“Hacker X”, the American who built a fake news empire in favor of Trump, exposes himself


A shadowy figure holds up a Donald Trump mask.

Aurich Lawson | fake images

This is the story of the mastermind behind one of America’s largest “fake news” operations.

For two years, he ran websites and Facebook groups that spread false stories, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Below him was a dedicated team of writers and editors paid to produce misleading content, from jokes to political propaganda, with the ultimate goal of tipping the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

Through great efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from scratch. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities, including Trump, to retweet misleading claims to his followers. And it tricked unsuspecting American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, into considering fake news sources more than traditional media outlets.

Experts and governments could have given Russia too much credit, he says, when an entire system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was designed and operated from within the United States.

“Russia played such a small role that they weren’t even a sign on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “However, this was normal for politicians … if you tell a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”

Formerly nicknamed “Hacker X”, he is now ready to reveal who he is and how he did it.

A note on sourcing: In a rigorous effort to verify the claims made here, Ars has seen written correspondence between the hacker and notable entities involved in the production of fake news; emails sent to you by prominent personalities who are publicly known to own (or are associated with) fake news sites; tax forms showing the income you received from fake news companies; receipts for purchases of IT assets, such as domain names; emails from him to staff explaining the strategy and assigning them tasks on a regular basis; and archived copies of web pages, forums and tweets produced as part of this grand operation. We have also contacted sources, both named and unidentified, some of whom are “writers” who worked at the same company and have corroborated the hacker’s claims.

By requesting that the company he worked for not be explicitly named, Ars has referred to the fake news company by … a false name, Koala Media.

Samurai

The fake new entrepreneur who has now decided to break his silence is an “ethical hacker”. Robert Willis.

Some members of the information security community may meet “Rob” today as an active member who speaks at conferences and works with the ethical hacking group Sakura Samurai. (The Sakura Samurai have, on many occasions, responsibly disclosed vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government and private entities. I have previously interacted with Rob on at least two occasions when I had questions about the Sakura Samurai vulnerability reports) .

But in 2015, Willis was just another hacker looking for an IT job. He had already received a job offer, but still had an interview scheduled at a final company.

“I was thinking about not showing up for the interview,” he told me. “After all, I had just committed to another company.”

That last company was opaque: He wouldn’t reveal his name or actual job duties until Willis showed up in person. But the opacity itself was intriguing. Willis decided to do the interview.

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Willis in 2017 writing for the Conservative Country website, now closed.

Robert Willis

“I showed up at the site, which was a large corporate building. I was instructed to wait downstairs until they picked me up. The secrecy was intriguing. It may have upset some people, but I love adventures. I hadn’t been given any information. about work other than that, they were very excited, because finding someone like me was so rare – I had tons of random, overlapping, and highly technical skills from years of playing various roles in smaller private companies. “

Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had acquired a broad set of technical skills in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship, and management. He knew how to take advantage of search engine algorithms once, he said, landing a random phrase at number one on an engine in 24 hours. “Many will say that this is / was impossible, but I have the receipts,” he said, “and other credible people as well.”

At the interview site, a man came down to look for him and they took the elevator to a floor with an almost empty office. A woman waited inside with three chairs. They all sat down. Your hosts finally revealed their company name: Koala Media. The moment felt like an orchestrated Grand Revelation.

“I wasn’t scared but excited by how crazy this was already turning out [to be]”Willis told me.” Listen. They told me there were big plans for the office I was sitting in and they had already hired the initial writers and editors for the new operation. “

Company interviewers told Willis that “everything had to be built with safety in mind, at extreme levels.”

If you were to land the job, your main role would be to quickly expand a popular and unique website that is already owned by Koala Media. For this, they needed someone with the various abilities of Willis.

Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me they were against big business and big government because they are basically the same thing,” Willis said. They said they had readers on the right and left. They said it was about “freedom.” That suited Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative: “very punk rock, almost anarchist.”

Then the interviewers said, “If you work for us, you can help stop Hillary Clinton.”

“She hated the establishment, the Republicans and the Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was the most established and she was the only candidate who was almost guaranteed to run on the main ticket in the future cycle of 2016,” Willis said . . “If I had chosen a lesser evil at the time, it would certainly have been the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city because the Democrats literally destroyed my previous home state. It felt like a good revenge.”

Willis says he had no indication that the company that was about to hire him was extreme or that it would be in the future. In his perception, the company was simply “investigative” with respect to its journalism.

When Koala offered him the job, he took it.

What does a content farm look like?  It is not glamorous.  This is Koala's office.
Enlarge / What does a content farm look like? It is not glamorous. This is Koala’s office.

Robert Willis


arstechnica.com

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