Politics

Truthfeed Spreads Pro-Trump Propaganda

The website has connections to the president’s camp—and white supremacists.

“Shocking Photo of DACA Recipients BURNING American Flag in Protest!” declared a September headline on the website Truthfeed. The article came a day after Donald Trump said he would halt the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Trouble is, the image, which shows a few unidentified protesters holding Mexican flags amid the remnants of a burning Trump piñata, wasn’t a DACA demonstration, nor does it show any burning flags. The picture had been taken 16 months earlier at an anti-Trump protest in California.

It was a typical article for Truthfeed, a website with hidden financial backers that went online in April 2016 as Trump worked to finish off his challengers in the Republican primary. Despite having only two main writers, Truthfeed’s articles were shared millions of times on Facebook—about one-quarter the reach of the 750-person Washington Post newsroom—by churning out stories and memes that support Trump and attack his adversaries. “Does Ted Cruz Belong to a Radical Cult?” asked one of the site’s first articles. Like the articles on dozens of other sites that emerged during the 2016 election, Truthfeed’s range from the hyperpartisan (“Hillary’s Latest Unhinged Rant Shows What a Sore Loser She Is”) to outright falsehoods (“Chris Matthews Endorses Trump”).

Screenshot of an article removed from Truthfeed’s website after Bloomberg Businessweek asked about it.

Truthfeed appears to have connections to Trump’s political orbit, and its principal author has links to white supremacists and anti-Semites. The clues connecting it to Trump derive from the recent relaunch of a personal website belonging to Katrina Pierson, a Texas Tea Party activist who became a national spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign in November 2015. After the election she joined several Trump campaign veterans, including Rick Gates, an indicted campaign aide and Paul Manafort associate, to create a pro-Trump nonprofit, America First Policies, whose mission is to “support key initiatives and policies of the White House” and challenge “the agenda of the liberal and biased media.”

Records show that Pierson’s personal website, KatrinaPierson.com, moved on Aug. 31 to a new internet protocol address at a web hosting company called Liquid Web. Only three other web addresses use that IP address, including Truthfeed.com and a replica site, Truthfeednews.com. (The third web address—JavaPets.com, a nonfunctioning site—obscures its ownership information.) A shared IP address doesn’t always indicate a connection among websites, and Liquid Web declined to provide details about the sites’ owners. The most intriguing link is each website’s source code: They use the same MailChimp account to sign up readers for email updates. (MailChimp declined to comment on specific customers.)

Media researchers have found that Truthfeed takes pro-Trump disinformation to new heights. “Truthfeed is highly, highly partisan, highly pro-Trump, and willing to bend the truth considerably—if not make things up entirely—in order to promote the Trump agenda,” says Robert Faris, research director at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, which studies the internet’s role in society.

Pierson didn’t respond to voice messages. An email sent to her consulting firm, Pierson Consulting Group, asking about connections among Truthfeed, Trump’s campaign, and America First Policies elicited an unsigned reply: “There is no formal relationship between the campaign, PACs, or websites that have no stated affiliation with those entities. There are several supporters of the president who work on their own to promote the president and his policies. We appreciate them and their efforts combating fake news.” America First Policies says it has no connection to Truthfeed. “As for KatrinaPierson.com, that is Katrina’s personal website, which she maintains on her own as a private citizen,” a spokeswoman, Erin Montgomery, said in an email. The White House didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Amy Moreno, the principal writer for Truthfeed, who’s refused to disclose the site’s financial backers, also declined to comment in an email. “We are not interested in talking to anyone from Bloomberg and are not a fan of your organization,” she said. She later posted on her Facebook page about the inquiries: “People try all the time to interview us. We will NEVER speak to mainstream media, or ANY liberal media, ever. They can SUCK IT.”

In July 2016, Moreno gave an explanation for the site’s mission in an interview with Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump online radio host. “The media is not telling the truth about radical Islam,” she said. “The media is not telling the truth about open borders and amnesty.” Moreno and Mitchell had a falling out in January over her embrace of alt-right personalities who advocate white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas. On Facebook, Moreno frequently urges people to like, follow, and contribute money to a social media user who goes by the handle Ricky Vaughn. Vaughn, in a 2016 interview with the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, said he “would like to introduce the ideas of racial consciousness into the mix so that patriotic American conservatives don’t feel bad about creating all-White communities and shunning mixed marriages.”

Mitchell claims to know the identity of Truthfeed’s financial backer. “Amy’s boss is one of my best friends,” he tweeted in January. “If one of his writers is associating with Neo-Nazis, I owe it to him to say so.” Mitchell never disclosed the name of Moreno’s boss, nor did he respond to requests for comment. Moreno later denied being a racist on Twitter. “I have nothing against any race or religion, including Jewish people,” she wrote. Twitter has subsequently shut down multiple accounts belonging to Moreno.

Truthfeed’s ascent has coincided with the rise of false information spread via social media that inundated the 2016 election. Researchers at the Berkman Klein Center, who studied 2 million news articles and their popularity on social media in the 18 months before the election, found that extreme-right-wing misinformation sites had far surpassed the Facebook popularity of right-leaning professional news outlets. Truthfeed, they found, garnered more Facebook shares than the Wall Street Journal and National Review combined and almost equaled the reach of Fox News, despite Truthfeed not existing for more than half the study period.

Facebook says it’s not its job to decide what is or isn’t true, but the company is pledging to do better tackling disinformation by educating users on how to spot fake news. It’s also working with third-party fact checkers. Those checkers, however, have complained that they lack the resources to tackle the flood of articles shared on the site. While Facebook “cannot be and are not arbiters of truth,” a company spokesman said in an emailed statement, “we have seen progress in our efforts against false news but are not nearly done yet.”

Screenshot of an article removed from Truthfeed’s website after Bloomberg Businessweek asked about it.

In the case of Truthfeed, its scores of inaccurate stories often stigmatize minorities, such as one published Sept. 22, 2016, titled “Black Lives Matter Rioters Kick Down Elderly Homeless Man and Laugh.” It purported to show a video of a brutal assault occurring in Charlotte, North Carolina, amid the protests that flared up after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. “This video speaks for itself and the disgusting actions of BlackLivesMatter,” wrote Truthfeed. In reality, the video appeared earlier that day in a British tabloid article about a beating that had occurred 4,000 miles away in London and had nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. Some of the stories were removed from the site after Bloomberg Businessweek asked Truthfeed about them.

Truthfeed’s highest priority appears to be backing Trump. In the days after his election, as demonstrations raged around the country, Trump tweeted that many involved “professional protesters.” Around the same time, Truthfeed ran a series of articles suggesting the same thing. One, titled “BUSTED! Craigslist Ad Exposes Paid Anti-Trump Protesters Being Recruited for STAGED Event,” was based on an ad that did seem to call for demonstrators. “Activists needed now” in Los Angeles, it declared, urging a “peaceful response to the stupidity.”

Screenshot of an article removed from Truthfeed’s website after Bloomberg Businessweek asked about it.

The ad also included the website of the organizer: Safetynetwork.TV. Reached by phone, the site’s operator, William Lagoy, said he tried to set up a protest for Veterans Day last year, but its aim was to raise awareness around traffic safety and had nothing to do with the election. “Apparently, the writers of that report did not read [the] entire ad,” he said in an email. When later reached by phone, he further explained his bewilderment: “I’m a Trump supporter.”

    BOTTOM LINE - Trump’s former campaign spokeswoman appears to have links to one of the internet’s best-read disinformation sites.
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