Trumpian PR Campaign Whitewashes Russia

— Who’s behind the secretive PR campaign to whitewash Donald Trump’s Russian biz ties?

The months-long campaign, which launched in November amid the federal investigation into alleged election meddling, centres around two Soviet-born businessmen who masterminded the Trump SoHo hotel in Lower Manhattan.

Utilising dozens of fake Twitter accounts and paid articles, the campaign has sought to whitewash Trump’s relationships with Russian-born ex-con Felix Sater and former Soviet trade minister Tevfik Arif, whose real estate development and investment company Bayrock Group was the driving force behind the recently renamed hotel.

From left: Trump, Arif, and Sater (source)

As first reported on this blog and subsequently covered by The Daily Beast and The New York Times, in November the HuffPost deleted a paid article about Sater by Pakistani content marketer Waqas KH.

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

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.

The article is just one of dozens of recent puff pieces about Sater’s relationship with Trump.

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One article on business website Be Easy claims that, although “Sater plead [sic] guilty to stock racketeering and fraud as a part of a U.S.–Russian mafia scheme in 1998…there has been no evidence showing that Trump took any part in this, or knew anything about what was going on during their split time together.”

Several of the Trump-touting websites openly accept payments to publish articles.

The business marketing website Octopuzz, which claims that “Trump was not informed of Sater’s criminal past when Arif and Sater suggested partnering with the Trump Organization [and] would not have considered working with Sater and his organization for the Trump SoHo project if he was aware of the allegations against Sater,” explicitly states in its disclosure policy that it “accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.”

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Another business marketing website, whose write-up about Sater states that “[now] Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” includes a message soliciting prospective clients to hire the article’s author, Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns a content writing service in Kolkata.

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Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish Sater’s reputation by linking to articles about the $250 million dismissal which they claim helps vindicate Trump.

This fake tweet, for example, states: “It looks like another case involving Russia connections to the president [has been] dismissed for lacking any legal merits.”

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Many of the fake accounts have also tweeted about Arif’s own relationship with Trump, including one garbled tweet which states that “Arif and trump is the best friend so they are very talent man.”

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All link to a mostly favourable online bio about Arif titled “Team Russia [Красная Машина] story” by Andy French, founder of the Trump & Russia blog. However, none appear to have attracted the attention of other Twitter users, except for a few comment threads consisting entirely of fake users interacting with each other.

It’s unclear who is behind the largely ineffective promotional campaign.

Sater, who was interviewed by House Intelligence Committee staffers last month, in an e-mail denied knowing about efforts to covertly alter the Trump-Russia narrative.

I was unable to reach Arif for comment.

Whoever the culprit is, it’s likely they used the same PR service as controversial Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who preaches against homosexuality and claims he can perform miracles. That’s because most of the websites, online profiles, and Twitter accounts promoting Trump’s Bayrock buddies have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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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.

Caputo Gets Streisanded

— The Washington Post covers Shooting the Messenger scoop re: Efforts by ex-Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo to scrub Russia from his Wikipedia bio

On Monday, The Daily Beast reported my scoop that Caputo paid his PR firm to purge Wikipedia of evidence that he helped promote Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United States.

Yesterday, The Washington Post covered the story as part of its daily round-up. Via “The Daily 202” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, November 8, 2017:

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— An employee of former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo was blocked from Wikipedia in August after the site’s editors said he was caught using multiple pseudonymous accounts to scrub the page of Caputo’s ties to Vladimir PutinThe Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay reports: “After the accounts were exposed as what Wikipedia calls ‘sock puppets’ — multiple accounts run by the same person as part of a coordinated editing campaign —[the employee, Sean Dwyer], admitted he had financial ties to the subjects of his edits. It’s just the latest front in Caputo’s battles to save his reputation from, what he sees as, Russian smears. He also says he has filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) over comments at a congressional hearing in March, where the California Democrat accused Caputo of having been Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ‘image consultant[.’]”

Wikipedia Offers Assistance to Ex-Trump “Wiki-Sneak”

— Wikipedia invites ex-Trump advisor Michael Caputo “to one of our DC editing events to learn how to use Wikipedia properly” after he gets busted trying to scrub his online bio

Last week, I blogged about Caputo’s attempts to purge Wikipedia of evidence that he helped promote Russian President Vladimir Putin in the United States.

Michael Caputo (source)

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

[Zeppelin Communications executive Sean Dwyer’s] editing campaign, which was first reported by independent blogger Dean Sterling Jones, shows that…he repeatedly attempted to remove language from the page that tied [former Trump adviser Michael Caputo’s] work for Gazprom to any efforts to burnish Putin’s reputation abroad.

[…]

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

Today, Wikipedia invited Caputo “or anyone in politics” to “come to one of our DC editing events to learn how to use Wikipedia properly.”

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From this tweet, it appears that Caputo has accepted the invite:

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The Daily Beast Busts Ex-Trump “Wiki-Sneak”

— Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo takes swipe at me in The Daily Beast for blogging about his campaign to scrub Russia from his Wikipedia bio

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

I deny all accusations that I live in my mother’s basement.

Update, 7/11/2017: The story was subsequently covered by Raw Story here, Wonkette here, and Just Security here.

Sekulow Attacks!

— After Politico profile about “amateur sleuths” highlights – count `em – three Shooting the Messenger Trump scoops, Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow tells Fox News that independent researchers are “wasting all of their time”

This week I was featured in a Politico profile about “self-assigned Bob Muellers” who are doing independent research into Donald Trump’s Russia and business connections.

The article, by Darren Samuelsohn, highlighted three stories first reported on this blog. One of them, that Trump’s former business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub his arrest (and later acquittal) for human trafficking from the web, was picked up by The Daily Beast last month.

The article also mentioned that I’d “documented Wikipedia editing records that show how Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, may have used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page,” and also that I’d “identified about a dozen posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarize content from news outlets including CNN, USA Today and The New York Times.”

Shortly after publication, Jordan Sekulow, director of the American Center for Law and Justice and the son of Jay Sekulow, Trump’s legal advisor during the Mueller investigation, appeared on Fox News to denounce me and the other featured researchers – including Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of highly respected fact-checking website Snopes – without disclosing his ties to Trump.

Here’s the clip, plus excerpt:

Sekulow: I think it’s wonderful that these people who are – who want to bring down the president – are wasting all of their time and money to do so. I don’t even think the special counsel is going to be able to find anything on the president, so good luck to these sleuths who are, again, spending all they’ve got to try and bring this president down. It does underscore, though, just how much hatred there is out there for this President of the United States, who was elected so overwhelmingly by the American people.

To which I say: If a part-time blogger like me with zero resources can locate and publish the kind of damning info I have on Trump, I can only imagine what the Mueller investigation is turning up!

For the record – savvy cat that I am – I found my scoops without spending a single penny.

Arif Gets Streisanded

— The Daily Beast picks up my story about Turkish court-ordered takedown requests by Trump’s Bayrock business partner Tevfik Arif re: his 2010 arrest in prostitution sting

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Via “Trump’s Business Partner Tries to Erase his Prostitution Bust From Web” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, July 21, 2007:

A former Russian government official – and business partner of Donald Trump’s – is gaining new notoriety, as the federal investigation into alleged election meddling widens.

Meanwhile, this Kazakh-born real estate mogul, Tevfik Arif, is doing his best to clean up his past, trying to purge the web of references to his arrest in an underage prostitution bust. He was later acquitted in the matter.

Arif, a former Soviet trade minister whose company once prospected for the Trump Organization in Russia and Eastern Europe, has demanded the removal of allegedly defamatory information about that arrest from websites that have investigated or recapped controversies involving some of President Donald Trump’s past business associates.

Some of those associates are now of keen interest to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators probing Russian influence in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s knowledge of it. According to a Thursday report from Bloomberg, Mueller is examining the finances of a Trump project involving the investment firm Arif founded.

[…]

Since May, [Arif] has sent four takedown requests to Google and one to Automattic, the owner of popular web publishing platform WordPress, demanding that they remove content from websites hosted by their respective companies that Arif claims is defamatory. Each complaint contained documents from Turkish court orders requiring the removal of similar web content. The takedown requests were first reported by the blog Shooting the Messenger.

A January 2016 post on one of the WordPress-hosted websites at issue claims that Arif was “charged with smuggling underage girls into the country for prostitution” and “accused of being the organizer of an international ring involving young girls.” It does not note that the charges were dropped.

Automattic partially complied with the request and blocked access to the website in Turkey, the company told The Daily Beast. Paul Sieminski, Automattic’s general counsel, said it risked the country’s government blocking access to all Wordpress-hosted sites if it failed to comply.

“This is not a decision we take lightly, but in our experience, failing to comply with a court order of this kind results in the blocking of all of WordPress.com, in Turkey—which removes the site in question, plus the millions of other sites that we host,” Sieminski wrote in an emailed statement.

Google did not respond to requests for comment on the takedown notices, though the websites listed in Arif’s complaint are still accessible from a US IP address. Efforts to reach Arif were unsuccessful, and Bayrock did not respond to questions.

Read my original posts by clicking here and here.