OCTOBER 4, 2020
A militia-promoting father and son duo of fake news publishers and a Trump-connected social media consultant are linked to pages which promote the idea of an American civil war with material presented in a way that appears to be an effort to sidestep Facebook’s fact-checking system.
Comments on their Facebook pages and other materials obtained by the Guardian show that some rank and file Donald Trump supporters are enthusiastically receiving the message that they should prepare for violence against their perceived political enemies in November.
The network is comprised of websites owned and operated by Dino Porrazzo Sr and Dino Porrazzo Jr, whose company, AFF Media, is headquartered in Pinon Hills in California. The pair have been running rightwing websites since at latest 2013, according to DNS website records.
The Porrazzos now run a network of websites that enthusiastically promote Trump, and far right anti-government militias like the Three Percenters, and offer distorted versions of current events. One of their Facebook pages, “Prepare to Take America Back” (PTTAB) at the time of reporting had 794,876 followers. Analysis with social media metrics tool Crowdtangle shows that over the last three months PTTAB posts have been shared over 141,000 times, and on average 9,600 times a week.
At that time, the page’s header featured the logo of the Three Percenters, a decentralized group that the ADL calls a “wing of the militia movement”; a group of armed men in tactical gear; and a modified copy of the US presidential seal.
In general, the page promotes conspiracy theories and criminal allegations about Democratic party politicians, liberal celebrities and leftist protesters, some of which – like persistent claims that Hillary Clinton will be imminently arrested – overlap with aspects of the so-called “QAnon” conspiracy theory movement.
The page makes free use of political memes, but many posts link to a small cluster of rightwing websites designed to appear like news outlets. Increasingly, over the course of 2020, the page has been warning of a stolen election, and suggesting this will lead to civil war.
Repeatedly in September, the page linked to a story on the website Right Wing Tribune, headlined “Radical Left Prepares For ‘Mass Public Unrest,’ ‘Political Apocalypse’ And Possible Civil War Should Be Expected If Biden Loses [Opinion]”, with Facebook captions including “the left wants war”.
The story had a limited basis in fact, in that a number of progressive groups had met in early September to discuss the prospect of civil unrest and political violence after the election with a belief that the violence they were anticipating would be coming from Trump supporters and the far right.
Nevertheless, the Right Wing Tribune piece concluded with a conspiracy theory: “These groups are heavily focused on removing President Trump from office as well as different scenarios which all lead to a second revolution in which they control our nation as a “New America”.”
Similarly distorted stories warning of a “siege of the white house”, peppered the page throughout September and warnings of a post-election civil war were posted over the last year.
Last November, the page linked to a site called Flag and Cross, and a story which it described as an “excellent opinion piece”, entitled “Winning the New Civil War (OPINION)”.
The piece claimed on the basis of antifascist protests and comments by Democratic politicians that, “We have many strong indications that this is a hot war”.
The transparency page for PTTAB discloses that PTTAB is managed by Southern California-based AFF Media Inc, and that the Vici Media Group “partners with this page”.
According to California records, AFF Media was incorporated on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, 20 January 2017; in other documents, Dino Porrazzo Jr is listed as CEO and CFO, and Dino Porrazzo Sr as secretary. But the Guardian has discovered that the Porrazzos are further involved in running a dizzying array of interconnected sites and social media pages. The Annenberg Public Policy initiative lists two of their websites on its “Misinformation Directory” of “websites that have posted deceptive content”.
One of the listed sites is Right Wing Tribune. But all of the other sites linked to by the PTTAB Facebook page also appear to belong to AFF, with similar design, shared bylines and shared source code.
This is not some dark corner of the Internet, this is not a fringe thing, it’s mainstream Republicans.
Becca Lewis, Stanford University
The Porrazzos have been previously reported as having links to the Three Percenters, a decentralized, national militia movement that the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes as anti-government extremists.
Their online empire is large. Another Parazzo site, Flag and Cross is listed as the administrator of another Facebook page, United States Constitution, which has 1.2 million followers.
A Guardian review of that site’s content shows a similar pattern of linking to Porrazzo-connected websites, and warnings of civil war stretching back to the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
Becca Lewis researches online extremism and disinformation at Stanford University. In a telephone conversation, she said that the page and the associated websites represented a sophisticated effort to skirt Facebook’s fact-checking efforts.
“It seems as though they are being very strategic in their messaging so as to not be shut down,” Lewis said, adding that viewing the ostentatious labeling of opinion as an effort to sidestep fact-checking is “absolutely a reasonable assumption”.
In June, Heated reported that climate change deniers were exploiting the same loophole to “make any climate disinformation ineligible for fact-checking by deeming it “opinion”. In August, NBC reported that Facebook had systematically relaxed its fact-checking rules for conservative outlets and personalities.
In a telephone conversation, Dino Porrazzo Jr asserted that PTTAB had had “zero fact-check violations”, characterizing his websites as “opinion websites based on fact”. Asked if they were fact-checked at all, Porrazzo said “no”, but added: “I don’t work at Facebook”. Asked if he thought that there really was a civil war coming, Porrazzo accused the Guardian of “writing a hit piece to get me thrown off Facebook”, and then ended the conversation.
Facebook Media did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Porrazzos also have links to Republican officials.
The registered agent for the company is an elected official in California, Ensen Mason, who was elected as San Bernardino county auditor-controller in California as a nonpartisan candidate, but who is listed as a member of the San Bernardino Republican party.
In an email, however, Ensen Mason said that in relation to the Porrazzos, his accounting firm’s role “is strictly limited to accounting services and registered agent”.
The Vici Media Group, meanwhile, is run by Patrick Mauldin, who is a social media consultant for the Trump campaign and other Republican politicians, and his brother, Ryan.
The company was hired in 2016 by one-time Trump campaign manager and recently-resigned campaign consultant, Brad Parscale, to be part of the team that was widely credited with winning Trump the election. In June, Patrick Mauldin was identified as the creator of a fake Joe Biden site that was compared in New York Times reporting to “disinformation spread by Russian trolls”.
In an email, Ryan Mauldin disavowed the Porrazzos’ publishing output, writing, “Vici Media Group was engaged for a small, non-content-related project by the managers of the page.”
Mauldin added, “We have no input on the content published by the various sites or the comments made on that content. We are not working for the Trump campaign.”
Mauldin did not immediately respond to attempts to further clarify the nature of their work for the Porrazzos, and to clarify New York Times reporting as recent as June 2020 that said Patrick Mauldin was on a retainer for the Trump campaign, and considered a “rising star”.
Porrazzo refused to specify the nature of AFF’s relationship with Vici Media Group.
Meanwhile, the content of the Porrazzo pages does appear to trigger extreme responses among users. Hundreds of user comments on the page’s posts suggest the use of violence against perceived political enemies. On a 5 September post linking to a Right Wing Tribune article suggesting that Democrats will foment civil war if Biden loses, one user commented, “a short civil war with the democrats and those who support socialist policies will go a long way to help Make America Great Again”.
Another connects civil war to their belief that a Trump loss is impossible, writing “If [Biden] wins, it’ll be from fraud on an industrial scale, and the lesson that’ll have to be taught for that will necessarily be no less industrial.”
Many welcome the prospect of armed conflict – one writes “That’s fine with me open season on democrats!”. Another deployed accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse as a positive example, writing “I think it will be more whining, crying, rioting, looting and a lot of Kyles protecting their cities, towns and neighborhoods.”
Asked to comment on the site’s apparent reach, and the nature of its community, Lewis, the extremism researcher, said: “This is not some dark corner of the internet, this is not a fringe thing, it’s mainstream Republicans that are stoking this.”
On links to the Trump campaign, she said that the distorted content and the violent user comments formed a kind of “feedback loop”, and that “Trump and his campaign staff have been masters at exploiting these feedback loops”.
On Tuesday night, meanwhile, following the Guardian’s outreach to the Porrazzos and Facebook that day, Dino Porrazzo announced on Twitter that he “HAD TO DELETE A FEW ARTICLES I WROTE TODAY BECAUSE THEY WERE DEMED FALSE BY BASEMENT DWELLING LIBERAL FACT CHECKERS”.
Courtesy/Source: The Guardian