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.

Duped Hollywood Celebrities Back in the News After Russian Disinformation Report

A Russian propaganda campaign that recruited famous actors through pay-for-videos site Cameo is the subject of a new article by Business Insider.

The article follows on the heels of a joint report published last week by Graphika and Stanford Internet Observatory. Both pieces cited an article I co-bylined, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon in September.

Via “Russian trolls used Facebook, Cameo to help free alleged spy in Libya” by Kevin Shalvey, Business Insider, December 19, 2020:

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After 18 months in Libyan prisons, alleged Russian spy Maxim Shugaley this month walked free, boarded a plane, and was greeted in Moscow as a returning hero.

During his long absence, Russia Today had aired an action thriller called “Shugaley” that dramatized his arrest, complete with explosions, gunfights, and torture scenes…

A roster of Hollywood actors also had recorded short supportive messages for him via the Cameo app. “Wall Street” star Charlie Sheen did one, speaking to Shugaley from the sparsely decorated kitchen where he did many of his Cameo videos […] according to last week’s report from Stanford researchers, who cited previous reporting on Shugaley and the IRA from The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and BBC Africa

Sheen was just one of a few high-profile Hollywood names that sent warm wishes to Shugaley. “Snatch” actor Vinnie Jones and “Rocky IV” star Dolph Lundgren each recorded their own videos, which were later posted on vk.com. “Machete” star Danny Trejo shot one, too, as first captured on Shooting the Messenger.

Click here to read the original story as first reported by Foreign Policy.

Click here to read the Stanford/Graphika report, which covers a larger-context disinformation operation targeting Libya, Syria, and Sudan.

Update, December 28, 2020: Gizmodo, Haaretz, and Inside Hook have also picked-up the story.

Via “Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Danny Trejo All Spread Russian Propaganda on Cameo: Report” by Tom McKay, Gizmodo, December 23, 2020:

News of the actors’ involvement in the odd campaign to free Shugaley was first broken by Foreign Policy, which noted that other efforts to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention by Libyan authorities included the suspected agent’s election “to the regional parliament in the Komi republic in northwestern Russia.” Foreign Policy detailed numerous other suspicious incidents casting doubts on the Russian government’s claim he was a mere academic, including his alleged involvement in a purported plot to interfere in Madagascar’s 2018 elections. The magazine also contacted several celebrities involved in the Cameo campaign; an agent for one of them, English actor Vinnie Jones, told Foreign Policy that the $300 payment for the video was from an anonymous client.

The Haaretz and Inside Hook pieces, which do not credit Foreign Policy’s reporting, can be read here and here.

Being Alexander Malkevich

When the head of Russia’s new disinformation campaign arrived in Washington DC this week, reporters for NBC News and Foreign Policy were there to meet him

Last week, I blogged an original story about Alexander Malkevich, a Russian government policy adviser and head of USA Really, a troll factory-linked propaganda organisation in Washington DC.

Shortly after I published my post, I received an unhinged comment from someone named Michael using a USA Really e-mail address, in a seeming attempt to persuade reporters to disregard what I’d written.

“Are you semicrazy person?” the comment read. “Please, go see a doctor help the society and yourself. May be you just have a vivid imagination. I’m not sure, but it looks like you took too much acid (aka LSD) in your childhood…Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.”

And so on.

Evidently, the dissuasion effort failed: the story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and covered by The Washington Post and Politico.

This week, Malkevich had scheduled a flash mob event to take place at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday, and a roundtable event at a WeWork office space opposite the White House to discuss fake news (WeWork is a company that rents private offices).

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Things did not go to plan.

Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the flash mob event—which originally included a symphony orchestra—after applying for the wrong permit. Then, according to Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is overseeing the USA Really project, Malkevich was removed and banned from re-entering the WeWork office space he’d rented. WeWork declined to comment for this item.

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Now NBC News and Foreign Policy have published profiles of Malkevich.

Via “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to” by Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich stood outside the White House on Thursday, braving the 85-degree heat in a skintight long-sleeve shirt with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on it. Thursday was flag day, as well as the birthdays of Malkevich, Che and President Donald Trump, and he was leading a very small political rally.

But this wasn’t one of the typical protests that crop up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malkevich sits on Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, an official arm of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was there to promote his new Russia-funded, English-language news site, USA Really. Wake Up Americans.

Like most of Russia’s efforts to manipulate U.S. politics, the website traffics in content on divisive issues such as promoting secessionist movements in the U.S. — the same kinds of activities that caused a furor when they were exposed as having influenced the 2016 presidential election.

Malkevich’s hopes of generating a similar furor now, two years later, seem to have degenerated into self-parody, however. Instead of actors with signs and musicians playing symphony music, as Malkevich had envisioned, he stood among tourists and “Free Tibet” protesters with only his business partner, Alex Dolgonos.

“It’s hot out here, but it’s much hotter in some of those rooms we’ve been kicked out of,” Malkevich said.

[…]

USA Really has a variety of links to Russia. The domain name for USA Really was registered privately from a Russian address, and promoted by the Federal News Agency, which is allegedly owned by “Putin’s Chef,” restaurateur oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their campaign to sow discord before the 2016 U.S. election. Since April, the jobs section of the Federal News Agency’s website has been recruiting English-speaking journalists for USA Really.

USA Really’s monthlong campaign in the U.S. has hit roadblocks in recent days, according to a statement of grievances from Malkevich posted on the Federal News Agency website. Facebook removed USA Really’s page, and according to Malkevich, Twitter has imposed restrictions on its account.

Malkevich repeatedly ignored or deflected questions about USA Really’s funding.

[…]

Malkevich told NBC News that he’s working on his English and that he’s staffing up for bureaus in New York and Washington. He also said USA Really wouldn’t repeat troll farm tactics of impersonating Americans on social media, while denying knowing anyone involved in the embroiled Internet Research Agency,

“We want to do everything legal,” he said.

Malkevich said he was enjoying his time in Washington, despite being disappointed at what he called “Red Scare” books in places like the gift shop of the Spy Museum about a half-mile from the White House.

“I see all of these stories about how 10 Russian hackers changed the election. Where is CIA? Where is FBI? They can’t stop 10 Russian hackers?” he said.

Malkevich chatted amiably about his venture. But under the unrelenting heat, he grew agitated when asked about the Internet Research Agency.

“I like America, but I keep getting into problems with all of these officials,” Malkevich said. “And now all of these people asking about the Russian trolls.”

Via “Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?” by Amy MacKinnon, Foreign Policy, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich might be the new face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subvert U.S. democracy. Or he might be a bumbling provocateur.

Malkevich, a Russian media executive with ties to the Kremlin, arrived in Washington this week to launch USA Really, an English-language news site that spreads the kind of disinformation and discord attributed to Russian trolls in a high-profile indictment earlier this year.

[…]

On Wednesday of this week, he showed up at a coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C., for his first interview with an American reporter. He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of the Russian foreign minister looking irritated and the phrase “debili blyat,” which roughly translates as “fucking morons.”

“This is my answer for these strange people that are frightened by us,” Malkevich said.

His new website is no less sophomoric. In the past few days, it has included stories headlined “Man Served His Friends Tacos Made From His Severed Limb” and “No Sex for Cops in Louisiana.”

Malkevich is a former manager of local TV and radio stations in Russia. He’s also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which advises the government on policymaking.

He says he was approached by a group of Russian journalists and businessmen to found USA Really after he gave a speech to the Russian Civic Chamber, a parliamentary advisory body, about the need to establish more media outlets abroad.

“We only have a few media working abroad. It’s so hard for them to stand against all this oppression,” he said.

[…]

“Now we see that there is real freedom of speech in Russia,” he said. “But a Russian media company cannot do anything in the USA.”

Social media websites, heavily criticized for serving as a megaphone for the Russian disinformation campaigns during the U.S. election campaign, have been aggressively policing USA Really.

Facebook shut down the website’s page within a day of its launch in May. On Twitter, USA Really has been prevented from posting direct links to its website, forcing it to route articles through Google Plus posts.

Malkevich said the site has been able to post photos on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but it is blocked from adding captions and hashtags.

The reasons for the crackdown are not totally clear. While the website is connected to individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions and indictments, through its affiliation with Federal News Agency, Malkevich is not included on either list and was able to enter the United States on a tourist visa.

[…]

Malkevich admitted that he’s had difficulty recruiting native English speakers to work for the publication, but he has high hopes for the project.

“I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Toward the end of the interview, an employee wiping down the table behind him splashed cleaning fluid on his phone.

“Spies from the FBI. Poison,” he joked.

“Of course, I am being sarcastic,” he added. “But there is still some concern.”