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:

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.”

Beast from the East

— Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about a DC-based Russian disinformation media campaign headed by a Russian government policy adviser

Last week, I blogged an original story about a new Washington DC-based Russian disinformation campaign that was the culmination of over a month’s research.

The story was subsequently picked up by The Daily Beast and cited in The Washington Post and Politico daily round-ups.

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

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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.

Malkevich sits on the Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media and communication. He is also running the show at USA Really, according to an FAN video on the project. The video features shots of a USA Really office space adorned with an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a framed “Make America Great Again” poster of President Donald Trump.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.”

Via “The Daily 202: North Korea summit prep encapsulates Trump’s winging-it presidency” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, June 11, 2018:

A Russian government adviser has launched a new media venture aimed at waging an “information war” in the United States and Europe. The outlet, called “USA Really,” attempted to hold a White House rally in protest of “growing political censorship … aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation,” but its permits were denied. (Daily Beast)

Via “Power Briefing: All eyes on Trump-Kim meeting” by Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, Daniel Lippman, and Zach Montellaro, Politico, June 11, 2018:

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

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.

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.

Politiscoop

— Politico profile on “amateur sleuths” highlights three Shooting the Messenger Trump scoops

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Via “Amateur sleuths hunt for Trump bombshells” by Darren Samuelsohn, Politico, August 20, 2017:

Countless amateur sleuths are on the case, from a short-order cook in Belfast whose research was recently cited by the Daily Beast to a Florida art teacher who tells POLITICO he is applying his pattern-recognition skills to Trump’s sprawling business empire.

[…]

Anyone can join the hunt—even a 28-year old Irish short-order cook like Dean Sterling Jones, who grills salmon, burgers and steaks at Thyme, a restaurant in Belfast, but whose blog says his “principal activity is investigative reporting based on deep research using public records.” It only took Jones a few weeks of digging to find a couple of scoops. One of them, that former Trump business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub online details about his arrest (and subsequent acquittal) for underage prostitution, was picked up by the Daily Beast last month.

On his blog, Jones—who briefly worked as a community newspaper reporter —has also 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. He has also 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.

“This is simply a hobby that I do in my spare time,” between the breakfast and dinner shifts, Jones explained.

Where’s the Beef?

Politico reports that the BMJ will not retract “controversial” dietary guidelines article by Nina Teicholz, author of New York Times best-seller, The Big Fat Surprise

Via Politico’s Morning Agriculture (MA) blog, Teicholz said she was notified of the journal’s decision after it conducted a months-long review:

A controversial article questioning the science behind the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that appeared in the British Medical Journal a year ago today won’t be retracted, its author, Nina Teicholz, tells MA. “The BMJ has informed me, in writing, that they have made the decision not to retract the article,” Teicholz said in an email.

Teicholz was quoted in another article by Retraction Watch as saying that outside reviewers found that her criticism of the methods used by the DGAC “[is] within the realm of scientific discussion, and [is] therefore not grounds for retraction.”

The news comes exactly one year after the BMJ published “The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?”, Teicholz’s September 23, 2015 article criticising the methodology and findings of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).

As reported on this blog and on The Sidebar (Atlanta, GA reporter Peter M. Heimlich’s top drawer website), Washington DC-based advocacy non-profit, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), aggressively campaigned to get the article retracted.

Leading the charge was CSPI’s Director of Nutrition Bonnie Liebman, who in her September 23, 2015 opening salvo called Teicholz’s article an “error-laden attack” on the 2015 DGAC report:

The DGAC’s advice is consistent with dietary advice from virtually every major health authority [but] Teicholz would have us believe that only she, not the dozens of experts who systematically reviewed the evidence for these health authorities, has the smarts to accurately interpret this evidence.

On November 5, a letter organised by Liebman was sent to the BMJ highlighting what it claimed were a number of factual errors with Teicholz’s article.

The letter, which was signed by over 180 credentialed professionals, including a number of prominent faculty members at major universities, plus all 14 members of the 2015 DGAC, urged the BMJ to retract the article on the basis that it harmed the journal’s credibility.

However, the credibility of the letter was itself soon called into question.

As reported by the Guardian in April, none of the signatories interviewed for Ian Leslie’s acclaimed article, “The Sugar Conspiracy” – including Dr. Meir Stampfer, an influential Harvard epidemiologist – were able to name any of the “trivial” errors with Teicholz’s article, with one even admitting he had not read it.

But the most explosive revelation came in May, when Peter – with help from my sweetie Kelsi White and I – exposed efforts by another Harvard epidemiologist, DGAC member Dr. Frank Hu, to solicit European signatures to Liebman’s retraction demand which resulted in a chain e-mail exchanged by European medical professionals and university faculty.

You can read more about that, and other related items, via Peter’s blog herehere and here.

Until the BMJ releases its findings, it’s unclear whether the journal will make corrections to Teicholz’s article, but here’s what Teicholz, Liebman, and BMJ editor in chief Fiona Godlee told Retraction Watch:

“The BMJ’s decision vindicates the view that it’s important to have open debate and discussion over scientific issues, especially when they have such an oversized impact on public health, and even when large, vested interests are at stake” – Nina Teicholz

“Until [the review is released], we really don’t know the end of the story. It would be a shame if the media handled the story as if the case is closed, when really it isn’t…

“…I’m frustrated. It’s been a year since the original article was published, and more than 10 months since more than 180 scientists called for a retraction…Here we are in September, and we still have heard nothing” – Bonnie Liebman

“You can be sure that we will let you know as soon as our review of this matter is complete, which we hope will be very soon” – Fiona Godlee