A Look At Who Is Behind The Right-Wing Fake News That Spreads On Facebook
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed individuals associated with Freedom Daily llc who no longer have any affiliation with this corporation. It was sold in 2016.
Ever since the Trump presidency, my Facebook feed has gone from pictures of babies and pithy observations to a stream of liberal activism. This is because Facebook’s feed is less a window into the world than a personal secretary that faithfully learns who you are, and shows you what you want to see.
Now, since this personal secretary is a rather predictable algorithm, it can be gamed. Couple that with the fact that an increasing number of US adults are getting their news from social media, particularly Facebook, and one can see the danger there. What would it look like if an unscrupulous actor — or several — decided to game what you think of as news? Has this happened already — and if so, who are these unscrupulous actors?
In order to get some answers to these questions, I performed an experiment. I logged on to Facebook, but not as myself — rather, as a fictional Trump supporter called Julia Coombs: a persona I created for this experiment. Julia considers herself a strong Christian. She lives somewhere in Red America and most people around her are Trump supporters as well. She values patriotism, respects the vets, and honors the flag.
My journey as Julia Coombs began with a simple, innocent action: liking Donald Trump’s official page. Pretty soon I had suggestions of other, related pages that I could like. I saw pages called ‘Donald Trump Fans’ and ‘Trump 2020’ and I liked them both. I was then offered suggestions of pages with my pet themes: ‘patriot,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘veteran’ — Facebook’s algorithm judged that I might like these based on my other likes. Sprinkled in were suggestions for fan pages for Trump’s family — pages devoted to Donald Jr, Ivanka, and Barron — and a page called ‘I Hate Hillary.’ I liked all of those too; I have kindly feelings towards Trump’s family, who are sacrificing so much, and Hillary, I have heard, is corrupt.
My journey off the deep end was well underway. It took all of five minutes after the Julia Coombs profile came into being. I had to do nothing but engage minimally with the red, white, and blue baubles that Facebook’s algorithm flashed under my nose. Interestingly, not only did my timeline now fully reflect my political interests, the facts and the news that I was exposed to changed as well. I was deep in a well of fake news.
A recent analysis performed by Buzzfeed found that while hyper-partisan, fake news posts got the most engagement on Facebook, these posts were not symmetrically distributed among the left and right — out of the top 20 fake news posts that went viral, 17 were pushing pro-Trump, anti-Hillary propaganda.
Within a few minutes, Julia’s timeline was a validation of that statistic. Not a single fact reported by accredited news peeked through. Instead, I learned that an unnamed Clinton ‘rat’ had flipped. I learned that Trump’s approval rating was soaring. Apparently, Barack Obama had been busted in a sexual harassment sting, and his family was devastated. I learned that Muslim Starbucks employees had been putting something ‘worse than feces’ in your beverage. I read that unhinged Nancy Pelosi tried to physically attack a fellow Congressman. Every second headline promoted paranoia about Muslims, blacks, or immigrants. Every other one was a Trump fluffer or one that misrepresented Democrats’ words.
So while Julia thought she was reading the ‘news,’ she was actually inhabiting a carefully-constructed, mutually-reinforced Potemkin village of propaganda. Just like the fake village constructed to give Empress Catherine II an impression of a thriving society, the fake headlines Julia saw were so numerous as to give an impression of a thriving media ecosystem, all echoing the same fake news. No matter where she chose to look in the manicured garden that is her Facebook feed, she found that her predilection to believe the worst of Democrats, immigrants, blacks, and to believe that Trump is an honest, courageous man, was reinforced.
Like, like, and like some more.
Potemkin villages do not spring up by chance; they are constructed. Just as a Potemkin village consists of more than one building, the right-wing news bubble consists of more than just Fox News and Breitbart.
The bulk of this propagandiverse is made up of a thousand other websites you would not recognize, with names apparently picked out of a magnetic poetry word list. Daily Headlines Now. Breaking News Alerts. Daily Vine. Freedom Force. Deplorable Folks. ConservativePost.com, but then also ConservativePost.info. Most articles on these websites have no byline; sometimes, the byline is ‘Admin;’ other times, there is a byline, but it is fake, because no such person exists. Most of these websites have their own Facebook page that garners clicks through social media. ‘Journalism,’ in the right-wing Potemkin village, is thriving; journalism is dead.
The question arises: who is behind all this propaganda?
Clickbait Shops Abroad
On my very first day as Julia, I see posts from a page known as Daily Headlines. It has over 200,000 followers and carries pro-Trump stories. “President Trump did them a favor, and yet they are still fighting him,” says one of the posts about Trump’s decision to not release the Democratic memo written by Adam Schiff. Each post gets hundreds of likes and comments from Americans.
This Daily Headlines Facebook page is essentially the social media organ of a website, DailyHeadlinesNow.com. Its look is very much what I have come to expect in this Trump propagandiverse; a nondescript, off-the-shelf template from WordPress or other blogging platform; no byline on the articles; each article sourced from one of the big names in the right-wing world, either Fox News, Breitbart, John Solomon at The Hill, or other. The grammar is barely adequate.
A small amount of research uncovers the owner of this website: Taki Gogov, a Macedonian from Veles. This is not his first website. He has run other such right-wing click-bait sites, targeted to Americans: ConsPatriot.com, About2Day.com; ConservativePoliticUs.com. One of his earlier Facebook pages has been suspended.
The Macedonian right-wing fake news industry centered in Veles and Skopje has been covered before, particularly by Buzzfeed. But it has recently gone global.
Conservative-mail.com, that carries stories such as “Sarah Sanders Leaves NBC HUMILIATED When Asked If Trump’s Racist! WHO’S RACIST NOW?!?!”, is owned by Stephen Karomo of Kenya. ILoveMyFlag.me, that carries stories such as “WATCH : MUSLIM Refuses to Remove Hijab at Airport — Gets a HARSH Slap of Reality!” is owned by Dashnorja Fundit, a local business in Albania (a Muslim majority nation). TrumpservativeNews.info, which carries stories such as “Conway: ‘I don’t need a lecture from Sen Gillibrand — Trump’s accusers have had their day’,” is owned by Rodolfo Hernandez of Caracas, Venezuela; the browser icon of this website is a cute little emoji of Trump.
A web-hosting company in Pakistan gives a bit of an insight into how this industry works. Develop, and Host is a small shop based in Okara. Recently they put up a fibromyalgia support website for their American client known as HamptonBayMedicalNews.com, along with a linked Facebook page. But — perhaps as a side business — they also host dozens of American right-wing propaganda sites: PoliticalViralNews.com; TheHill.live; TrumpLovers.site; and so on. Some of these sites are clearly using their original ‘Hampton Bay’ template, because though the content is right-wing US news, I spotted one of these websites in transition, still carrying a sidebar of fibromyalgia news. Some, such as ConservativeViewDaily.com, have a strong readership. A recent post: “Melania Finds Disturbing ‘Gift’ Michelle Left Her In WH, Demands Priest Come To Remove It” received dozens of comments from unsuspecting Americans.
They couldn’t be writing their own content, could they? Of course not — none of these foreign-run websites do. I noted that their website TheRepublican.com has a category for LibertyNewsWriters, which implies they copy some of this content from a well-known fake news website. Another time I spotted a post with uneven formatting that was a copy of content from ConservativeFlag.com. Yet another time they propagated a misspelled (check the headline) article from FreedomDaily.com (on which, more later).
Political Action Committees
That Americans might make their deepest democratic decisions based on propaganda from click-bait shops is bad enough. But the reality is actually more venal than that. Since this right-wing ‘news’ world upholds no traditional standards of journalism, it also trashes one of the most cherished: that of a firewall between the politicians who seek power and the press that reports on them.
This editorial independence was once valued, even among the right-wing hyper-partisan media. Back in 2011, two GOP operatives — Jack Furnari and John Smith — stepped down from their county GOP posts in order to launch BizPackReview.com, today one of the most popular conservative websites that carries news with a strong pro-Trump cast.
No such firewall exists today. Connections of the ‘journalists’ to the GOP or Trump’s circle are often undisclosed. American Action News is a Facebook page with a linked eponymous website. Along with its associated FB pages and websites: Trump Train News, American Defense News, and American Update, it has over 1.2 million followers. Several ‘authors’ on the site appear to not exist in real life. One of them is named ‘Remington Strelivo,’ a clearly assumed name (‘strelivo’ means ammunition in Slovak/Czech).
Here’s a name that does not appear anywhere on any of these websites: Dan Backer. Yet, Dan Backer is the original registrant on all of them. Backer is also the general counsel, treasurer, or otherwise associated with some major pro-Trump PACs: Great America PAC, Stop Hillary, and Committee to Defend the President, that have been accused of being ‘scam PACs.’
Recently, he claimed to Buzzfeed that he had handed these websites over to clients, but he declined to say who they were. A real-life address on one of them indicates that the client might be Political List Brokers, LLC — the registrant of which is Dan Backer himself.
Why would a political action committee have a social media presence and try to masquerade as ‘news?’ Campaign filings from 2016 indicate the reason: Political List Brokers sold lists of potential voters to pro-Trump Great America PAC and others. Thus the circle closes.
Dan Backer, a Russian immigrant, is a bit of a pioneer. In 2014, he, along with wealthy electrical engineer named Shaun McCuthceon, challenged the laws that limit campaign donations during a political cycle. The impact of this case on campaign finance laws is second only to Citizens United, and, according to a recent Dallas News report, opened the floodgates to millions of dollars of influence on political candidates, including dollars converted over from Russian rubles.
The Christian Right
Brandon Vallorani is not a household name in America. If you Google him, he appears to be a connoisseur of wine, cigars and fine living, and someone who perhaps knows a thing or two about marketing.
Indeed, he does. During Obama’s presidency, one might have become familiar with emails forwarded by family members with subject headings that started with a long string of ‘Re’s and ‘Fwd’s, that promoted anti-liberal propaganda, birtherism, and other right-wing tropes and memes. Research by a systems analyst showed that a large percentage of these emails originated at an online store called Patriot Depot. This store was created by Brandon Vallorani. It still exists today and sells bibles, T-shirts and bumper stickers with right-wing memes, and the like. “A good deal of the conservative revolution,” says writer Keith Thompson, who commissioned this research back in 2009, “is produced by Patriot Depot.”
Vallorani has an interesting past. Several years ago he was the Executive Vice President of Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. Since then, Vallorani, his brother Jared, and others around them such as Doug Giles, Gary DeMar, Kent Thalen, and others, are behind several Christian Reconstructionist groups — such as American Vision, Tolle Lege Press, and so on — that have built a media empire through donations, Christian publications, online stores, and the like.
In particular, Liberty Alliance LLC, which was founded by Vallorani in 2007, operates a number of conservative websites and makes money through clicks garnered through strong a social media presence. In 2012, Liberty Alliance was ranked 576 in Inc. Magazine’s annual fastest growing companies ranking. In 2013, Liberty Alliance websites were getting more than 1 million page views a day, and by 2016 they claimed to have a cumulative follower count of 50 million. My rough-and-ready count based on website metadata found more than a hundred websites created and operated by Liberty Alliance.
Some are websites that borrow the celebrity and name of right-wing heroes, such as Joe the Plumber and Victoria Jackson, ex-Saturday Night Live cast member. Some promote themes such as Eagle Rising, Conservative Firing Line, and Girls Just Wanna Have Guns. In the era of Trump, all of them, in totality, promote pro-Trump propaganda.
For instance, here’s how Constitution.com framed the news that Special Counsel Mueller had indicted 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 elections in order to help Trump get elected:
And here’s cartoonist A.F. Branco in Comically Incorrect, yet another of the Liberty Alliance websites:
People have wondered how the evangelical community, that supposedly puts great emphasis on living a moral life, could have gone all in for Trump, a thrice-married philanderer who pays off porn star mistresses. I haven’t heard the most obvious explanation: money. Before Trump, many hefty paychecks were tied to pushing the right-wing agenda. Once Trump took over the party, a scrupulous distance from him would have caused this ecosystem to implode, destroying bottom-lines across the landscape. Instead, they simply hitched a ride on the Trump Train.
During the Obama administration, a website called America’s Freedom Fighters was promoting some rather well-known conspiracy theories, for instance, that Obama was born in Kenya, and that Benghazi whistle-blowers were being muzzled by the Obama administration. It was also promoting some that were more outlandish: such as ‘news’ of Obama’s multiple gay lovers who he later had killed, or the ‘news’ that the gay victims were just a small smidgen of the total in Obama’s ‘deadpool.’
At the same time, its founder, Dino Porrazzo Sr., was writing songs such as ‘Commie gun grabbers’ and ‘Mr. Obama Man,’ the latter of which depicts Obama as a monarch, as a Muslim, and as a prisoner being led away by Darrell Issa.
The America’s Freedom Fighters website still exists today, and in the Trump era, spreads anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda. Snopes search results for this page debunk ‘news’ about Muslims stealing propane at Home Depot and an immigrant worker deliberately poisoning a customer at Panera Bread. Needless to say, the website is very strongly pro-Trump and has also internalized Trump’s paranoia about the Special Counsel’s investigation into his campaign. A recent AFF article reported that the Deep State has moved to Plan C — which involves assassination — in their attempts to defeat Trump. They are no slouches when it comes to clickbait: headlines make heavy use of phrases like ‘Breaking!!’ and ‘Massive Bombshell;’ many articles are shared on social media with instructions to ‘spread this absolutely everywhere.’
One might be tempted to dismiss this as a website run by a crank, but while this may be true, he and his son Dino Porrazzo Jr. have created a right-wing media powerhouse. They recently incorporated as AFF Media Inc in California. Together, they manage a number of Facebook pages, including Nation in Distress, Extremely Pissed-off Right-wingers, etc., whose followership is over 4 million, and a web analytics tool estimates their monthly unique visitors to over 2 million. They appear to make money through advertisements.
Trawling through the social media accounts of the authors of this website, one notices some curious facts. One, their social media accounts are covered in insignia of rebellion: skulls, guns, the ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ snake, ‘Molon Labe,’ and so on. Two, that despite their rebellious attitude, neither the father nor son Dino Porrazzo write under their own names, opting for pseudonyms such as Dean James, Clark Kent, Jon Smith, and Johnny Davis instead — I’m not sure which is which, but their bio gives away the fact that these accounts belong to the owner of AFF.
The other is the self-proclaimed affiliation of the Porrazzos and several of the authors to the III%.
The III% are self-styled revolutionaries, a para-military movement named after the 3% who took up arms against the British (an apocryphal number) during the American Revolution. Along with the related Oath Keepers, they sprang up all over the country at the start of Obama’s presidency; one doesn’t need to connect too many dots to see that they saw him as inalienably foreign, a traitorous president leading an invasion of enemies — brown immigrants and Muslims — into America.
For them, the Second Amendment is not merely a matter of ensuring people have the right to own a handgun in order to defend their home, or for hunting. Rather, they see weapons in a much more apocalyptic fashion — assault rifles that will enable them to lead an insurrection on behalf of the True Americans.
Many historians credit the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs as the start of the modern militia movement; therefore, it is unsurprising that the III% come packaged with deep suspicion of the FBI, and it is unsurprising that Trump was able to tap into this anti-Fed sentiment with the greatest of ease in his campaign against his supposed Deep State enemies. It also is not a leap for them to believe that Obama is the Deep State puppet master.
The Bullshit Factory
During the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama roasted Trump from the speaker’s podium by equating his birtherism with conspiracy theories about faked moon landings. We all laughed; most of liberal America expected that jab to decisively shut down Trump’s bullshit.
But the bullshit never went away and neither did Trump. By the next election cycle, Trump returned, triumphantly surfing in on waves of bullshit pumped out through fake news websites, on a surfboard made out of Facebook.
I apologize for the strained metaphor. It is hard for a consumer of verified news outlets to fathom how deep many Trump supporters have gone into the rabbit hole and are no longer aware of even big news stories that grip the rest of us. It is instructive to watch a website called Hoax Tide for even a few minutes at a time. This website aggregates the top 30 trending fake news stories at any given point. Upon the time of this writing, I see that AmericasFreedomFighters.com is hyping arrests of MS-13 gang members, while 100fedup.com, a Liberty Alliance website that normally peddles right-wing propaganda, is reporting a UFO sighting.
While these makeshift websites would normally have no reach outside of the occasional search hit, Facebook drags them into people’s attention and allows them to fester. These are the same people who will later vote based on their warped understanding of how their votes affect the country, and will hold their elected officials to standards derived from flagrant misconceptions. This is no way to run a democracy.
(Follow me on Twitter at @TheOddPantry)