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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.