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.
And, like the fake Occupy Madison Web site, the Operation Burn Notice page appears to have its origins out of state, this time in Prescott, Arizona. Bill Schmalfeldt, a citizen journalist on the liberal team of the otherwise-conservative Examiner.com, connected some dots and found that one of the OBN administrators, who goes by the handle Aaron Burr, claims to be the same person who runs an Arizona-based Web site called EvilConservatives.net. In an e-mail to Schmalfeldt, "Burr," who Schmalfeldt initially engaged by commenting on the OBN page, not only claimed to be an administrator for the page, but said he was being paid for the trouble. From the e-mail Schmalfeldt reported receiving from "Burr":
I wish I could divulge the name of the client who hired me, but due to the confidentiality clause in the contract, I simply cannot. However, it ain't the tea party, the GOP, Scott Walker or anybody you've ever heard of. It's just some random guy. He liked my writing style and wanted to have some fun. Simple as that. Haven't you ever ghosted an article?
"Burr." according to Schmalfeldt, also said that he would reveal the name of his patron if Schmalfeldt would pay him enough for the information. More from the missive by the self-described EvilConservatives.net proprietor:
Can you begin to see it from our side? Possibly mine? I'm smacking seriously stupid people around on the net and it's boring the Hell out of me. I'm just a hired gun for this brouhaha. I could care less what Wisconsin does. Unless you guys need a couple hundred "pray for islam" bacon grease votive candles. Che' Guevara shootin' targets? Whiskey stones.
We're a full service website of malice.
At Operation Burn Notice, Burr proved his adeptness in malice-trafficking, finding a handful of Wisconsinites willing to join in the fun, which includes mocking and threatening opponents. One posting suggests throwing union members onto a pyre of burning petitions.
Among Dairy State participants in OBN, Schmalfeldt found a commenter called Matt Wynns, described by Burr as the same OBN commenter who goes by the handle, "Combat Matt." At Veterans News Now, Paul Tascoupe outed Combat Matt (Wynns) as Matt Lepperd, an activist with the Republican Party of Waukesha County, who is shown, in a photo on the Vets News site, standing with Scott Walker. And the invitation to the petition burning was posted by William Jenkins, who describes himself on slideshare as a "union slave at Kenosha Unified School District."
Schmalfeldt himself, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, found himself on the receiving end of merciless taunting by the OBN crowd, who derided everything from his weight to the scars on his head (the result of experimental surgery he had to address his illness). A hole was added to an artist's rendering of what an X-Ray of Homer Simpson's skull might look like, and posted to the page with the caption, "Inspector Jiggly after his last procedure." A more recent post shows a man putting a gun to his own head, with the caption: "This hour is brought to you by the CURE FOR PARKINSON'S DISEASE."
"It's a bunch of middle-aged Republicans who think they're doing their party a favor by pretending to, or actually, gathering petitions and burning them," Schmalfeldt told AlterNet in a telephone interview. He said he initially "thought it was just a bunch of kids...until I determined that one of these guys (Tom Parent) [owns] a trucking company in New Richmond, Wisconsin."
Whether or not the page is a parody, it nonetheless calls for the commission of a crime, a clear violation of Facebook's terms of service -- as is much of the mocking on the site. Schmalfeldt said he has submitted at least 20 complaints to Facebook, and his readers have submitted even more, but he has heard nothing from the company.
As of press time, Facebook had not responded to AlterNet's request for comment.
The Role of Law Enforcement and the Government Accountability Board
On November 30, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversees the implementation of Wisconsin's election law, and the state Department of Justice teamed up to announce that they were pursuing all complaints seriously with regard to the recall petition process. (Right-wing forces are complaining that people are being encouraged to sign more than one petition.)
Reid Magney, spokesperson for the Wisconsin GAB, told AlterNet that criminal activity is addressed by the local district attorneys, while the GAB investigates alleged violations of election law.
"We have not seen any evidence of any petitions being destroyed," he said in a telephone interview. "We know that we see people talking about stuff on Facebook. That in itself is not evidence. That is an Internet rumor."
"After this first came up," Magney explained, "we put out a strong statement that this is a crime. We are hoping that based on that that cooler heads will prevail and that people will start acting like grownups… "
Steve Means, spokesperson for Wisconsin Attorney General John Byron Van Hollen, said that First Amendment considerations have to be taken into account. "You have to look at the context," he told AlterNet in a phone interview. "A lot of what people are doing is engaging in free speech about issues they say are important. They may not be trying to incite someone to encourage a crime..."
The attorney general's office does not prosecute election law violations itself, but instead refers cases to the relevant county-based state district attorney.
The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now made a formal request to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne for an investigation of Operation Burn Notice. One Wisconsin Now, however, is under fire from the right-wing MacIver Institute for having posted on its Web site that it was okay for people to sign more than one petition. While it's perfectly legal to do so, the item created a target for recall opponents.
Sowing Doubt in the Process
From the beginning of the recall process, progressives have anticipated all manner of dirty tricks, and with good reason. During the campaign leading up to the recall elections of state senators that took place in August, the Koch-funded group, Americans For Prosperity, sent mailers that promised to facilitate the procurement of absentee ballots for voters in Democratic districts. There was just one problem: the deadline printed on the mailers for sending in a ballot was four days after the election. And during the 2010 mid-term elections, AFP joined with a local Tea Party group in a scheme designed to suppress the vote among college students and African-Americans in Milwaukee.
So, it's not hard to get progressives in high dudgeon about potential threats to the integrity of the electoral process. No sooner had the recall process begun when rumors sprang up on hyperlocal Patch sites of a massive operation by Walker allies to collect signatures and destroy petitions, prompting One Wisconsin Now to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove the conspiracy.
And that's just the point of internet operations such as the Operation Burn Notice page and the fake Occupy Madison site, says Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party -- to sow confusion, create distractions, and summon the energy of activists away from the task at hand -- even though Zielinski said the larger reality is the signature-gathering operation has been smooth and strong.
And that's not all, Zielinski said: the more doubts that are introduced by either side, he reasons, the greater the opportunity for Walker to challenge the outcome of the recall process in court.
"By sowing confusion, they want to prolong the challenge process to let Scott Walker wait it out," Zielinski told AlterNet in a telephone interview. "It's the only thing they have, because they've seen the same polls we have. Walker is in the tank. He is underwater. People have rejected him. People know his policies; they don't like 'em. They know who he works for; they don't like that. So they think if they can string this process along, they can bring in these mountains of unregulated corporate cash and wait it out."
The Internet and Elections: A New Frontier
If the recent recall battle ousting the Arizona Republican State Senate President Russell Pearce is a guide, those mountains of corporate cash will be used to pay for massive media buys, which have begun in Wisconsin, and for litigation to challenge individual petition signatures after the petitions are filed.
Anonymous internet campaigns, on the other hand, are cheap to run: It costs nothing to launch a Facebook page, and only a modest sum to launch a site via Go Daddy's Domains by Proxy. These very inexpensive campaigns, with their built-in identity shields, easily grease the wheels for the corporate dollars that will roll in once the doubt they sow paves the way for legal challenges to the process.
In Wisconsin, a request by a district attorney to Facebook to investigate sites that appear to be in violation of the state's election code would likely, in the case of Operation Burn Notice, spell the end of the page and perhaps unmask the administrators. In the case of the fake Occupy Madison site, Go Daddy's Ben Butler told us that if a law enforcement entity asserted that a site appeared to violate election code, that would amount to a terms-of-service violation, ending Go Daddy's identity shield for the site administrators.
With Wisconsin's government watchdogs not yet making such requests, the responsibility falls to citizens to inundate Facebook and Go Daddy with complaints, which may or may not be answered.
"The bottom line," Zielenki said, "is that this is a curtain of hysteria that Scott Walker Republicans are trying to throw over the process and waste energy from people in the movement, and also serve their long-term ends...This is the playbook."
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How to help stop dirty tricks and calls for criminal activity by election-themed Web sites:
Go Daddy/Domains By Proxy
To report disinformation disseminated by a site registered with Go Daddy, such as the impostor Occupy Madison site (URL: www.occupy-madison.com), viewers may use either an e-mail address or a 24-hour hotline. Complaints can include a demand for disclosure of the identities of the site administrators:
Or via a 24-hour hotline: (480) 505-8877
To report a Facebook page such as Operation Burn Notice (URL: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Operation-Burn-Notice/127747064001477) for violation of its terms of service, you have first go to the page, and click on "report page" in the far left-hand column of the page. Some pages, such as Operation Burn Notice, appear to qualify under a number of different categories, but Facebook makes you pick one category per complaint. Since OBN keeps going dark, then reappearing, it is most easily located by signing into Facebook, and entering its title into the Facebook search engine.