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.

Round-Up 2019: Creating a Buzz

Hackers, backlinks, and Russian trolls. Revisiting my scoopiest stories of 2019

First up, a perennial thanks to zen master blogger Peter Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman, BuzzFeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman, EIC Ben Smith, and online disinfo chronicler extraordinaire Jane Lytvynenko, Daily Beast EIC Noah Shachtman, reporters Lachlan Markay, Lachlan Cartwright, and Asawin Suebsaeng, Truth or Fiction? Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski, Volokh Conspiracy (via Reason.com) co-founder Eugene Volokh, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing, Foreign Policy reporter Amy Mackinnon, investigative reporter Casey Michel, FoodMed.net editor Marika Sboros, journalist/author Nina Teicholz, online disinfo researcher DivestTrump, and the many editors, copy editors, and lawyers who work hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble.

Big thanks also to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, which in 2019 denied three frivolous legal requests to remove content on this blog, including from the Indian government (click here and here to read Eugene Volokh’s coverage of those requests).

After co-bylining a series of investigative stories for The Daily Beast in 2018, in April I started freelancing for BuzzFeed News. But not before co-bylining one last story with DB’s Lachlan Markay. An update to the Forrest Gumpian saga of Kremlin media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich — who has a knack for popping up in unexpected (and not-so-unexpected) places — the story chronicled Malkevich’s attempts to navigate US Treasury Department sanctions placed on him and his now-infamous Russian propaganda site USA Really in late 2018.

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Alexander Malkevich (source)

Via “Google Yanks Services From Russian Propaganda Site” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, February 07, 2019:

Tech giant Google has cut off a sanctioned Russian propaganda website from popular tools that allowed the site to track and collect extensive data on the site’s readers.

The website, USA Really, has been barred from using Google Analytics, the company told The Daily Beast last week, depriving the site of reporting data on readers’ countries of origin, time of visit, pages visited, referring websites, IP addresses, and types of operating systems. The information is typically used for search engine optimization and marketing purposes.

It’s the latest setback for USA Really, which has seen multiple other tech firms cut ties with the site after its parent company, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), was hit with U.S. sanctions in December. Federal authorities accuse FAN of complicity in a widespread, Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta…”

Sanctions against FAN also have USA Really’s American contributors reconsidering their own involvement, given the possibility that any payments for their writing might run afoul of prohibitions on business dealings with the site.

“Our authors continue to cooperate with us,” Malkevich told The Daily Beast. “They write about their thoughts, about the problems of American society…”

Asked about the future of USA Really, he said he is currently exploring ways to navigate the new sanctions while waiting for federal authorities to confirm whether or not he has the right to continue operating in the United States.

“WHY I HAVE THE RIGHT TO RUN MY SITE??????????????,” he replied when asked to elaborate. “1. IT IS MY OWN PROJECT 2. I REALLY LOVE TO WRITE 3. US DIDN’T SUGGEST ME ANYTHING ONLY SANCTIONS NO COMMUNICATION NO LETTERS NO ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS NO COOPERATION.

“I AM REALLY UPSET BECAUSE OF ALL THESE THINGS,” he added. “AND NOW YOU WANT TO CONSRUCT [sic] SOME THEORY OF PLOT AGAINST US?

“WITCH HUNT 2019? ALL ANERICANS [sic] CAN WRITE ANYTHING FOR US.”

Click here to read the full story.

Despite a glowing review of our story by one of USA Really’s American contributors, Malkevich subsequently quit the site to lead the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), a self-described “small non-government organisation” that purportedly conducts sociological research to sell to “businessmen” and “other people who are in need of them.” At FPNV, Malkevich spent the rest of 2019 fending off allegations (including criminal charges against two of FPNV’s employees) that he was involved in Kremlin-backed efforts to interfere in African elections.

In March, I scooped The Atlantic to a story about Alexander Ionov, a gun-toting Russian lawyer, businessman, and financial supporter of fringe secessionist movements across the globe, and who in 2018 launched a fundraising site to help pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills.

Maria Butina (source)

Via “The Enigmatic Russian Paying Maria Butina’s Legal Bills” by Natasha Bertrand, The Atlantic, March 20, 2019:

Maria Butina, the first Russian to plead guilty to seeking to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election, remains somewhat of a mystery. But her prosecution in Washington, D.C., last year shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. New revelations about Butina’s legal-defense fund in Russia shows that one of her backers has been trying to promote fringe separatist movements in the U.S. since well before 2016.

In 2018, Alexander Ionov, the founder of the NGO, called the Anti-Globalization Movement, began raising money for Butina through a fundraising website that says all proceeds will be “used to finance legal protection and to improve the conditions of Maria’s detention in prison.” The website was first discovered by freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones. To date, Ionov has raised about 2 million rubles (approximately $30,000) to help pay her legal fees, he told me in a recent interview. The Russian embassy, which has been advocating for Butina’s release, did not return a request for comment.

Click here to read the full story.

May spawned an unexpected marriage of the above-mentioned stories when Malkevich — whose involvement in USA Really I’d scooped in 2018 (click here for The Daily Beast’s follow up to my story) — told me he’d been paying Butina’s legal bills through Ionov in order to circumvent the financial restrictions that come with being sanctioned. Investigative reporter Casey Michel also wrote about this via his perch at ThinkProgress.

Alexander Ionov (source)

Ionov and Butina’s American attorney Robert Driscoll did not return requests for comment. But at a press conference held in Moscow the following month, Ionov appeared to comment on the two stories by Michel and me, falsely claiming that we had launched a campaign to block the transfer of money.

Via “In Russia, it is Necessary to Create a Fund to Support Compatriots” by Alexander Malkevich, FPNV, July 4, 2019:

Alexander Ionov said that the task now is to do everything possible so that the legal interests and rights of Maria Butina are respected, and this requires the work of lawyers. He hopes that the support provided will help shorten the term of the Russians in prison.

At the same time, he noted that now in the USA psychological pressure is being put on them, including from a number of American media.

“When they saw that there were citizens concerned about the situation, funds transferring money, they began a campaign to counteract the receipt of money by lawyers, so that they would refuse protection,” said Alexander Ionov [emphasis added].

When Butina eventually returned to Moscow, Ionov and Malkevich (holding a bouquet of flowers) were waiting for her at the airport. Butina later penned an article for FPNV headlined “Oh Please, Make Me a Tool of American Propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system.

In April, I wrote my first story for BuzzFeed News, “How A Popular Women’s Website Became A Pay-To-Play Nightmare,” detailing the weird but not-so-wonderful afterlife of once-popular women’s site The Frisky (the story was later cited by the New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review).

On first glance, the Frisky appears to be a thriving women’s entertainment and lifestyle website. Founded in 2008 “for women, by women,” the site currently attracts over 1 million pageviews per month.

But beneath the surface, the site is filled with a strange mix of awkwardly written celebrity clickbait, articles promoting floorcare and acupuncture, and a post that attacks Long Island attorney Frederick Oberlander, a nemesis of onetime Trump business partner Felix Sater. The bylines of the site’s original authors have also been scrubbed and replaced by pseudonyms and stolen profile photos.

The Frisky as it once existed is gone. Today it’s a vampire website feeding off the property’s former popularity and brand name to sell pay-for-play articles in order to influence search engine rankings. The site is one of a growing number of once-lucrative web domains that are taken over and then milked for every last drop of search engine optimization value before they are inevitably downranked for shady practices.

Click here to read the full story.

In July, I wrote my second deep dive into the often murky world of SEO, “There’s An Underground Economy Selling Links From The New York Times, BBC, CNN, And Other Big News Sites,” about digital marketers who find dead links on mainstream news sites and redirect them to their clients’ sites in order to manipulate Google search results (the story was subsequently translated and republished on BuzzFeed Japan).

In 2012, the Hollywood Reporter published a glowing obituary for Patricia Disney, the first wife of former Walt Disney executive Roy Disney. In tribute to her philanthropic work, the obituary included a link to WeLovePatty.com, a memorial site where readers could donate to charities in her honor. But if you click on the link to that memorial site today, you’ll be taken to blaze4days.com, a cannabis blog offering content such as “Videos to Watch When High (Best of 2019).”

At some point, her family took down WeLovePatty.com and stopped paying for the domain name. That enabled it to be hijacked by parasitic digital marketers who trick readers into visiting sites that sometimes sell sketchy products and services. Search engine optimization consultants buy expired URLs that have been linked to by prominent news websites and redirect these domains to their clients’ sites in a bid to game search results.

Click here to read the full story.

In December, I proudly shared my final BuzzFeed News byline of 2019 with the site’s media editor Craig Silverman, a leading authority on online mis/disinformation and author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech (based on the blog of the same name). Our story, “Hackers Are Breaking Into Websites And Adding Links To Game Google,” investigated hackers who break into sites in order to sell backlinks and — yes — manipulate search results.

…Websites of all types and sizes, and especially those that use the open-source version of WordPress, are hacked to inject links to manipulate search engine results. A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals how injected links are sold by global networks of online marketplaces and black hat SEO consultants who offer customers the ability to have links placed on compromised websites.

Among those affected are journalists, celebrities, churches, charities, veterans organizations, and the managing director of Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm. Injected backlinks on these compromised sites quickly improve the search engine rankings of customers’ web properties by exploiting Google’s preference for sites that receive a high quantity of links from authoritative sites. That in turn helps the customer sites attract more traffic, and in some cases, increase sales.

BuzzFeed News obtained lists of more than 20,000 websites where backlinks can allegedly be added for a fee, and confirmed multiple cases where links were added to these and other sites without the owner’s knowledge…

Click here to read the full story.
Click here for a list of sites not included in our story.

WaPo Cites Article I Co-Authored for The Daily Beast

WaPo’s story, about the Wikipedia fact-checking community, cited a July 2018 story I co-authored with Daily Beast political reporter Lachlan Markay

Via “Checking the Web on Hunter Biden? A 36-year-old physicist helps decide what you’ll see,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post, September 25, 2019:

Wikipedia’s rules of engagement have gradually accreted over the years. The guidelines are most stringent for living people, governed by three main principles: neutral point of view, verifiability and no original research.

Bots are employed to guard against basic disruption, and the automated software is responsible for as many as one-third of the edits to the site globally, and many more to its underlying data, according to a 2014 paper . A “recent changes patrol,” or RC patrol, is composed of individual users, who watch for more subtle intrusion and hash out disagreements about edits on a page’s “talk” section. Administrators oversee the process.

The setup has faced high-profile tests before. In the spring of 2018, anonymous editors detected suspect activity on a page for Maria Butina, a Russian woman accused of running a covert operation to gain influence with American conservatives. Some of the activity — an attempt to excise unflattering information — was traced to the university in Washington where Butina had been studying. The information was restored [emphasis added].

And here’s an excerpt from “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

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

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

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

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

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

A spokesman for American University confirmed that the IP addresses were associated with the school’s network, but declined to comment further, citing student privacy concerns.

Daily Beast: Google Yanks Services From Sanctioned Russian Website

USAReally.com has been barred from using Google Analytics as the website’s American contributors reconsider their involvement

— The site’s parent company has postponed its lawsuit against Facebook while its attorneys apply for a sanctions exemption. Read my latest at The Daily Beast.

Via “Google Yanks Services From Russian Propaganda Site” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, February 07, 2019:

Tech giant Google has cut off a sanctioned Russian propaganda website from popular tools that allowed the site to track and collect extensive data on the site’s readers.

The website, USA Really, has been barred from using Google Analytics, the company told The Daily Beast last week, depriving the site of reporting data on readers’ countries of origin, time of visit, pages visited, referring websites, IP addresses, and types of operating systems. The information is typically used for search engine optimization and marketing purposes.

It’s the latest setback for USA Really, which has seen multiple other tech firms cut ties with the site after its parent company, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), was hit with U.S. sanctions in December. Federal authorities accuse FAN of complicity in a widespread, Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta…”

The sanctions have also thrown a wrench into a FAN lawsuit against another tech giant, Facebook, over its closure of USA Really’s pages on that platform, part of a long-running effort to rid Facebook of malicious foreign propaganda efforts…

Both parties agreed on Tuesday to postpone a conference later this month to update a federal judge on the status of the lawsuit. Treasury’s sanctions against FAN require its attorneys—with the U.S. law firms Diamond McCarthy and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston—to obtain a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to continue their representation…

Sanctions against FAN also have USA Really’s American contributors reconsidering their own involvement, given the possibility that any payments for their writing might run afoul of prohibitions on business dealings with the site.

“Our authors continue to cooperate with us,” Malkevich told The Daily Beast. “They write about their thoughts, about the problems of American society.”

Click here to read the full story.

And here’s a response from USA Really author Jeffrey Silverman, who was quoted in the article:

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A couple of days back The Daily Beast published an article on USA Really titled “Google Yanks Services from Russian Propaganda Site.” The foregone conclusion upon reading the title would be that USA Really is “Guilty as Charged!”

However, I must admit that barring the click-bait like title the article was more balanced than expected.

Since I have been a regular contributor to USA Really, the authors of the Daily Beast article while working on the article contacted me and other writers with their many questions. I was a bit skeptical to communicate with them at first, as my experience communicating with the American mainstream media in the past had not been very productive.

My previous comments to the media were construed to present views that were contrary to mine—taken out of context.  More often than not, to distort what I actually said, with few exceptions.

However, I decided to discuss the matters with them thinking that this might be a chance to tell the true story, the story of how USA Really, just because of its Russian roots, is being harassed.  At least to be able to demonstrate that neither I personally nor USA Really had anything to hide… we were both being upfront and transparent.

My trust in The Daily Beast has paid up, albeit not entirely, but certainly more than I had honestly expected. And I am not the only one who felt this. A colleague of mine during an informal discussion shared:

“Fairly balanced article, I would say. Other than the fact that in the title of the article as well as in the very first sentence they mention USA Really to be a propaganda website; they would have done better by saying ‘alleged propaganda website.”

Surprisingly the article mentioned my true credentials stating, and put all my comments correctly without twisting them, unlike some other previous publications that described me as being an eccentric American with an ax to grind against the US government.

“Jeffrey K. Silverman, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based U.S. Army veteran who previously worked for Radio Free Europe, has written over 30 articles for USA Really on topics as varied as the BDS movement and the tobacco industry. In an e-mail, Silverman said that he continues to write for the site on a paid basis despite the sanctions.

I don’t know how they could legally apply to a US citizen, as the 1st Amendment still applies …”I continue to cooperate, and with greater enthusiasm. I don’t like being told as a US citizen that I am subject to 1984 and USSR-styled censorship.”

With Dean Sterling Jones—the article’s author—I shared my dilemma of not getting an answer from responsible American authorities (Treasury Department and American Citizen Services) about my legal plight and whether I can legally contribute to USA Really, even after asking them multiple times.

Consequently, Dean tried contacting the concerned departments to get their side of the story too. And unsurprisingly, as with my requests, Dean’s too were met by a wall of silence. I know many would say that we did not receive any response was because of the government shutdown, but deep down my heart I know that it is a device of subterfuge—on the part of the US government.

Or maybe they are waiting to ambush me on my next trip to the US, as they have done in the past, [at the airport] or are just not willing or capable of putting anything of substance in writing.

Or, maybe these sanctions are but a Red Herring because there must be some serious reason for picking on a fringe alternative media site, and based on my experience they are testing the waters to understand as to who they can block next?

Click here to read Silverman’s full article.

Round-Up 2018: Here’s the Scoop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felix Sater (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Malkevich (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA Really (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Butina (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Pecker (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Putin (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story was subsequently covered by The Hill.

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for more stories from 2018.

Daily Beast: D.C. Media Venture Boasts Indicted Russian Agent as CFO

In June, USA Really tried to set up shop in Washington D.C. It just implicated itself in a multi-million dollar criminal conspiracy. Check out my latest byline at The Daily Beast.

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

Daily Beast: Pecker Pulls Back on Pro-Trump Coverage

National Enquirer boss tiptoes away from his pal Trump, with an assist from Hollywood’s leading talent agency. Check out my latest byline at The Daily Beast

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Click here to read the full article.

The story was covered by MSNBC’s Katy Tur here, CNN’s Brian Stelter here, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Pete Vernon here, and Vox’s Jennie Neufeld here.

Update, August 10, 2018: The Wrap picked up the story.

Two people inside the offices of talent agency WME attempted to remove damning information from the Wikipedia pages of its Co-CEO Ari Emanuel and one of his parent company’s clients, American Media Incorporated, a new report says. [Note: It’s unclear how many people edited the pages].

In July, a user with an IP address originating from the agency’s New York headquarters attempted to scrub sections detailing AMI Chief Executive Officer David Pecker’s accused role in the scandal surrounding President Trump and Playboy model Karen McDougal, the Daily Beast reported late Friday.

The report said a second user also removed several blocks of text from Emanuel’s personal page about a 2008 sexual harassment case involving the agency. A spokesperson for Emanuel declined to comment on the matter.

Anyone with access to WME’s wireless internet network would be registered to their IP address, one individual familiar with the company told TheWrap (a similar sentiment was echoed in the Daily Beast). Wikipedia pages are edited by the site’s user community, so the attempted changes were all eventually undone. An AMI spokesperson did not return TheWrap’s request for comment on the report.

The effort to clean up Pecker’s profile, the Beast reported, was largely initiated to distance the media owner from President Trump. In addition to removing a section that referred to the men as “close friends,” it also stripped large chunks of backstory about Pecker and the alleged coverup of Trump’s accused affair with Playmate McDougal, the story said.

Click here to read the full article.

Sex, Lies and Wikipedia

Who scrubbed the Wikipedia bio of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina? Read my latest at The Daily Beast, plus coverage of the story by The Rachel Maddow Show

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

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

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

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

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

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

The edit campaign began in March when an anonymous Wikipedia user made a series of five edits to Butina’s page. The edits included adding details of her biography and noting the Russian spelling of Right to Bear Arms (Право на оружие), the non-profit gun rights group she founded in 2011 to “improve weapons culture” and provide gun owners with access to free legal advice.

The account’s only identifying information was an IP address traced to web servers at American University, the school where Butina studied from mid-2016 through the spring of 2018, and which federal prosecutors say she used to obtain a U.S. student visa. In April, another Wikipedia account sprouted up and made four edits to Butina’s page. That account also used an IP address associated with AU.

Click here to read the full article.

And via The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, July 24, 2018:

Transcript: If you were intrigued by this information about Maria Butina and her alleged boyfriend and her being in jail awaiting charges and him being an alleged co-conspirator and potentially being the subject of another federal investigation, I mean, this is the collusion case, right? It might make you want to look up more information on these two characters.

Well, their Wikipedia pages have been scrubbed clean. “The Daily Beast” tonight has a great report up on this, detailing dozens of edits to both of the Wikipedia pages for Maria Butina and for Paul Erickson, dropping all information about allege ties to the Russian government, alleged efforts to broke her meetings between Trump and Putin during the campaign, reported criminal history, reported business history between them, references to investigative reporting about Russian money being potentially had funnelled through the NRA, all of that is gone, all removed.

And the beauty of something like Wikipedia is that Wikipedia has regenerative power once somebody mounts an effort to the make real information go away, other people are likely to reinstate thought real information. But there has been a diligent effort online to submarine all of that information about this accused Russian agent who tonight sits in jail, as well as the American who allegedly helped her.

“The Daily Beast” reports now that at least some of the edits to these Wikipedia pages were made from an account that was maintained on the Russian language version of Wikipedia.

Pro-Trump Bot Campaign Tries to Hijack Daily Beast Article About Pro-Trump Bot Campaign

An online media campaign to obscure unflattering news articles about Donald Trump has targeted a Daily Beast article I co-authored about the campaign

Earlier today, Twitter purged tens of millions of fake and suspicious accounts in a seeming attempt to restore trust in the embattled social media platform, which had been exploited by Russian operatives allegedly in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election.

But while celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey lost millions of followers during the purge, fake accounts involved in an online media campaign to bury unflattering news articles about Donald Trump remain live and tweeting. In fact, they’ve found a shiny new target: an investigative piece I recently co-authored with The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay about the campaign itself.

In that article, we examined attempts by Indian and Indonesian reputation management companies to influence Google’s search results—including paid content published on fake websites, Facebook, and Twitter accounts—relating to Trump’s relationship with Russia-linked former Trump Organization business partners Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater.

source

Ironically, when readers of The Daily Beast began tweeting about the campaign, they were deluged with messages from some of the same fake Twitter accounts mentioned in our article. The accounts appear to have been programmed to reply to iterations of Arif’s name. For example, here’s a quote from our article that was posted by Twitter user YourVoteYourVoice…

source

…and here are replies that user received from some of the fake accounts, which linked to now-defunct dummy websites about Arif and Sater:

Although Twitter has not deleted the fake accounts, their posts are currently hidden by a content warning, indicating that Twitter is aware of them:

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: