President Trump on Sunday retweeted a video of one of his supporters yelling “White power!,” once again using the vast reach of his social media platforms to inflame racial divisions in a nation roiled by weeks of protests about police brutality against black people and demands for social justice reforms.
The edited racist video shows a white man riding in a golf cart bearing “Trump 2020” and “America First” signs during what appears to be an angry clash over the president and race between white residents of a Florida retirement community. Mr. Trump deleted the tweet more than three hours after posting it.
In response to a protester shouting “Where’s your white hood?” and other taunts, the man in the golf cart pumps his fist in the air and says “White power!” twice. The two-minute video continues to show profane exchanges between protesters and other Trump supporters riding on more golf carts.
The president retweeted the video to his millions of followers just after 7:30 a.m., thanking “the great people of The Villages,” the Florida retirement community where the clash apparently took place. He added: “The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”
The tweet was widely criticized as racist and insensitive, and again demonstrated the president’s willingness use social media to amplify some of the most hateful commentary of some of his followers, even at a moment of national unrest.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican senator, called the video “offensive” and asked Mr. Trump to take it off his Twitter page.
“There is no question he should not have retweeted it, and he should just take it down,” Mr. Scott said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “We can play politics with it or we can’t. I’m not going to. I think it’s indefensible. We should take it down.”
Mr. Trump deleted it less than an hour after Mr. Scott’s comments, but he did not condemn the “white power” statement or specifically disavow the sentiment expressed by his supporter.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Trump “is a big fan of The Villages.”
“He did not hear the one statement made on the video,” Mr. Deere said. “What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”
John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser who just released a scathing book about Mr. Trump, said on Sunday that the president’s inattention to detail made it possible that he did not notice the racist comments.
“He doesn’t pay attention to a lot of things,” Mr. Bolton said on “State of the Union.” “It’s entirely possible that he tweeted this video because he saw the sign, I think it was in the first go-kart that said the Trump 2020 or something like that. That’s all he needed to see. Not paying attention. Not considering all the implications of information he gets.”
But Mr. Bolton added, “It may be that you can draw a conclusion that he heard it, and it was racist, and he tweeted it to promote the message. It’s a legitimate conclusion to draw.”
Either way, the president’s initial decision to approvingly share the blatant support for white supremacy was the latest example of his willingness to use his vast Twitter following to inject incendiary commentary into the ongoing debate in the country over systemic racism.
In May, as protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, Mr. Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase with a long history of connection to racism.
More recently, Mr. Trump has used his Twitter feed to attack protesters who have pulled down statues of Confederate generals, calling them “arsonists, anarchists, looters, and agitators.” On Saturday night, he tweeted out 15 “wanted” posters for people the U.S. Park Police were seeking in connection with vandalism in Lafayette Square, just outside the White House.
The video on Sunday — which could not be independently verified by The New York Times — appeared to show a slow-moving parade through the Florida community with supporters of Mr. Trump riding golf carts, wearing red, white and blue, and displaying pro-Trump materials.
Protesters lined the street, many of them screaming epithets, accusing the Trump supporters of being racists and holding signs calling the president a bigot.
In his tweet, Mr. Trump did not specifically refer to the man who yelled “white power.” But his reference to “the great people of The Villages” was an eerie echo of his comments in the summer of 2017, when he responded to deadly violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., by saying there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, invoked the president’s comments about Charlottesville in response to the video on Sunday.
“We’re in a battle for the soul of the nation — and the President has picked a side,” Mr. Biden tweeted.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly denied that he was expressing support for white supremacy with his “both sides” comment. But the tweet on Sunday underscores what has become a hallmark of his presidency since he took office: a willingness to embrace divisive comments when they are coming from people he perceives to be his supporters.
The president has routinely retweeted far-right messages and a conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which includes people who believe that a “deep state” in the government is filled with satanic pedophiles. Mr. Trump once retweeted VB Nationalist, an anonymous account that has promoted a hoax about top Democrats worshiping the Devil and engaging in child sex trafficking.
“I’ve been retweeted by the President of the United States, President Trump!” the author of the anonymous account tweeted at the time.
An analysis of Mr. Trump’s Twitter account by The New York Times at the end of last year found that the president had retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that had pushed conspiracy, racist or other fringe content, including more than two dozen that were later suspended by Twitter.
Recently, Twitter has begun to crack down directly on Mr. Trump’s feed, posting warnings on some of his messages. In May, when the president tweeted about shooting following looting, the company added a statement to the post.
“This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible,” the company wrote. Later, when the president warned that efforts by protesters to set up an “autonomous zone” in Washington, D.C., would be “met with serious force!,” Twitter put up a similar message and blocked it from being retweeted.
The quick deletion of the video on Sunday was a rare instance in which Mr. Trump backed down in the face of criticism. His previous tweets have remained online despite the company’s online warnings.
On February 15, 2013, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death in front of his house in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Soon after his murder, an Islamist group claimed that Haider was an atheist who had made “blasphemous” comments about Prophet Muhammad and Islam on social media.
Haider was killed at a time when thousands of people had taken to the streets demanding capital punishment for a number of top Islamist leaders accused of war crimes during the country’s War of Independence in 1971. The unprecedented protest was organized by a group of secular bloggers and activists, who mobilized the people through Facebook. It was also the first of its kind demonstration representing the power of social media in the South Asian country.
Atheists are targeted
Since Haider’s assassination in 2013, five more secular bloggers have been slain in Bangladesh. All of these activists were self-proclaimed atheists and critics of religious fundamentalism. Islamist groups claimed responsibility for each of these killings on Twitter, releasing press statements in English and Bengali languages stating the reasons for their deaths. The jihadist organizations have said they killed the activists for their “blasphemous activities.”
Social media is considered a threat
Bangladesh is not a developed country but due to growing Internet connectivity, the number of people using social media and expressing their views publicly has been on the rise.
Bangladesh has now more than 30 million Facebook users, and secular bloggers and activists are making good use of it, criticizing religious fundamentalism and promoting secular values. After the murder of American-Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy in Dhaka on February 26, 2015, it became clear that the country’s Islamists felt threatened by the secular writers’ social media activism.
Bloggers are not the sole target
Islamic militants have carried out 34 attacks over the past 14 months in Bangladesh. “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed responsibility for at least 15 of these attacks, whereas Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group, has claimed responsibility for eight. The IS attacked mostly foreigners and religious minorities, whereas Ansar al-Islam targeted atheist bloggers, freethinkers and gay activists. The recent killing of two LGBT activists is another proof of the expanding influence of Islamists in the Muslim-majority country.
Government denies IS existence
Recently, IS published a six-page interview with its chief in Bangladesh in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, detailing why the South Asian country is strategically important for them. The militant group said it intended to carry out attacks in India and Myanmar using Bangladesh as a base. Despite these claims, the Bangladeshi government has always denied the presence of international terror groups on Bangladeshi soil.
Activists accuse the nation’s security agencies of inaction against Islamic groups. The general response from the police, they say, borders on apathy. After the murder of atheist activist Nazimuddin Samad earlier this month, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her government shouldn’t be held responsible if someone got killed for criticizing Islam. The premier has generally shied away from condemning the killing of secular activists, with the exception of the assassinations of gay activist Xulhaz Mannan and his friend Tanay Majumder.
Secularism is a strong force
Religious fundamentalism is still not as deep-rooted in Bangladesh as in some other South Asian countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. The secular culture is extremely potent. However, in the past few years, extremist religious groups have successfully created an environment of fear in the country. That is the reason why most Bangladeshis do not publicly protest the killings.
The single-room apartment in which Goswami and his family, including his wife Juthi and their 16-month-old son Adrij, currently reside is still mostly empty.
There’s hardly any furniture in the flat; only a few suitcases at a corner, a mattress on the floor, some toys and a laptop can be found in it. The family has been living in this tiny apartment in the western German city of Aachen for the past several months.
They were forced to flee Bangladesh last year as a result of increased threats from Islamists as well as government officials. Goswami found himself in their crosshairs due to his criticism of religious radicalism and advocacy for protection of minority rights.
The 29-year-old has been blogging since 2008, focusing initially on writing short stories and poems on “somewhereinblog.net,” the South Asian country’s largest community blog platform.
Gradually, the topics he wrote about shifted to more sensitive subjects, putting him on the radar of Islamists.
After becoming an atheist a few years ago, he began criticizing religious radicalism on the internet. His blog posts on contentious issues have been read by many Bangladeshis. Even though he used pseudonyms to publish his articles, extremists managed to discover his real identity and even government officials started monitoring his online activities.
“The authorities never summoned me, but I found some of them on my Facebook and Twitter followers’ lists. I was warned several times to think about what I write online.”
Threats on Facebook
It was in 2013 when Goswami started receiving threats on his life from religious extremists.
The enormous power wielded by bloggers in the Muslim-majority country became evident that year as thousands of ordinary citizens poured on to the streets of the capital Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for the Islamist leaders who were involved in war crimes during the country’s War of Liberation against Pakistan in 1971.
Some bloggers organized the protests via a Facebook event. Islamists were alarmed, and countered the protests by leveling blasphemy allegations against some atheist bloggers.
Atheism has long been seen as a crime in Bangladesh’s conservative Islamic society. Self-proclaimed atheist bloggers like Goswami thus became a target of attacks by radicals.
At first, Goswami didn’t take the threats seriously. But when Avijit Roy, a famous Bangladeshi-American blogger, was hacked to death in February 2015, Goswami began to worry. Shortly after Roy’s murder, Goswami noticed a surge in web traffic to his blog posts. Petrified, he pulled down his blog from the internet. Yet, he got a message on Facebook: “You may think that we might have forgotten you just because you took your website off the internet. But no, we will remember you and your time will come.”
The frightened blogger turned to the police for help. “But they told me to leave the country as they couldn’t give me protection,” he told DW.
Despite the growing insecurity, Goswami remained in Dhaka, even though he reduced his regular outdoor activities. By the summer of 2015, three other secular bloggers had been killed, including Niloy Neel, a friend of Goswami.
The murders heightened the anxiety of Goswami, who was spending many sleepless nights. His wife was also worried about their increasingly precarious state. The two were also concerned about the future of their three-year-old son.
In April 2016, the risk to Goswami’s life became so great that he decided to leave his country. With the help of an international organization, he first flew to Nepal, a country where a number of Bangladeshi bloggers sought temporary shelter after the series of ghastly blogger murders.
Goswami thought that his wife and son would be safe without him in Dhaka. But he was wrong.
“When I was in Nepal, I received threatening emails and Facebook posts saying that my family would be attacked as I was not in the country. My family is the most important thing for me,” Goswami said.
The blogger later contacted the German embassy in Dhaka, which issued him a visa at the end of September 2016. He then arrived in Germany on October 9. Three months later, his wife and child followed, and the family reunited in Aachen.
Goswami is lucky – Three international organizations supported him in bringing his family to Germany.
“Leaving my country was not an easy decision. Everyone loves their country,” he said. “But the influence of extremists and militants has become so high in Bangladesh that ordinary citizens think it’s no longer safe to practice freedom of expression.“
Forget everything – at least for a moment
Arnab Goswami showed us his blog and Facebook page while sitting on the mattress in his living room in Aachen. His blog was hacked just a few days ago.
He said he doesn’t know who the culprit was, but suspects that it could be a professional hacker. When his son crawled into the room, Arnab shined. He cuddled with him, made him laugh. At that moment, he seemed to have forgotten all his worries. When his wife took the child to the kitchen, his face once again turned serious.
“My family has been going through a tough time, maybe I’m safe here, but my future is still uncertain. The fact that I have been suffering for my writing hurts me,” he said.
The couple also misses their parents, whom they left behind in Bangladesh.
But Goswami stresses that he does not regret his writing. “It was not possible for me to stop writing in exchange for a secure life in Bangladesh.”
A gloomy situation
“Of course, it’s alarming to see that liberal writers have been killed for writing blogs, but shall we stop expressing our opinion to save our lives?” The answer to this question, he said, is a clear no.
“Someone has to come forward to write on those issues. Otherwise, our country will enter into a dark age,” he warned.
Goswami criticizes Bangladesh’s government for not doing enough to protect secular voices. “It’s clear that they have been supporting Islamists to stay in power,” he underlined. “If they continue doing so, Islamic Shariah laws will be introduced at some point. We don’t want that. That’s why we have to continue writing, even though there’s a risk of being killed.”
Goswami’s wife Juthi backs her husband. “I support my husband’s scripts. Sometimes he discusses a topic with me before writing on it as a blog. Nothing is perfect in our life. No religion is perfect. No society is perfect. Some problems are there. And It’s important to write about those problems,” she stressed.
When Goswami is busy updating his blog site, 27-year-old Juthi takes care of their son and does the household activities. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and wants to learn the German language to explore job opportunities in Germany. But their future in the European country remains uncertain.
Aachen – and then?
Arnab Goswami’s immigration lawyer, Volker Simon, has been supporting the family since February. In the meantime, the three family members have received a residence permit that expires at the end of 2017.
Simon wants to submit an application for asylum and he is optimistic regarding the family’s chances – even if Bangladesh is not considered a priority country by the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). According to BAMF statistics obtained by DW, there were 2,657 asylum applications from Bangladeshi nationals received in Germany in 2016.
The quota for accepted Bangladeshi asylum seekers during this time was 10.9 percent. This includes the number of accepted asylum applications, protection from deportation and granting of refugee status.
Help from the embassy
Arnab Goswami’s case for asylum is a special circumstance. “I see good chances for a successful asylum application,” said Simon. “The German Embassy in Dhaka has emphasized that as a critic of religion, a free thinker and a blogger, Goswami is in considerable danger in his country of origin. A few of his colleagues have already been murdered.”
A tragic incident involving another Bangladeshi blogger adds to the legitimacy of Goswami’s case.
“This person applied for asylum at the Swedish embassy and in the time it took to process the application he was shot in the streets,” said Simon. At the time, this helped give Goswami a reason to get out of the country quickly. Now, his future in Germany remains uncertain.
Mo Norai has worked in Silicon Valley for a decade. He’s done stints at Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Apple, but only as a contract worker, meaning he has missed out on the tech giants’ storied perks, benefits and job security. So when he was approached last April by a recruiter from a company called Tech Jobs Box about a full-time job, he was intrigued.
A woman named Kelly Dale contacted him via LinkedIn promising that “salary and benefits would be competitive.”
“It really hooked me,” Norai told me last month.
After a brief phone conversation, Dale said he seemed like a great candidate and set up in-person interviews with her colleague and an investor in the company. Those went well and for four months last year, Norai thought he had a new job. He was in regular communication with his new colleagues, meeting up with them for dinner, drinks, and a baseball game, but they kept pushing his start date back, saying they were securing office space and finalising funding.
But in fact, there was no job. Tech Jobs Box wasn’t a real company. Kelly Dale and the rest of his new “colleagues” were actually operatives for Project Veritas, a conservative investigative group founded by James O’Keefe that specialises in secretly recording people. It’s perhaps best known for catalyzing the downfall of ACORN, a low-income advocacy group that lost its federal funding after Project Veritas released undercover videos of the group’s employees counseling a sex worker and her “pimp” (a disguised O’Keefe).
Project Veritas traditionally targets politicians, government agencies, and media organisations, but decided to go after Silicon Valley last year because of its perceived biases against conservatives. “Big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have become media monopolies and they are censoring people,” said O’Keefe by phone.
In January, Project Veritas released three videos about Twitter’s content-moderation practices that feature hidden camera footage of nine current and former Twitter employees – one woman and eight men, including Norai. They even secretly filmed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey by having an operative pose as a homeless person and confront him at a Blue Bottle coffee shop.
The videos don’t contain blockbuster information. The employees reveal that there aren’t a lot of conservatives at Twitter; that Twitter tries to make spammy content less visible on the platform; that many of the sock puppet Twitter accounts banned in the last year posed as Trump supporters; and that Twitter would cooperate, as required by law, in any investigation of President Trump by handing over his private Twitter messages. The most surprising part was a former engineer’s claim that Twitter historically “shadow banned” users. (A “shadow ban” means that a user’s content on a platform can’t be seen and the user doesn’t realise it.)
Project Veritas points out that Senator Ted Cruz cited their videos while questioning tech companies during a hearing about content moderation, terrorism, and Russia in January.
“The individuals depicted in these videos were speaking in a personal capacity and do not represent or speak for Twitter,” said a Twitter spokesperson by email, pointing me to a page that explains how and why Twitter accounts are censored or made less visible. “Twitter does not shadowban accounts. We do take actions to downrank accounts that are abusive, and mark them accordingly so people can still click through and see this information if they so choose.”
While Project Veritas’s findings weren’t particularly shocking, how they were obtained was. Project Veritas didn’t just fake-recruit its targets, it fake-seduced them. Many of the male employees were secretly recorded while on dates at dimly-lit restaurants, sipping wine. Based on the number of times he appears in the videos in different locations and dress, one security engineer, Clay Haynes, appears to have been enamoured enough with the operative pumping him for information to go out with her at least three times. All of the Veritas operatives’ faces are blurred, but you can see his date’s jangly bracelets and long blond hair. It’s unclear just how far the seduction of Haynes went, but they became serious enough to go on a double date to Morton’s Steakhouse with her friend, a disguised James O’Keefe.
“NO ONE should have to experience this,” said Haynes via Facebook message. Haynes, who is still employed by Twitter, ultimately opted not to talk to me at the company’s request.
Beyond the questionable journalistic ethics of exploiting people’s desires for work and love, Project Veritas’s tactics broke the law, says John Nockleby, a professor who specialises in privacy at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles. While consent laws for recording conversations vary from state to state, California is a two-party consent state, meaning you have to tell someone if you’re recording them, or face up to a year of jail time and a $US2,500 ($3,240) fine. “You’re allowed to do video in a public place without getting consent, but not take audio, unless it’s someone like a politician giving a speech to a crowd,” Nockleby told me by phone. “In California, even in a public place, if you’re audio recording without consent, that’s not legal.” In California, even in a public place, if you’re audio recording without consent, that’s not legal.
O’Keefe, who paid a $US100,000 ($129,600) settlement in 2012 to an ACORN employee who sued him over California’s law against surreptitious recording, expressed the belief that his operatives are allowed to record people in public places, like bars, restaurants or a conference room where a door is open.
“We have a number of lawyers who handle compliance for us. California is a two-party state but we can operate in areas where there are no expectations of privacy,” said O’Keefe by phone. “With the Twitter story, we did not break the law. Period.”
In a follow-up email, a Project Veritas spokesperson pointed to an exception in the law for circumstances in “which the parties to the communication may reasonably expect that the communication may be overheard or recorded.”(Norai says the door to the conference room where his interviews took place was closed.)
The story Silicon Valley likes to tell about itself is that it conquered the world by making it more open and connected, and by getting strangers to trust each other. Project Veritas exploited that ecosystem of connection and trust to wage its year-long investigation, turning the tools that Silicon Valley created against it. In a phone interview, O’Keefe declined to reveal how many undercover journalists were involved or how much it spent on the operation, saying only that it “was very expensive” because travel and lodging in San Francisco “was outrageous.” (Project Veritas doesn’t seem to be having money problems; its budget has nearly doubled every year, according to financial filings. O’Keefe says it raised more than $US7 ($9) million in 2017.) He said he couldn’t talk about his group’s methods because the investigation of tech companies is ongoing. Google and Facebook employees should beware. The investigation of tech companies is ongoing. “We still have active investigators out in the field,” said O’Keefe.
“We still have active investigators out in the field, which is why I can’t reveal the techniques used to gather information,” he told me. “I wish these companies would be honest about what they are doing. Unfortunately, we live in a society where there is so much dishonesty that it requires undercover work.”
In other words, deceit requires more deceit. I was able to unearth some of the group’s methods of deception: It sent targets messages on LinkedIn and dating apps, built false identities on social networks, and operated a fake start-up out of a WeWork blocks from Twitter’s headquarters.
The larger revelation of the project is not that Twitter is biased against conservatives; it’s that Silicon Valley has given strangers who bear you ill will all the tools they need to infiltrate your life. Our identities are scattered across the web on multiple platforms, giving people countless ways to make contact with us as well as dossiers of what we do, whom we like, and where we go.
“You’re on the national news talking about Twitter,” a friend told Mo Norai via Facebook message after the first video was published. Norai had no idea what she was talking about at first. “You know I don’t work at Twitter anymore, right?” he sent back.
Then he went to Project Veritas’s site and watched the video. “Oh fuck, this is bad,” he thought.
In the videos, Norai is dressed formally, wearing a tie and a black suit vest, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Norai’s experience at tech companies is in content moderation — deciding, essentially, what speech needs to be taken down. He’s removed spam from iTunes and reviewed posts as a contractor for Facebook. He was hired as a contract worker at Twitter after the Paris attacks in November 2015 because terrorism results in increased offensive postings on social networks. “We were warned it was going to be grisly,” Norai told me.
He was there for just three months, and was gone by March 2016, months before Trump became the Republican presidential nominee. Having “Content Review Agent” for Twitter on his LinkedIn résumé, though, made him a target of Project Veritas. Vaporware,a successful strategy for many a start-up in Silicon Valley, also works well for deceptive investigative operations.
Norai had two interviews with the fake start-up, which was allegedly going to make content recommendations to people based on their location and buying patterns. He says he typed the company’s name into a search engine and didn’t find anything. (Vaporware, a successful strategy for many a start-up in Silicon Valley, also works well for deceptive investigative operations.) “It seemed weird but I met the people,” Norai told me. “They said they wanted to start a start-up. It made sense it wasn’t in existence yet.”
Both his interviews were in May. Kelly Dale, the supposed recruiter, said the office was in downtown San Francisco and gave Norai an address on Mission Street. When Norai got there, it turned out to be a WeWork co-working space, which, again, is not that strange. Lots of early-stage start-ups are based out of WeWorks around the country, because they offer easy plug-and-play office space. The WeWork-Civic Center that Project Veritas used rents office space for as little as $US780 ($1,011) per month.
I went to the WeWork last month – it’s a seven-minute walk from Twitter’s headquarters, in a stylish building on an otherwise seedy street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – and asked for Tech Jobs Box. The receptionist recognised the name, but said they weren’t there anymore. She wouldn’t say how long they were there or how many people came in to meet with them. WeWork declined to answer any questions about the fake company that rented space from it.
Norai’s interviews were with a doughy-faced guy who introduced himself as Eric Williams. A grey-haired “investor” named Dan, who Norai later discovered was Dan Sandini, a known operative of Veritas, came to the second interview, the one posted online. Dan and Eric said they lived on the East Coast but wanted to recruit talent in the Bay Area.
Norai thought the interview questions were odd. They asked him theoretical questions about how he might have dealt with tweets from aggressive Trump supporters.
“The political questions were strange but I just thought it was because they weren’t from here,” said Norai, a life-long Californian who grew up in the East Bay.
Norai hadn’t worked at Twitter during the bulk of the 2016 campaign, nor had he dealt with Trump-related content moderation. But his theoretical comments were presented as if from experience. Project Veritas’s habit of presenting comments out of context is part of why people question the credibility of their videos. James O’Keefe says Project Veritas recently formulated a code of ethics that includes “not breaking the law” and not deceptively editing videos or “putting words in people’s mouths.”
After Norai’s interview ended, Eric and Dan took him out for celebratory cocktails at two swanky San Francisco bars, Local Edition and the View. They said Norai was hired. At the View, Norai took out his phone to Snapchat the moment. Dan protested and asked Norai not to put it online. “I just thought he didn’t want to look silly because I gave him cat ears,” said Norai. ”Current or prior Facebook or Twitter experience preferred.”
When Eric came back to town in June, he invited Norai to a Giants game with two other men, who said they were Department of Justice lawyers. The four men sat behind home plate, and Eric asked for Norai’s help in recruiting other people for the start-up. Afterwards he sent him job descriptions for two positions: “software engineer, machine learning” and “spam operations.” “Current or prior Facebook or Twitter experience preferred,” the listings read, suggesting Facebook may get the Veritas treatment next. Norai put Eric in touch with two friends who had experience at Twitter and Facebook, respectively.
The night ended at bars again. After drinks at the Starlight Room, Norai got on the train home to the East Bay. “It felt like we’d established a friendship,” said Norai.
He never saw any of them again. At some point, Norai tried to email Kelly Dale and it bounced. Eric told him she’d gotten married and had a new email address, which made little sense given that her email was “email@example.com.” A few months later, Eric’s number stopped working. Dan told him Eric had been let go. Still jobless months later, Norai began to wonder if it had been some kind of scam. He decided to take a contract work position at Facebook last September.
When the Project Veritas video came out in January, he found out exactly what kind of scam it was. The videos didn’t include the two friends he put Eric in touch with.
In January, an investigator from Twitter reached out to him to ask if he had known he’d been filmed and asked whether he’d been contacted on Tinder or other dating apps, as others had been. While Norai says he mostly worries about potential professional damage, he also bears psychological scars from the episode. He says he’s paranoid now about meeting new people, and worries when a phone is out during an interview because it could be secretly recording him. He didn’t feel comfortable with me until I showed him my driver’s licence.
He asked me if I’d ever done anything like this before, which was an uncomfortable question, because I have. A couple years ago, I created a nonexistent business — the Freakin’ Awesome Karaoke Express, or F.A.K.E. — and made it a website as well as accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp, in order to explore the fake reputation economy. I do believe that some stories can only be told well by going “undercover,” and while I hate to admit it, part of me is impressed by all the work that Project Veritas put into its Twitter exposé. Many a journalist knows it can be hard to get people who work at tech companies to talk. But their specific tactics were deplorable and cruel. They didn’t go undercover to find out how an industry actually works; they went undercover to exploit people’s vulnerabilities in the pursuit of information that could have been unearthed with a more traditional journalistic approach.
O’Keefe disagrees with that sentiment. “It’s hard to get [tech companies] to be honest on the record. You call them as a journalist and they say they don’t do it. We got tipped off to shadow banning and set out to confirm it. And we basically confirmed it,” he told me by phone from an Uber. “Sometimes that’s when you’re most honest, when you’re being recorded in private.”
Twitter disputes the honesty of the investigation. “We deplore the deceptive and underhanded tactics by which this footage was obtained and selectively edited to fit a pre-determined narrative,” said a spokesperson by email. “Twitter is committed to enforcing our rules without bias and empowering every voice on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”
Since the Twitter investigation was published, Project Veritas hasn’t done much to cover its tracks. Kelly Dale’s LinkedIn profile is still up, with over 200 followers and claims that Dale worked at CUNY and went to Pace. Neither have records of her for obvious reasons: She doesn’t exist. According to Nexis’s people search engine, there are no Kelly Dales who live in Massachusetts. The profile photo looks to me like it belongs to Allison Maass, who did not respond to a media inquiry sent via LinkedIn. Maass left Project Veritas last year to work for Circa, an online media group owned by the media behemoth Sinclair Broadcasting, which famously requires its television stations to air conservative news daily, and is currently trying to expand its footprint by acquiring Tribune Media. Project Veritas and Sinclair Broadcasting have collaborated in the past.
Leaving behind the traces of abandoned identities is pretty common for Project Veritas, said Lauren Windsor, an executive producer at the web show Undercurrent who was working at Democracy Partners when the group of political consultants was infiltrated by Project Veritas in 2016. After Democracy Partners realised it had been duped and secretly filmed by an intern named “Angela Brandt,” who was in fact Allison Maass, Windsor began preserving evidence for a million-dollar lawsuit against the group. She realised it would be useful to publish that evidence – photos and details of faked identities — to help others avoid the same fate. In January, she published an online dossier with the photos and known aliases of over 150 Project Veritas operatives.
When shown a photo of “Eric Williams,” Windsor recognised him from another Project Veritas operation and sent me photos of him filming activist group Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee in 2016.
“They have gotten a lot of funding. They have been on a recruitment surge to try to staff up before 2018,” she said by phone. “I think they’re a real threat to media and political organisations, and, most importantly, to candidates.”
O’Keefe echoes that. “We have an untold amount of people inside organisations and they don’t know that,” he told me. “We are going from the smash-and-grab to the long con.” We are going from the smash-and-grab to the long con.
Windsor says the group’s techniques are “inhumane.” “They see themselves as being at war with the Left but the [people they secretly film] are real people despite how much Project Veritas dislikes them politically,” she said. “A lot of people [who are infiltrated and secretly filmed] have described the experience to me like psychological rape. It felt like that to me. They’re destroying lives and it’s really important to expose their political espionage as much as possible.”
Windsor has been training liberal groups how to spot a Veritas operative, mainly by thoroughly researching the online identity of anyone who offers free help or dangles the offer of donor money. If their online footprint is thin, it can be a clue. But there are, of course, legitimate reasons why someone might have a thin online footprint, so it’s not a sureproof solution.
I don’t actually have any sureproof solutions for you. We could ask social media companies to try to protect us from deceivers by authenticating people’s identities – Tinder could require users’ driver licenses; LinkedIn could ask for business records in order to list a new workplace — but that would simply invite a different sort of dystopia. We’re never going to be able to completely eradicate fake bots on Twitter or faked videos or con men on dating sites. Trolls will always find a way.
Maybe just keep in mind that, despite Silicon Valley marketing to the contrary, being in a more open and connected world has downsides. Project Veritas may not be particularly great at spycraft, but with enough manpower and enough online information at its disposal and enough hidden cameras in enough places, it will compromise people and organisations in damaging ways, fairly or unfairly. It’s the real-life manifestation of the faceless algorithms and unknown data brokers that scrape our profiles for information and constantly sit in the backgrounds of our browsers tracking everything that we do. Instead of using it to serve you Instagram ads for shoes, they’re trying to take down your organisation. You will just be a casualty along the way.
Washington (CNN)The judge who decided Roger Stone’s fate made an impassioned plea for the truth and the rule of law at his sentencing hearing Thursday, a direct rebuke of President Donald Trump amid the deepening crisis over his interference in the Justice Department.
But federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s intense appeal Thursday in a packed Washington courtroom quickly collided with the reality of Trump’s presidency.
Before, during and after the sentencing hearing, Trump promoted some of the same conspiracy theories that Jackson methodically dismantled while explaining her decision to send Stone to prison for more than three years.
For about 50 intense minutes on Thursday, Jackson highlighted Stone’s crimes and condemned the scorched-earth politics that he and Trump championed for years, most recently in 2016.
Along the way, she debunked no fewer than five conspiracy theories that have found a home on Trump’s Twitter feed, conservative media outlets and Stone’s allies on the fringes of the Internet.
First, Jackson said it’s “beyond debate” that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election, citing conclusions from across the US government. But Trump has never unequivocally accepted these findings, and has publicly embraced denials from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Then, Jackson added, “This case did not arise because Roger Stone was being pursued by his political enemies,”, or because of Stone’s ties to Republicans, as Trump has alleged. Instead, Stone was charged because he told “flat-out lies” to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, then threatened a witness who could expose his lies.
This zinger was a clear shot at Trump’s claim that a “deep state” in the US government has tried to take him down.
The courtroom was hushed while Jackson summed up Stone’s crimes: “He wasn’t prosecuted for standing up for the President. He was prosecuted for covering up for the President.”
The split-screen day highlights how Trump knows the rules of the game and bends them to his own advantage. Jackson’s comments were uttered in a closed courtroom, where cameras are banned, with about 150 people listening. But Trump’s comments are broadcast live on national TV and amplified to his 72 million followers.
Tension in the courthouse
Inside the courtroom, as Jackson tore into the unfounded theories, Stone’s family, friends and supporters grew sullen. His stepdaughter leaned forward and pressed her clasped hands to her face. One friend hunched over in his seat, staring down at the floor. Another friend silently cried.
Jackson grew more intense as she defended the Justice Department prosecutors who tried the case but quit last week after Trump and Attorney General William Barr criticized their original sentencing recommendation, which asked that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison.
“Any suggestion the prosecutors did anything … improper or unethical is incorrect,” Jackson said, even though Trump repeatedly claimed they were “rogue” and “corrupt,” smearing their reputations because some of them worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“The truth still exists. The truth still matters,” Jackson said, echoing a passionate and persuasive refrain that one of the now-sidelined prosecutors made during closing arguments in November.
The jury convicted Stone of lying to Congress when he said he didn’t talk about WikiLeaks with anyone on the Trump campaign. The evidence showed that he discussed it with senior officials like Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon, and even Trump himself, Jackson noted.
Later Thursday, Trump falsely insisted that “Roger was never involved in the Trump campaign for president.
“The jury also found Stone guilty of tampering with a key witness, radio host Randy Credico, and pressuring him to plead the Fifth Amendment when he was asked by the House to testify. The pressure included profane language and violent threats against Credico and his beloved dog.
But Trump downplayed Stone’s conviction at an event in Nevada, aptly about criminal justice reform. He said it wasn’t as bad as the movies, where mobsters put “guns to people’s heads.”
“Maybe there was tampering (by Stone), and maybe there wasn’t,” Trump said.
The disgust over Stone’s brazen lies to Congress and efforts to impede an investigation into critical national security issues “should transcend party,” Jackson said repeatedly at the hearing.
After the proceedings wrapped up, Stone was spotted at a ritzy Washington restaurant watching Trump’s speech.
In today’s mind-numbingly polarized climate, which in many ways was engineered by Stone himself, Jackson’s appeals to America’s most basic virtues fell flat.
At the Palm steakhouse, Stone appeared calm, with his jacket off, and surrounded by his supporters and loved ones. He ate chicken paillard and watched on a cell phone while the President talked about his case.
Asked if he was expecting clemency from his ally, Stone responded: “I don’t know, that’s why we’re watching. The President is speaking right now.”
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz, Nicolle Okoren, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.