On Twitter, one of the people I follow and interact with is Steffan Watkins, who follows ships and airplanes. Many sites follow ships and airplanes, and Steffan follows those sites to make sense out of who and what are going where. For example, Steffan knew a government plane was on its way long before we were told that President Trump was in Afghanistan.
He has recently been debunking stories about Russian ships and submarines off the east coast of the United States. This is a perennial story and is sometimes even true! Just as American ships and submarines do, Russian ships travel in many places in international waters. What they don’t do is dock at Mar-a-Lago.
Some of those stories come from real reporters who don’t understand what’s going on and repeat a version of something that is true but trivial. Sometimes their stories are based on dodgy websites that deliver deliberate disinformation, laundered through repetition and rumor.
Steffan doggedly checks out those news stories and sets them straight. That usually means that he debunks them, but occasionally he says yes, that Russian ship is off the coast in international waters on a normal patrol. Not once has he found the more sensational stories to be supported.
That’s what he was doing a couple of weeks ago and found a website that consistently was producing junk news stories and stealing stuff from other sites. They also advertised Trump merchandise.
That intrigued a couple of Israeli hackers, Noam Rotem and Ran Locar, who decided to check the website out. That link has all the detail for the more computer-savvy among us. Here’s their bottom line:
We found a network of dozens of websites operated by an affiliate marketer. Some of the websites pushed pro-Trump/anti-Clinton fake-news meant to use patriotism in order to sell unofficial Trump merch to Trump supporters. The technical aspects of the operation allowed us full visibility into not only the operators, but also the unwitting customers.
Many of the web addresses were registered by the same person, identified as Jackson Lin, through a company called Extreme Wisdom. Another company linked to some of the sites is Alabama company Click Wu LLC. They have been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising on Facebook. The pages have been taken down from Facebook.
Although Rotem and Locar say the motivation is money, it could be that or disinformation or both. It’s part of the stream of junk that flows through social media. It’s particularly encouraging that a bunch of amateurs exposed it. Now I’d like to see a bigger news operation take it up.
For the rest of us? Be careful what you share or retweet. Know your sources.
Cross-posted to Balloon Juice