This is the online version of the Popular Information newsletter. You can get independent accountability journalism in your inbox every week. Sign up here:
On Monday, Popular Information revealed how The Daily Wire, a toxic right-wing website, has been able to achieve phenomenal success on Facebook, in part, through gaming the system. The investigation revealed "a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion."
This network appeared to be in blatant violation of Facebook's rule against "coordinated inauthentic behavior." But Facebook told Popular Information that it would not take any action against these pages.
The exposé and Facebook's decision not to act garnered considerable attention online. By Monday evening Facebook released a new statement, announcing the results of its own "investigation."
Our investigation found that these are real pages run by real people in the U.S. and do not violate our policies. We're working on more transparency so that in the future people have more information about Pages like these on Facebook.
While Popular Information's reporting indicated that this was a coordinated astroturf campaign to enable The Daily Wire to game the Facebook algorithm, the new Facebook statement presented a different narrative. The activity of these pages was "real" — authentic and genuine expressions of the "real people" behind them.
On the surface, this statement makes little sense. The pages are clearly managed not by individual "real people" but by a central authority. That authority is using the pages exclusively promote The Daily Wire. At 12:02 PM on Tuesday, for example, 13 pages all tweeted the same story from The Daily Wire with the same text. (This data comes from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics company owned by Facebook.)
Perhaps, as Facebook's statement suggests, these are just a group of 13 "real people" who got together and decided to promote The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion. It's a nice story, but Popular Information has uncovered information proving that it isn't true. At least two of these pages are owned by the parent company of The Daily Wire, Forward Publishing.
The Right News is one of the pages pushing The Daily Wire content. Prior to April 2016, therightnews.net was an active website that featured conservative commentary. The Right News Facebook page featured content from therightnews.net and another website, isthatbaloney.com. Both therightnews.net and isthatbaloney.com were run from the same dedicated server.
Both the shared Facebook page and hosting suggest that therightnews.net and isthatbaloney.com were owned by the same person. And isthatbaloney.com was owned by an internet marketer named Alan LeStourgeon. (If that name sounds familiar, Popular Information previously reported that LeStourgeon operated the Rowdy Republican Facebook page. The Rowdy Republican page combined incendiary right-wing memes with dangerous misinformation about diabetes.)
But then, in April 2016, therightnews.net was acquired by Forward Publishing, the parent company of The Daily Wire.
Forward Publishing immediately "parked" the domain for therightnews.net, which means it wasn't being used for a website or email. It suggests that Forward Publishing acquired The Right News because it was interested in using its Facebook page.
Conservative News also appeared to operate as an independent outlet until it was acquired by Forward Publishing sometime after 2017. Conservative News' connection to Forward Publishing is easier to establish — it's in the footer of the shell page for its defunct website.
The big advantage
So, despite Facebook's claim, this network is not run by "real people." It's run by The Daily Wire.
But why is it such a big advantage? Facebook's algorithm rewards content that is shared from multiple profiles. By clandestinely controlling more than a dozen pages, The Daily Wire makes it appear as if all of its content is being broadly shared.
How important is this? The proof is in the pudding. Each article from The Daily Wire gets far more engagement on Facebook than any other significant publisher.
By justifying The Daily Wire's deceptive conduct, Facebook is allowing far-right content to flourish at the expense of everything else.
Trump didn't start the fire
Today, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who listened in on the call between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, participated in a Congressional deposition. In some ways, Vindman isn't saying anything we don't already know. Vindman testified he believed the call was inappropriate and could damage U.S. national security. An excerpt from Vindman's opening statement:
I was concerned by the call. I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play, which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security. Following the call, I again reported my concerns to NSC’s lead counsel.
Everything Vindman says is true, but the problems with the call were obvious from reading the summary released by the White House on September 24. The bigger problem for Republicans is that Vindman is a war hero and a recipient of a Purple Heart.
But that didn't stop prominent voices on the right from smearing him. Vindman was attacked by Fox News' Laura Ingraham and former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo on Monday night because he emigrated as a child from the U.S.S.R., from the area that is now Ukraine.
“Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interests… Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on the story?" Ingraham asked.
“I find that astounding. And some people might call that espionage," Yoo replied.
This attack was echoed by Brian Kilmeade Tuesday morning on Fox & Friends: "We also know he was born in the Soviet Union, immigrated with his family, young. He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine."
On CNN, former Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI) chimed in: "It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that Ukraine got those weapons."
This caused self-described reasonable Republicans to blame these attacks on Trump, saying he has eroded the GOP's traditional reverence for the military.
But this is a lie. In 2004, Republicans ruthlessly attacked the military service of then-Senator John Kerry (D-MA), who was the recipient of three Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star. People showed up to the Republican National Convention that year with Purple Heart bandages to mock Kerry.
The thrust of the attacks against Kerry was that he was lying about his service in Vietnam and didn't deserve the medals he received. The Swift Boat's case against Kerry was detailed in a book about Jerome Corsi, Unfit for Command. Corsi would later be a key figure in falsely accusing Obama of forging his birth certificate.
The attacks against Kerry were baseless and, importantly, rejected by everyone who served alongside Kerry. But they were also effective — "more than 60 percent of the respondents [in a 2004 CBS poll] said Mr. Kerry is hiding something or mostly lying about Vietnam."
The public was convinced by a series of television ads financed by top Bush fundraisers. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, called the Swift Boat smears "rather compelling." Former Senate Majority Leader and Republican nominee Bob Dole said, "There's got to be some truth to the charges." George W. Bush only denounced the ads after they stopped running.
That's the three of the most important Republican figures before Trump attacking a military hero for political purposes. So while it's convenient to blame Trump for the attack against Vindman, its also ahistorical.
Thanks for reading!
Thank you once again for your clear reporting, free from hyperbole, free from artificial drama, and free from indignation. This allows me to make my own decisions, so I can express my own moral outrage when it will be of value to our larger community.
Obviously republicans haven’t found their “bottom” yet. As I told a friend yesterday, I wouldn’t vote for a republican if Hell were to freeze over.