Fiverr’s SEO Scammers

— Pay-to-publish scammers have infiltrated HuffPost, BuzzFeed, and Forbes

On Wednesday, I blogged that the HuffPost retracted a sponsored article it appears was part of a coordinated PR campaign to burnish the reputation of former Trump advisor Felix Sater.

The author, Waqas KH, a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) expert from India, was paid via freelancing website Fiverr to publish the now-retracted story.

He’s not the only one running the pay-to-publish scam.

Over 100 Fiverr accounts are offering similar services, with some accounts charging hundreds of dollars to publish content on HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Forbes and Entrepreneur.

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All four publications allow anyone to contribute content, although it’s unclear how SEO scammers are able to make it past presumably rigorous editorial vetting processes.

At least two major HuffPost and Forbes contributors appear to be making a lucrative career of self-publishing paid content on their platforms.

Guy Sheetrit, CEO of Over The Top SEO and a Forbes Agency Council contributor, charges up to $980 to “guest post on Forbes, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Inc.”

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Forbes Agency Council is “an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies.”

Since May, Sheetrit has published 14 long-form articles, four on Forbes, two on HuffPost, and eight on Entrepreneur, that subtly link to various tech companies such as Boss Laser and Keyword Tool.

From Sheetrit’s Fiverr profile:

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Another Fiverr content marketer, Keith Gill aka Digital Keith, a self-described “keynote speaker” and “SEO Expert,” charges roughly $230 to “guest Post to my personal HuffPo Contributor Acct and then share the post on my personal blue check twitter verified account.”

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Gill has published almost 50 articles promoting private health care, Christian marriage counselling, cryptocurrency, custom jewellery, and more.

From Gill’s Fiverr profile:

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In a statement, a spokesperson for HuffPost said that “anyone found to be self-publishing paid content…has their post removed from the site and is banned from future publication.”

I’ll ask Forbes, BuzzFeed, and Entrepreneur for comment and blog the results. 

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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.

Oh Betsy!

— Did someone from Betsy DeVos’ investment firm try to scrub unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family from online bio?

Last month, I blogged that former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo paid an employee from his own PR firm to scrub Wikipedia of references linking him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and subsequently covered by The Washington Post.

Now I think I’ve found another one.

According to Wikipedia editing records, it appears that someone from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ private investment firm, Windquest Group, attempted to delete unfavourable information about members of the DeVos family.

Betsy DeVos (source)

DeVos was chairman of the firm at the time the edits were made in August 2015 by Wikipedia user “WindquestGroup,” who was subsequently banned indefinitely because the “account’s edits and/or username indicate that it is being used on behalf of a company, group, website or organization for purposes of promotion and/or publicity.”

The user had attempted to delete supposedly “unnecessary” facts that DeVos’ mother, Elsa Prince, once supported “an anti-gay marriage ballot proposal in California,” and that DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, “founded Blackwater USA, a private security firm” that killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

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The Blackwater founder is currently facing scrutiny “over reports that he met the head of a Russian investment fund in an apparent effort to set up a back channel for Russian communication with the Trump administration, and that senior Trump officials had authorized the meeting,” according to CNN.

NBT Films: Debunked Again

— Techdirt reports my post about debunked YouTuber’s copyright complaint against fact-checking website Snopes

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Via “Snopes Debunks Fake YouTube Video; Video’s Creator Responds With A Bogus DMCA Notice” by Tim Cushing, Techdirt, December 6, 2017:

from the pressing-the-shut-up-button dept

Nothing But the Truth Films (NBT) has a credibility problem. Oh, the irony, I would normally say, except for the fact NBT deals mostly with this sort of “truth.”

We present the black and white facts about the geopolitical climate which include Islam, Illuminati, Freemasonry, Cults and more. See how your freedoms are slowly eroding and spread the message with the help of our channel.

[…]

One popular video on NBT’s YouTube channel shows a supposed Islamic man angrily and bitterly decrying the religion after having his eyes opened by [NBT creator J.K. Sheindlin’s book]. But the video isn’t what it seems: it’s actually footage taken from somewhere else, dealing with an entirely different issue, but with NBT’s fabricated subtitles giving the impression Sheindlin’s book has unconverted another follower of Islam.

It made the internet rounds enough that Snopes picked it up and debunked it.

[…]

Having been caught out, Sheindlin did what any self-respecting truth-seeker huckster would do: he decided to get Google involved. The invaluable Dean Sterling first spotted the bogus DMCA notice:

Last month, the conspiracy channel filed a DMCA copyright complaint requesting that Google delist Evon’s article from its search results. That’s according to the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Twitter Trolls Tout Trump

— Fake Twitter accounts have launched a PR campaign to burnish the reputation of Moscow-born former Donald Trump advisor Felix Sater ahead of his interview with House Intelligence Committee staffers

Sater is likely to testify about his role during the Trump campaign, including a 2015 proposal for the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow involving Russian president Vladimir Putin, which Sater said would help Trump win the presidency.

Felix Sater with Donald Trump (source)

Meanwhile, dozens of fake Twitter accounts are attempting to burnish the reputation of the twice-convicted Bayrock Group co-founder and self-described “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.”

The campaign centres around a Business Insider UK article by Natasha Bertrand about the recent dismissal of a $250 million civil tax fraud case against Sater.

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It appears that the purpose of the campaign, which launched shortly before news broke about Sater’s upcoming interview, is to attempt to re-contextualise his relationship with the president.

Take for example this tweet, which characterised the dismissal of the case against Sater as “another victory for our great president Trump reputation”:

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Another fake tweet characterised the dismissal as a “great win for President too”:

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It’s unclear who is behind the covert campaign.

When asked to comment, Sater said it was his “first time hearing about this.”

Whoever the culprit is, it seems likely that 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 the majority of the accounts promoting Sater have also promoted Oyakhilome.

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If anyone thinks they know the answer to this one, feel free to leave a comment.

Update, December 14, 2017: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the House Intelligence Committee has scheduled staff interviews with Sater to take place in New York next week.

Top Trumps Endorse Sater

— Top Trump Organization executives endorse controversial “Russia-gate” figure Felix Sater on business networking website LinkedIn

As the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling heats up, a controversial Moscow-born real estate investor and former “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” is back in the spotlight.

Felix Sater gained notoriety during the 2016 election when his criminal past became a focal point for journalists investigating Trump’s business ties to Russia.

Sater (right) at the launch of Trump SoHo (source)

In the mid-to-late 2000s, Sater collaborated with Trump on a number of high-profile development projects, including the troubled Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan.

After his collaborative work with Trump, Sater is best known for stabbing a man in the neck with a broken margarita glass, and for his involvement in a $40 million mafia-linked racketeering scheme that robbed two elderly holocaust survivors of their savings (when the couple tried to recoup their money, Sater threatened to sue).

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In recent years, Trump has sought to distance himself from his former business partner, and in a 2013 video deposition for a civil lawsuit testified that “if [Sater] were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”

However, recent reports by The New York Times suggest Trump has an ongoing relationship with Sater reaching far beyond the now-president’s business empire.

In a 2015 e-mail, Sater promised Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen that he would engineer a real estate deal with the aid of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, which he said would help Trump win the presidency.

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Earlier this year, Sater met with Cohen to discuss a plan to lift sanctions against Russia. Cohen subsequently hand-delivered the proposals to the office of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who last week pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI regarding his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

Now new details have emerged that shed light on Trump’s shadowy relationship to Sater, whose LinkedIn profile states that he worked for The Trump Organization as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump” between 2010 and 2011.

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According to LinkedIn, no fewer than four top executives who were “Felix’s colleagues at The Trump Organization,” including executive vice president and counsel George A. Sorial, have endorsed Sater using the site.

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Sorial, sometimes referred to as Trump’s “right-hand man,” endorsed Sater in the categories of “Real Estate,” “Real Estate Development,” and “Due Diligence.”

Sater’s other endorsements include former senior advisor to Trump, Michael Boccio; former vice president of The Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Matthew Brimhall; and former Trump Organization purchasing director, Sid Leibowitz.

Tying together his business and political interests, Sater’s Linkedin profile also includes two noteworthy congratulatory posts about his former boss.

The first, from May 4, 2016:

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And the second, from November 11, 2016:

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Sekulow Gets Blindsided

— Watch Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow’s rambling on-air response to news that former Trump adviser Michael Flynn had been charged with lying to the FBI

Amid the American carnage of yesterday’s news that former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, you might have missed this gem via Trump-affiliated lawyer Jordan Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Sekulow is the son of ACLJ’s chief counsel Jay Sekulow, who is part of the legal team charged with advising Trump during the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Jordan and Jay Sekulow (source)

Yesterday, the younger Sekulow went on Fox News to give his opinion on an unrelated story about Bill Clinton.

During that segment, Fox host Bill Hemmer interrupted Sekulow to break the news about Flynn.

Here’s Sekulow’s unscripted response:

Hemmer: The charge is about making false statements, so that could be what he is going to address at 10:30 a.m. eastern time, the charge of lying.

Sekulow: Yeah, and I think that that could still work with the plea deal itself, it depends on who is taking him to court, whether it is the special counsel or another matter. But if it is the special counsel – it should be under that jurisdiction – then those false statements, it could be that he is being with them, that could then lead to, if it is correct, and we don’t know if he actually does have a plea deal or not, but if it’s correct that could be the catalyst against the actual plea deal.

For the characteristically cocksure Sekulow, his response here is quite the turnaround.

In August, Sekulow went on Fox’s America’s Newsroom to dismiss the Mueller investigation and to personally attack me and other independent researchers including Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of fact-checking website Snopes, for having published critical statements and unflattering news stories about Trump, claiming our efforts served to underscore “just how much hatred there is out there for this President of the United States, who was elected so overwhelmingly by the American people.”

You can read more about our efforts via this article by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn, which includes these three Shooting the Messenger scoops:

1. That former Trump business partner Tevfik Arif tried to scrub online details about his 2010 arrest aboard Turkey’s presidential yacht during a private party attended by illegally trafficked prostitutes;

2. That Felix Sater, a Russian-born real estate developer and Trump business partner, possibly used a pseudonym to delete information about his criminal history from Trump’s Wikipedia page;

3. And that I’d identified dozens of posts written under Trump’s name on his now-defunct Trump University blog that appeared to plagiarise content from mainstream news outlets including USA Today, CNN, and The New York Times.

Faux News about Fox News?

— Did Fox bury news that former Trump adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI?

In October, I helped debunk the claim that Fox News failed to report the recent indictment of former Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort in favour of a story about cheeseburger emojis.

Now comes the claim that Fox buried news about another Trump aide, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who today pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.

Michael Flynn with Trump (source)

The claim went viral after this tweet by CNN’s senior media reporter Oliver Darcy:

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That tweet was followed shortly by this from NBC’s national politics reporter Alex Seitz-Wald:

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The New York Daily News subsequently ran the claim with the headline: “Fox News focuses on Lynch-Clinton tarmac meeting immediately after Michael Flynn’s guilty plea”

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But did the famously Trump-friendly news network really bury news of Flynn’s guilty plea?

Not according to the Fox News website, where the “big story” currently leading the headlines is, you guessed it…

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Further investigation shows that Fox started tweeting the story at least an hour and a half prior to Darcy’s initial tweet.

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Meanwhile, the Clinton-Lynch story has taken a back seat.

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Snopes: Nothing but the Truth

— Fact-checking website Snopes targeted by debunked conspiracy YouTuber J.K. Sheindlin in copyright delisting request

Sheindlin runs the popular YouTube channel Nothing But the Truth Films (NBT), which claims to “present the black and white facts about the geopolitical climate [including] Islam, Illuminati, Freemasonry, Cults and more.”

Last year, NBT uploaded a video purporting to show an “Arab guy” angrily renouncing his faith on live television:

Fact-checking website Snopes subsequently debunked the video. Via “‘Arab Guy’ Renounces Faith on Egyptian Television?” by Dan Evon, July 5, 2016:

While the video purports to tell the “black and white facts” about someone renouncing his faith because of Sheindlin’s book, the clip in reality does not capture an Arab’s reaction to a controversial book, nor does it capture that person renouncing his faith on live television. Sheindlin added fabricated captions to the video (while pledging to tell “nothing but the truth”) in order to generate buzz for his book The People vs Muhammad.

Apparently, NBT did not appreciate the fact-checking effort.

Last month, the conspiracy channel filed a DMCA copyright complaint requesting that Google delist Evon’s article from its search results. That’s according to the Lumen Database, which archives online takedown requests.

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If you can’t read that it says:

The copyrighted work is a video that our company produced, and has been embedded on the following website without our permission. You can see the video embedded on the page, under the section ‘Origin’. We did not give any authorisation for the website ‘Snopes’ to use our video for their news. Therefore, the company Snopes has infringed our copyright.

As of publication, Google has not delisted the article.

People Euthanizing Thousands of Animals (dot com)

— Animal rights group PETA bought PeopleEuthanizingThousandsOfAnimals.Com and PeopleEuthanizingTastyAnimals.Net following criticism of its euthanasia programme

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a Norfolk, Virginia-based animal rights nonprofit founded in 1980 by English-born Ingrid Newkirk.

Ingrid Newkirk (source)

In its mission statement, PETA says it aims “to stop animal suffering [using] every available opportunity to reach people with our messages.”

Over the past decade, PETA arguably has self-sabotaged its animal rights agenda in pursuing an “uncompromising” media campaign of “shameless” advertisements, “pseudo-scientific” claims, and physical attacks on celebrities and opponents.

PETA’s “Holocaust on your plate” campaign (source)

Now it appears that PETA sought to thwart criticism that it euthanizes up to ninety-seven per cent (in 2006) of animals that enter its Virginia shelter.

In 2012, PETA registered several critical domain names comprising the PETA acronym, including PeopleEuthanizingThousandsofAnimals.Com and PeopleEuthanizingTastyAnimals.Net.

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PETA bought the domains following bad press from Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group whose website maintains statistics on the number of animals PETA euthanizes annually.

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While Newkirk has insisted that euthanizing tens of thousands of animals is “a tragic necessity,” critics argue that Newkirk’s rationalisations exhibit a “disturbing” pathology.

Via “Ingrid Newkirk’s Death Wish” by Douglas Anthony Cooper, Huff Post, April 5, 2012:

PETA’s literature…describes euthanasia in terms that can only be considered pornographic: “For (the dog) Pepper, euthanasia was a sweet release from the painful existence that she’d endured for so long.”

This is not a new metaphor: orgasm has long been referred to as “le petit mort” — the little death. Rarely do you see the analogy reversed in this manner, however: death of the innocent described as a little orgasm.

The psychology here is thoroughly pathological. No question. It is a sickness of the soul. Particularly disturbing, however, is that the reasoning behind this cult of euthanasia is thoroughly sound.

If your goal in this world is to prevent suffering, then one perfectly rational solution — perhaps the only rational solution — is to end life. Death makes sense. It is the termination of pain.

This is very much the PETA argument: life is suffering; hence death is good.

Ingrid Newkirk demonstrates a chilling consistency here. Yes, she feels the same way about humans — their eradication would be an improvement to the universe: “Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.”

She is no less consistent when she discusses Ingrid Newkirk — her horror of humanity extends to herself: “I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn’t be harming anything.”

Five years on, PETA continues to fend off criticism, and in some cases has even paid money in defence of its euthanasia programme.

In September, the animal rights group agreed to pay $49,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Virginia native Wilber Zarate Llaven, whose pet Chihuahua was snatched from the porch of his mobile home and subsequently euthanized by PETA employees.

In the suit, Llaven alleged that PETA euthanizes animals because it “considers pet ownership to be a form of involuntary bondage.”

PETA denied the allegations, maintaining the incident in 2014 was a “terrible mistake.”

According to WhoIs, which hosts information about domain registrants, PETA recently extended its purchase of PeopleEuthanizingThousandsofAnimals.Com and other similarly named domains. The domains are set to expire in March 2018.