Trumpian PR Campaign Whitewashes Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waqas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he placed the article hailing the dismissal of tax charges against Sater, and said that his client had written the actual text. He said Sater himself did not pay to place the article, but would not say who had compensated him for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was unable to reach Arif for comment.

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

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HuffPost Ends Unpaid Blogger Platform

— HuffPost ends its platform for unpaid bloggers after “puff piece” about Donald Trump’s criminal ex-business partner

Last month, I blogged about the HuffPost’s retraction of a paid article published via its contributor platform that was intended to burnish the reputation of former Trump advisor Felix Sater.

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

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

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

Waqas confirmed to The Daily Beast that he placed the article hailing the dismissal of tax charges against Sater, and said that his client had written the actual text. He said Sater himself did not pay to place the article, but would not say who had compensated him for it.

Citing the above story, today The New York Times reported that the HuffPost is ending its contributor platform in order to “minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.”

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

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

An early example of the unfiltered amateur journalism that propagated on the internet, the contributor pages were a mix of reported pieces and personal essays, and even generated national news. In 2008, Mayhill Fowler, a woman who said she had sold her car to fund travel on the campaign trail, set off a firestorm when she quoted Barack Obama at a fund-raiser saying that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.”

But the site’s days of encouraging everyday citizens to report on the news are over. On Thursday, it said it was immediately dissolving its self-publishing contributors platform — which has mushroomed to include 100,000 writers — in what is perhaps the most significant break from the past under its editor in chief, Lydia Polgreen, who joined the news site, which is now called HuffPost, a year ago.

The decision was rooted as much in a move to declutter the site as in Ms. Polgreen’s desire to focus on quality reporting and minimize unvetted stories at a time when there is so much misinformation online.

The site’s everyone-is-welcome ethos was once seen as a democratizing force in news. But Ms. Polgreen said in an interview that unfiltered platforms had devolved into “cacophonous, messy, hard-to-hear places where voices get drowned out and where the loudest shouting voice prevails.”

“Certainly the environment where fake news is flourishing is one where it gets harder and harder to support the idea of a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ kind of publishing platform,” Ms. Polgreen said.

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

In place of the unpaid contributors platform, the site introduced new opinion and personal sections that will include paid contributors who will work with HuffPost editors.

The closedown was subsequently covered by Politico, Variety, The Chicago Tribune, and Fox News, among others.

*Actually, the article had already been deleted when I inquired about it.

Oh Betsy!

— Did someone from Betsy DeVos’ investment firm try to scrub unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family from online bio?

Last month, I blogged that former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo paid an employee from his own PR firm to scrub Wikipedia of references linking him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and subsequently covered by The Washington Post.

Now I think I’ve found another one.

According to Wikipedia editing records, it appears that someone from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ private investment firm, Windquest Group, attempted to delete unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family.

Betsy DeVos (source)

DeVos was chairman of the firm at the time the edits were made in August 2015 by Wikipedia user “WindquestGroup,” who was subsequently banned indefinitely because the “account’s edits and/or username indicate that it is being used on behalf of a company, group, website or organization for purposes of promotion and/or publicity.”

The user had attempted to delete supposedly “unnecessary” facts that DeVos’ mother, Elsa Prince, once supported “an anti-gay marriage ballot proposal in California,” and that DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, “founded Blackwater USA, a private security firm” that killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

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The Blackwater founder is currently facing scrutiny “over reports that he met the head of a Russian investment fund in an apparent effort to set up a back channel for Russian communication with the Trump administration, and that senior Trump officials had authorized the meeting,” according to CNN.

Caputo Gets Streisanded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Caputo (source)

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saterized

— Obscene domain names once owned by Trump associate Felix Sater get snapped up after articles by Shooting the Messenger and The Daily Beast

Last week I scooped the story that Donald Trump’s former business partner, Felix Sater, possibly used to own a number of obscene domain names intended to disparage Sater’s Bayrock Group colleague, Jody Kriss.

In 2010, Kriss sued Bayrock for $1 billion, alleging that the New York real estate company and its partners, including Donald and Ivanka Trump, had illegally concealed Sater’s 1998 racketeering conviction and later 1999 sentencing.

Shortly after I published my post, The Daily Beast published the same story with the title, “Trump Pal Bought IAmAF**got.Com and VaginaBoy.Com, Then the Sites Attacked His Enemy.”

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Apparently, somebody thought this was the perfect opportunity to troll 2016 presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Yesterday, an anonymous troll re-registered IAmAFaggot.com. Only instead of Sater’s old site, visitors are now redirected to a blank page that says “Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer,” before being redirected yet again to Cruz’s official U.S. Senate site.

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“Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer” is a meme that began in 2013, and which according to The Guardian newspaper “satirizes the fact that political discourse in America has sunk so low that this kind of spurious accusation can actually get traction.”

According to Whois.com, the registrant used a privacy service to obscure their real name. However, a reverse Whois search shows that the site is hosted on a server owned by Austin native Steven Hughes.

Another domain mentioned in the articles, IAmADirtBag.com, is currently on sale for $6,000 at UnreasonablyPricedDomains.com, a side project of Brooklyn native Jeff Koyen’s Chaotic Neutral, a satirical site about management speak.

The sale tag reads: “Oops, someone forgot to renew their attack domain.”

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Twofer

— The Daily Beast publishes article featuring two Shooting the Messenger scoops

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I recently blogged these Donald Trump-related scoops:

1. The Felix Sater Files (Parts I and II), about how former Trump business partner Felix Sater apparently registered a number of crude domain names intended to disparage Sater’s Bayrock Group colleague Jody Kriss. Published: August 26, 2017.

2. Kriss-Krossed, about how Donald and Ivanka Trump were once named as co-defendants in a lawsuit against Bayrock initiated by Jody Kriss. Published: August 22, 2017.

Via “Trump Pal Bought IAmAF**got.Com and VaginaBoy.Com, Then the Sites Attacked His Enemy” by Betsy Woodruff, Katie Zavadski, and Ben Collins, The Daily Beast, August 29, 2017:

Sater used his email and office address to register websites including IAmAFaggot.com, IAmADirtbag.com, several variations of FecalBoy.com and FecalMatter.info, CuntMan.net, Blackmailer.net, VaginaBoy.com, and dozens of other crudely named domains.

While registered to Sater, some of those sites attacked Jody Kriss, Sater’s former business associate. The two used to work together at the Trump Tower-headquartered real-estate firm Bayrock, where Kriss served as a finance director until he left the company and sued them for money laundering, according to Bloomberg. Donald Trump was initially targeted in court by Kriss, as well.

Sater’s email and office address were used to register more than a dozen domain names relating to Kriss. Those sites then attacked Kriss for a lawsuit mentioning the Trump family, among others. That’s according to records The Daily Beast discovered using the domain analysis site DomainTools, which tracks changes in official domain registrar databases.

[…]

Kriss and others filed a $1 billion New York state lawsuit another [sic] against Bayrock, Sater, and others in May 2013, over the alleged concealment of Sater’s 1998 racketeering conviction. Donald and Ivanka Trump were also listed on the suit as a type of defendant; the plaintiffs asked the judge to find whether they might also be owed declaratory relief. The Trumps were dropped from the suit three weeks later.

The story was also picked up by Raw Story, MarketWatch, Digg, and others.

Update, 01/09/2017: Last month I sent the above story to a reporter at The Daily Beast. I wasn’t credited on the article, so yesterday I sent an attribution request to executive editor Noah Shachtman, who told me that Daily Beast reporter Ben Collins found this story independent of me, and that the similarities between the two stories are coincidental.

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.