht during a private party attended by illegally trafficked prostitutes;

2. That Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, possibly used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page;

3. And that I’d identified dozens of posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarise content from mainstream news outlets including USA Today, CNN, and The New York Times.

Saterized

— Obscene domain names once owned by Trump associate Felix Sater get snapped up after articles by Shooting the Messenger and The Daily Beast

Last week I scooped the story that Donald Trump’s former business partner, Felix Sater, possibly used to own a number of obscene domain names intended to disparage Sater’s Bayrock Group colleague, Jody Kriss.

In 2010, Kriss sued Bayrock for $1 billion, alleging that the New York real estate company and its partners, including Donald and Ivanka Trump, had illegally concealed Sater’s 1998 racketeering conviction and later 1999 sentencing.

Shortly after I published my post, The Daily Beast published the same story with the title, “Trump Pal Bought IAmAF**got.Com and VaginaBoy.Com, Then the Sites Attacked His Enemy.”

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Apparently, somebody thought this was the perfect opportunity to troll 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Yesterday, an anonymous troll re-registered IAmAFaggot.com. Only instead of Sater’s old site, visitors are now redirected to a blank page that says “Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer,” before being redirected yet again to Cruz’s official U.S. Senate site.

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“Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” is a meme that began in 2013, and which according to The Guardian newspaper “satirizes the fact that political discourse in America has sunk so low that this kind of spurious accusation can actually get traction.”

According to Whois.com, the registrant used a privacy service to obscure their real name. However, a reverse Whois search shows that the site is hosted on a server owned by Austin native Steven Hughes.

Another domain mentioned in the articles, IAmADirtBag.com, is currently on sale for $6,000 at UnreasonablyPricedDomains.com, a side project of Brooklyn native Jeff Koyen’s Chaotic Neutral, a satirical site about management speak.

The sale tag reads: “Oops, someone forgot to renew their attack domain.”

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Twofer

— The Daily Beast publishes article featuring two Shooting the Messenger scoops

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I recently blogged these Donald Trump-related scoops:

1. The Felix Sater Files (Parts I and II), about how former Trump business partner Felix Sater apparently registered a number of crude domain names intended to disparage Sater’s Bayrock Group colleague Jody Kriss. Published: August 26, 2017.

2. Kriss-Krossed, about how Donald and Ivanka Trump were once named as co-defendants in a lawsuit against Bayrock initiated by Jody Kriss. Published: August 22, 2017.

Via “Trump Pal Bought IAmAF**got.Com and VaginaBoy.Com, Then the Sites Attacked His Enemy” by Betsy Woodruff, Katie Zavadski, and Ben Collins, The Daily Beast, August 29, 2017:

Sater used his email and office address to register websites including IAmAFaggot.com, IAmADirtbag.com, several variations of FecalBoy.com and FecalMatter.info, CuntMan.net, Blackmailer.net, VaginaBoy.com, and dozens of other crudely named domains.

While registered to Sater, some of those sites attacked Jody Kriss, Sater’s former business associate. The two used to work together at the Trump Tower-headquartered real-estate firm Bayrock, where Kriss served as a finance director until he left the company and sued them for money laundering, according to Bloomberg. Donald Trump was initially targeted in court by Kriss, as well.

Sater’s email and office address were used to register more than a dozen domain names relating to Kriss. Those sites then attacked Kriss for a lawsuit mentioning the Trump family, among others. That’s according to records The Daily Beast discovered using the domain analysis site DomainTools, which tracks changes in official domain registrar databases.

[…]

Kriss and others filed a $1 billion New York state lawsuit another [sic] against Bayrock, Sater, and others in May 2013, over the alleged concealment of Sater’s 1998 racketeering conviction. Donald and Ivanka Trump were also listed on the suit as a type of defendant; the plaintiffs asked the judge to find whether they might also be owed declaratory relief. The Trumps were dropped from the suit three weeks later.

The story was also picked up by Raw Story, MarketWatch, Digg, and others.

Update, 01/09/2017: Last month I sent the above story to a reporter at The Daily Beast. I wasn’t credited on the article, so yesterday I sent an attribution request to executive editor Noah Shachtman, who told me that Daily Beast reporter Ben Collins found this story independent of me, and that the similarities between the two stories are coincidental.