Anatomy Of A Professional Media Smear Campaign
The coordinated attacks on Joe Rogan have ended up providing a fascinating look into how they are organised. Through a layered maze of obscure, opaque front organisations, political operatives launder curated material designed to spread calumny which will colour the public's opinion of someone and ensure it cannot be traced back to those it ultimately benefits.
Here we're going to track back through the process and examine it. Many thanks to the excellent @Wokal_Distance for laying out the breadcrumbs.
Stage 5: Cyclical Mass Media Coverage
Suddenly, partisan media endlessly repeat and amplify the same story in a periodic cycle. Sometimes, this comes through the news agency services (Associated Press, Reuters, PA Media, United Press International) distributing them over the wire.
This is the end goal of the laundering process: wide negative attention across the country which will exert extreme pressure from perceived "public opinion".
Why? How? Simple. Lazy "journalists" (aka highly-political, low-salary social science graduate bloggers who can't write but want entry to the country club) without a travel or investigatory budget copy/pasting what they see on the wire each day.
This is known as "churnalism":
Churnalism is a pejorative term for a form of journalism in which press releases, stories provided by news agencies, and other forms of pre-packaged material, instead of reported news, are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media. It is a portmanteau of "churn" and "journalism". Its purpose is to reduce cost by reducing original news-gathering and checking sources, to counter revenue lost with the rise of Internet news and decline in advertising; there was a particularly steep fall from late 2015. The origin of the word has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir.
These days, instead of being out on the street or press conference rooms with their notepads, journalists merely sit on Twitter all day and write about posts they see.
Stage 4: Social Media Astroturfing
The first and immediate evidence of a coordinated plan is the same, repetitive messages coming from fake anonymous sockpuppet accounts on social media "platforms". To get the mass media's attention, you need to flood the same message everywhere.
This also gets the attention of publicity-seeking D-list celebrities and "blue checks" who jump on fashionable bandwagons to court public favour and media attention.
And of course, many "influencers" just take money to "re-post" things.
To find these, simply search for duplicate posts across any social media "platform".
What is astroturfing?
Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source's financial connection. The term astroturfing is derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word "grassroots". The implication behind the use of the term is that instead of a "true" or "natural" grassroots effort behind the activity in question, there is a "fake" or "artificial" appearance of support.
This is, of course, the exact same technique used by the Chinese Communist Party and in the authoritarian response to Covid-19:
Stage 3: Front Organisation Laundering
To get your message "amplified", you need places to kickstart it. Someone with a huge following. Maybe it's a celebrity or "influencer" account who can mention it to project it as word-of-mouth.
Or you can start your own front organisation(s) which re-post each other's materials. This is known as having social media "clout".
Meet the author of these viral videos: "Patriot Takes".
Our mission is to research, monitor and expose the extremism and radicalization of the far right across the darkest parts of the Internet. PatriotTakes is an organization built to take on and expose the far-right disinformation machine. Your donations allow our researchers to stay vigilant and monitor far-right platforms. Not only does this allow us to root out disinformation at the source, but it also provides us with the information needed to strategize and combat right-wing threats so we can protect the safety of our democracy.
Paid for by PatriotTakes. PatriotTakes.com. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.
This is not new. It's called a watchdog organisation. There are plenty. In the 1970s, they did it with student newspapers.
Stage 2: SuperPAC Funding
To run front organisations, you need money. And that money will lead right back to its origin, so it needs to quite difficult to track.
In 2010, the United States decided a Federal case, SpeechNow.org vs Federal Election Commission.
SpeechNow.org sued the FEC in February 2008 claiming the $5,000 federal limit on how much individuals can give to a political committee such as its own, which therefore limited how much it could spend supporting candidates, represented a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee to freedom of speech.
In May of 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of SpeechNow.org, meaning the FEC could not longer enforce the contribution limits to independent groups.
This led to the dreaded Super Political Action Committee (Super-PAC) or "independent expenditure-only committee".
"While the Citizens United decision dealt with the spending side of federal campaign finance, the SpeechNow case was on the other side — raising funds. Thus, as a result of the two decisions put together, independent advocacy groups can raise as much and spend as much as they can and wish to do to support or oppose candidates for federal office."
According to OpenSecrets, Super-PACs are "prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit."
Meet the 3 hero brothers of Meidastouch. The Super-PAC behind "Patriot Takes:
Each of the brothers, originally from Long Island, brings a unique skill set. Brett is an Emmy-winning video editor who spent five years working on The Ellen DeGeneres Show; Ben is an entertainment and civil rights litigator whose clients include former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick; and Jordan is a marketing supervisor who’s balancing his advocacy with a full-time job, working out of a 400-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn.
"Meet MeidasTouch, the Super PAC That’s Gotten Hollywood’s Attention (and Millions of Views) With Their Anti-Trump Videos"
Even left-leaning Rolling Stone was disturbed with their behaviour when it pulled back the mask:
When Rolling Stone scrutinized MeidasTouch about its business, its founders threatened to sue over a story that had not yet been published. A ceaseless barrage of misinformation followed, with MeidasTouch rallying its legions of social media followers to join the campaign.
Meidas attacked and insulted the reporter, calling him a “coward” for declining to go on its podcast prepublication, as well as accusing him of being “slime,” a “tabloid hack,” and one of Trump’s “puppets.” (Editor’s note: Hettena is the author of a book titled Trump/Russia: A Definitive History.)
The Meiselas brothers said they were the ones being harassed, and MeidasTouch accused Rolling Stone of attempting “to damage the relationships that power our operation,” and harm them financially when it reported on their business relationships. “We will not be threatened by these mob-style tactics and will continue to keep you up-to-date,” the group tweeted.
The group told supporters that the reporting on MeidasTouch was an assault on them. “The MeidasMighty is a movement. You attack the movement, you attack us all. There is not a more enthusiastic and passionate force in politics today in America than the Mighty,” Ben Meiselas tweeted April 1st.
"The Trouble With MeidasTouch"
This delightful group took $4.7M in political donations during the election cycle.
Stage 1: Political Foundations & DNC Veterans
Which leaves the final follow-the-money piece. As always, where the money comes from determines the intent, and is often itself another maze of front organisations.
What do you do if you have too much money and want to avoid tax?
You start a charitable foundation. But that's for another day.
Let's refer back to Rolling Stone's awkward questioning.
The Super PAC, per its own disclosure forms, didn’t donate $25,000 to the Biden campaign — and indeed, a direct donation from MeidasTouch to Biden would have violated campaign-finance laws. Instead, the donations came from people who clicked on an embedded link in Meidas’ tweet and were given the option to split their donation between the Biden campaign and the Super PAC. Donors gave $31,623 to the Biden campaign, and MeidasTouch received nearly $30,000.
MeidasTouch, like many other Super PACs, is fueled by anti-Trump donors who, outraged and terrified by Trump’s malevolence and incompetence, were ready to open their wallets like never before in 2020.
So - a large majority of donations for this group's activities were solicited directly from the DNC's own voter base. Wealthy ones, from a particular town.
It was 2000-ish donations of $1000-2000 each, from a strikingly similar places: https://www.opensecrets.org/political-action-committees-pacs/meidastouch/C00746073/donors/2020
- Bette Midler
- Reid Hoffman
- "Prestige WW, Inc" (StepBrothers!)
- John Petry
- Drew Carey
The list of organisations these donors work for is familiar:
- United States Department of Labor (!)
- State of California
- University of California
- Sessa Capital
- Creative Artists Agency
- Express Scripts
- 20th Century Fox
- Universal Pictures
It's staggering how many people are listed as "Not Employed", yet donating $1000+ a time.
Who are "PRESTIGE WW INC"? who provided the most donations? Surprise, surprise, from LinkedIn: "Prestige Worldwide Inc., or Big Boy Agency, was founded in 2020 to help progressive candidates and organizations stick it to Trump and his enablers online."
Wait... back to that Rolling Stone article....
At the heart of MeidasTouch’s opaque finances is an arrangement with a Virginia company called Prestige WW Inc. — a reference to the Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers. Prestige received more than half a million dollars of Meidas’ donor money, FEC filings show. Prestige is run by Adam Parkhomenko, Meidas’ political strategist and a former aide to Hillary Clinton who later did political work for Michael Avenatti, a onetime anti-Trump hero who was convicted last year of trying to extort $20 million from Nike.
So "Prestige WW, Inc" is a donor to the Super PAC, and a recipient? With links to the big hitters of the DNC?
Who is Parkhomenko, this man from Virginia who runs it?
Adam Julian Parkhomenko (born October 22, 1985) is an American political strategist and organizer who served as National Field Director for the Democratic National Committee in 2016. He was the co-founder and executive director of Ready for Hillary, a super PAC established to persuade Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency of the United States in 2016. In the 2017 party election, Parkhomenko was a candidate for Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Whose message is Joe Rogan's podcast hurting?
Putting It All Together
At a high-level glance, from the public information we have, we can surmise the following:
- A family of wealthy, highly-activated DNC obsessives created a Bernie-style grassroots Super PAC to fund anti-Trump social media posts;
- The Hollywood Reporter publicised their efforts in a highly sympathetic light, recruiting wealthy California donors;
- DNC veterans jumped on board to help;
- Extremist "watchdog" front organisations were created as an outlet for attack ads;
- Dodgy dark money was shifted around to pay for everything;
- Social media was heavily astroturfed with copies of posts from the "watchdog" front organisations to "amplify" them;
- After Trump, these front organisations are now being used to publicly target other people.
Be very, very wary when you see a supposedly "organic movement" appearing in specific waves across the media. And who you donate to in Hollywood.