Bullies, Liars and Impostors: How Facebook and Go Daddy Shield Scott Walker's Online Guerillas
In Wisconsin, as in states around the nation, Republican lawmakers claim to be concerned with the integrity of the voting process and with fighting fraud. At least that 's the rationale for the passage of a new voter ID law passed this spring.
But as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites seek a recall election of Gov. Scott Walker, a spate of online disinformation, bullying and outright calls for the destruction of recall petitions by anonymous Web entities, possibly administered from out of state, raise a question: Who are the real impostors and fraudsters in Wisconsin's elections?
The answer: We may never know, thanks to the identity protection provided these potential felons by social media giant Facebook and the Web domain purveyor, Go Daddy.
Faking an Occupy Site
It happened in the blink of an eye. On a Sunday night, AlterNet learned from a tipster of a Web site, posing as the online presence of Occupy Madison, that featured a headline claiming that all of the 540,000 signatures required by petitioners for a special recall election of the governor had been collected. This, of course, was a lie.
While the number of signatures activists claim to have gathered in the course of the last two weeks has indeed been impressive, they still need to get at least 200,000 more people to sign onto the effort.
Using the URL, www.occupy-madison.com, the site featured a rotating banner of provocative images: a cop against a fiery background, a young couple kissing on the ground in the middle of a protest, a group of nearly naked young people holding protest signs. Except for the sensational images, the design of the site completely mimicked that of the legitimate Occupy Madison site, www.occupy-madison.org.
A headline on the site read: "Walker Recall a success, all necessary signatures already collected." It was accompanied by a graphic featuring a Wisconsin map with the words "WALKER RECALL" on it, and then the word "SUCCESS" superimposed in yellow.
The text of the accompanying post read, in boldface, "The Committee to Recall Scott Walker and United Wisconsin have...succeeded in collecting all the necessary signatures to recall Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch."
But apparently the owner of the fake Occupy Madison site was already trying to cover his or her tracks with a sort of disclaimer, posted above the story in brackets:
[It has been pointed out that some idiots think some other idiots actually believe the nonsense on this site. THIS SITE IS A PARODY, IT IS A JOKE. I honestly can't believe anyone would really believe people would be so stupid. I WILL NOT BE POSTING THIS ON ALL THE STORIES. Just this one as it seems to have somehow made everyone lose their minds and logic!]
The "I' to whom the writer refers is never identified.
By the next morning, November 28, the imposter site was gone, replaced with a page saying the content had been removed because the site was "under review." But under whose review?
Whose site is it?
AlterNet's investigation revealed that the URL for the fake Occupy Web site was registered with Domains By Proxy, a service of the domain registration and Web-hosting company, Go Daddy, which shields the identities of site owners from public view.
Ben Butler, Go Daddy's director of network abuse, said he could not reveal the name of the site's proprietor, but he could assure us that it was not Go Daddy that removed the site. AlterNet's request for comment was the first he had heard of the site, he said.
We mentioned we had screen captures of the site, and that it appeared to be a violation of Wisconsin election law. According to Chapter 12 of the state code, "No person may knowingly make or publish, or cause to be made or published, a false representation pertaining to a candidate or referendum which is intended or tends to affect voting at an election."
The violation is a Class 1 felony, carrying a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a jail term of up to six months.
"Having had no complaints, we can't say that the Web site was violating our terms of service," Butler said. "I can say to you right now, it's not, obviously, because there's no content there."
He explained that Go Daddy "work[s] with law enforcement all the time," but that the company received no requests from law enforcement regarding the site. And until they receive complaints from the general public, they won't launch an investigation of their own. However, if they were to launch an investigation and found the site to be in violation of the Go Daddy terms of service, the identity shield provided by the company's Domains By Proxy Service would no longer hold.
Blogger Segway Jeremy Ryan wrote that while visiting the fake Occupy Madison site, he clicked on a "Donate" button that took him to an entity called "Occupy Inc.," a non-profit registered to John C. Ward of Edmond, Oklahoma. A post on the Facebook page page of the recall group, Defending Wisconsin, claims that Ward denies having anything to do with the fake Occupy Madison site.
For a time, the www.occupy-madison.com URL directed the user to the login page for Facebook; when last we checked, it took the viewer to a blank page on bing.com. (Information on how to report the site to Go Daddy appears at the end of this story.)
Operation Burn Notice
Where the fake Occupy Madison site was insidious in its aims, the Facebook page for Operation Burn Notice boldly calls for the burning of recall petitions in snarky posts peppered with photos of giant fires and abusive comments for any who dares to challenge them. The profile picture for the site is a hand formed of fire, flipping the bird.
The destruction of petitions is a Class I felony in Wisconsin, punishable by 3-1/2 years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Moreover, in Wisconsin, inciting a crime or being a co-conspirator, is also against the law. But despite numerous complaints, Facebook has allowed the page to post each day for at least 10 days.
However in-your-face the venom of Operation Burn Notice, though, its administrators remain faceless. The page periodically vanishes from Facebook, only to return again in a few hours. (On Friday, December 2, the page took a 12-hour hiatus, starting around 5 AM.) An Operation Burn Notice event invitation appears on Facebook for its "Operation Notice Recall Petition Burn" scheduled for January 14, the Saturday before the January 17th deadline for petitions to be delivered to the state election officials.