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.

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.