BuzzFeed Unearths Recruitment Ads for Russian Troll Factory

— The notorious troll factory posted ads on Russian job websites in mid-2014 and 2015 while allegedly engaged in operations to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election

Yesterday, I blogged that the recently indicted Russian troll factory, Internet Research Agency (IRA), recruited its U.S. election meddling troll army of “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

Today, BuzzFeed picked-up the story.

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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.

They wrote that that the other candidates doing the “internship” were largely between 18 and 20 years.

Read the full article by clicking here.

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

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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.”

Read the full article by clicking here.

Russian Election Trolls Were Recruited via Online Job Posts

— Russian troll factory recruited “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, allegedly expected applicants to work for free

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice released the latest round of indictments in the federal investigation into alleged election meddling.

The indictments name 13 Russian nationals who allegedly “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” on behalf of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious pro-Putin “troll farm” based in Saint Petersburg.

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According to the indictments, IRA trolls purchased “political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities,” organised “political rallies inside the United States…while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons,” and “without revealing their Russian association,” even “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

It would appear that members of IRA’s so-called troll army were carefully selected-and-vetted masters of political subterfuge.

However, archived job posts show the company recruited staff by placing conspicuous-sounding ads on Russian job websites, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

The ads for “Social Networking Specialist,” “Media Monitoring Specialist,” and “Content Manager,” among otherswere placed mid-2014, around the same time it’s alleged that IRA began operations to interfere in the 2016 election.

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Via Google Translate:

LLC Internet Research

St. Petersburg

Required work experience: 1-3 years

Full time, full day

SMM Manager / Social Networking Specialist / SMM Specialist

Duties:

Conducting projects in social networks
Preparation of thematic posts
Content placement
Work with reviews
Development and implementation of mechanisms to attract the audience of social networks
Conducting groups in social networks: filling with information content, links, surveys
Monitoring company mentions on the network
Monitoring of target groups
Monitoring social networks and the blogosphere

Requirements:

Knowledge of the basics of SMM / SMO
Competent Russian language
Experience of successful work with social networks (content and attracting the audience)
Creativity of thinking
The ability to write information texts
Confident PC user Responsibility, dedication, active life position, initiative, diligence, ability to work in a team
The experience of creating a community (launching and maintaining discussions)
Own active blog or group in social networks

Conditions:

Opportunity for professional growth and career development
Work in a young and friendly team
Working hours: 5/2
Wages up to 40,000 rubles
Staraya Derevnya, m. Chernaya Rechka
Full time in the employer’s territory

According to a post by a former IRA intern on another Russian job website that allows employees to review their employers, a revolving door of “very young adolescent 18-20-year-old” applicants were expected to work for free at the behest of the “ubiquitous aunt Tatyana”—presumably referring to Tatyana Kazakbayeva, who according to Business Insider used to work at the company.

In 2015, IRA was sued by a former employee, St. Petersburg resident Lyudmila Savchuk, for non-payment of wages and for failing to give employees proper working contracts.

Savchuck received symbolic damages of one rouble after reaching an agreement with her former employer.

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 Deletes Sponsored Trump-Russia Article

— HuffPost deletes sponsored news story about controversial “Russia-gate” figure/former Donald Trump business partner Felix Sater

Last week, I blogged about a coordinated PR campaign seemingly intended to burnish the reputation of controversial Russian-American real estate investor Felix Sater, who collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects.

Now it emerges that U.S. news website, HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post), has retracted an article it appears was part of the fake news campaign.

The deleted article, “Case Against Felix Sater Dismissed By New York Court,” was published by Waqas KH, founder of Pakistani SEO marketing website, SteveSeos.com.

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On Fiverr, Waqas goes by the name “niko_seo.”

For roughly $80, niko_seo will “publish your story or business story on Huffingtonpost with my contributor account.”

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In an e-mail, Waqas confirmed that someone paid him to publish the article, but wouldn’t say who.

Meanwhile, HuffPost has deleted all of Waqas’ content. Click the link to the former contributor’s article and you’ll see a message which states: “This post from The Huffington Post Contributor Platform is no longer available on our site.”

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The article is just one of several recent news items about Sater that have popped up on pay-to-publish digital marketing websites, and which are currently being spread by dozens of fake Twitter accounts.

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Sater denies knowing about any efforts to burnish his reputation.

Update, December 14, 2017: Yesterday, I sent an e-mail asking HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen to comment. Today, a spokesperson for HuffPost sent me this statement:

Anyone found to be self-publishing paid content on the HuffPost Contributors Network is in violation of our terms of use. Anyone we discover to be engaging in such abuse has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.

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.

Twitter Trolls Tout Trump

— Fake Twitter accounts have launched a PR campaign to burnish the reputation of Moscow-born former Donald Trump advisor Felix Sater ahead of his interview with House Intelligence Committee staffers

Sater is likely to testify about his role during the Trump campaign, including a 2015 proposal for the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow involving Russian president Vladimir Putin, which Sater said would help Trump win the presidency.

Felix Sater with Donald Trump (source)

Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish the reputation of the twice-convicted Bayrock Group co-founder and self-described “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.”

The campaign centres around a Business Insider UK article by Natasha Bertrand about the recent dismissal of a $250 million civil tax fraud case against Sater.

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It appears that the purpose of the campaign, which launched shortly before news broke about Sater’s upcoming interview, is to attempt to re-contextualise his relationship with the president.

Take for example this tweet, which characterised the dismissal of the case against Sater as “another victory for our great president Trump reputation”:

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Another fake tweet characterised the dismissal as a “great win for President too”:

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It’s unclear who is behind the covert campaign.

When asked to comment, Sater said it was his “first time hearing about this.”

Whoever the culprit is, it seems likely that 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 the majority of the accounts promoting Sater have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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If anyone thinks they know the answer to this one, feel free to leave a comment.

Update, December 14, 2017: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the House Intelligence Committee has scheduled staff interviews with Sater to take place in New York next week.

Top Trumps Endorse Sater

— Top Trump Organization executives endorse controversial “Russia-gate” figure Felix Sater on business networking website LinkedIn

As the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling heats up, a controversial Moscow-born real estate investor and former “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” is back in the spotlight.

Felix Sater gained notoriety during the 2016 election when his criminal past became a focal point for journalists investigating Trump’s business ties to Russia.

Sater (right) at the launch of Trump SoHo (source)

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Sater collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects, including the troubled Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan.

After his collaborative work with Trump, Sater is best known for stabbing a man in the neck with a broken margarita glass, and for his involvement in a $40 million mafia-linked racketeering scheme that robbed two elderly holocaust survivors of their savings (when the couple tried to recoup their money, Sater threatened to sue).

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In recent years, Trump has sought to distance himself from his former business partner, and in a 2013 video deposition for a civil lawsuit testified that “if [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

However, recent reports by The New York Times suggest Trump has an ongoing relationship with Sater reaching far beyond the now-president’s business empire.

In a 2015 e-mail, Sater promised Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen that he would engineer a real estate deal with the aid of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, which he said would help Trump win the presidency.

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Earlier this year, Sater met with Cohen to discuss a plan to lift sanctions against Russia. Cohen subsequently hand-delivered the proposals to the office of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who last week pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

Now new details have emerged that shed light on Trump’s shadowy relationship to Sater, whose LinkedIn profile states that he worked for The Trump Organization as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” between 2010 and 2011.

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According to LinkedIn, no fewer than four top executives who were “Felix’s colleagues at The Trump Organization,” including executive vice president and counsel George A. Sorial, have endorsed Sater using the site.

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Sorial, sometimes referred to as Trump’s “right-hand man,” endorsed Sater in the categories of “Real Estate,” “Real Estate Development,” and “Due Diligence.”

Sater’s other endorsements include former senior advisor to Trump, Michael Boccio; former vice president of The Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Matthew Brimhall; and former Trump Organization purchasing director, Sid Leibowitz.

Tying together his business and political interests, Sater’s Linkedin profile also includes two noteworthy congratulatory posts about his former boss.

The first, from May 4, 2016:

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And the second, from November 11, 2016:

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Sekulow Gets Blindsided

— Watch Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow’s rambling on-air response to news that former Trump adviser Michael Flynn had been charged with lying to the FBI

Amid the American carnage of yesterday’s news that former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, you might have missed this gem via Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Sekulow is the son of ACLJ’s chief counsel Jay Sekulow, who is part of the legal team charged with advising Trump during the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Jordan and Jay Sekulow (source)

Yesterday, the younger Sekulow went on Fox News to give his opinion on an unrelated story about Bill Clinton.

During that segment, Fox host Bill Hemmer interrupted Sekulow to break the news about Flynn.

Here’s Sekulow’s unscripted response:

Hemmer: The charge is about making false statements, so that could be what he is going to address at 10:30 a.m. eastern time, the charge of lying.

Sekulow: Yeah, and I think that that could still work with the plea deal itself, it depends on who is taking him to court, whether it is the special counsel or another matter. But if it is the special counsel – it should be under that jurisdiction – then those false statements, it could be that he is being with them, that could then lead to, if it is correct, and we don’t know if he actually does have a plea deal or not, but if it’s correct that could be the catalyst against the actual plea deal.

For the characteristically cocksure Sekulow, his response here is quite the turnaround.

In August, Sekulow went on Fox’s America’s Newsroom to dismiss the Mueller investigation and to personally attack me and other independent researchers including Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes, for having published critical statements and unflattering news stories about Trump, claiming our efforts served to underscore “just how much hatred there is out there for this President of the United States, who was elected so overwhelmingly by the American people.”

You can read more about our efforts via this article by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, which includes these three Shooting the Messenger scoops:

1. That former Trump business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub online details about his 2010 arrest aboard Turkey’s presidential yacht during a private party attended by illegally trafficked prostitutes;

2. That Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, possibly used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page;

3. And that I’d identified dozens of posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarise content from mainstream news outlets including USA Today, CNN, and The New York Times.

Caputo Rattles His Saber

— Ex-Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo threatens legal action against ThinkProgress for reporting that he helped improve Vladimir Putin’s image in the United States

Earlier today, the progressive news website reported that Donald Trump’s campaign is to create a legal defence fund for all staffers involved in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of possible collusion between the campaign and the Russian government.

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The report by ThinkProgress associate editor Melanie Schmitz stated that “Former Trump campaign official Michael Caputo – who was previously responsible for improving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image in the United States, and who is currently facing his own set of legal woes in relation to the Mueller investigation – believes that it’s the RNC’s duty to cover legal fees for the president.”

Caputo subsequently messaged Schmitz publicly on Twitter threatening to take legal action against ThinkProgress, Schmitz, and her senior editor Emily Hazzard unless Schmitz changed her article to say that he “never worked for Putin,” and that he’d “never been contacted by Mueller’s team.”

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While it’s true Caputo never actually worked for Putin, his former PR firm Rainmaker Interactive once represented Alfred Kokh, chief executive of Russian state-owned media company Gazprom Media, and helped burnish the company’s reputation with U.S. media and policymakers.

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

At the time, Gazprom had just acquired NTV, one of Russia’s few major opposition media outlets, sparking an internal revolt among staff. Gazprom dispatched security services to seize NTV’s headquarters in a move that was widely condemned as an assault on independent Russian media. According to Kokh, Putin personally sanctioned the crackdown.

In an interview last year, The Buffalo News characterized Caputo’s subsequent PR work for Gazprom Media as “help[ing] President Vladimir Putin weather U.S. government criticism for taking over an independent TV station.” Caputo says that characterization is inaccurate, though he told the paper at the time, as Petkanas noted, that he is “not proud of the work today,” adding the caveat that at “at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”

As the title of that article suggests, Caputo recently paid an employee at his current PR firm, Zeppelin Communications, to scrub Wikipedia of all language linking him to Putin.

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[.’]”