‘The Bearded Patriot’ publishes conservative ‘information’ within the hopes of gathering e mail addresses

An investigation by the Alethea Group, an anti-disinformation organization whose name derives from the Greek word for “truth,” linked the operation to Mark S. Evans Jr., a self-proclaimed “online multimillionaire,” the “DM “Adds” Dealmaker “to its name. The network of 178 websites, at least half of which are politically themed and have both visual and technical features, is designed to collect email addresses which, according to analysis by the Alethea Group, will then be sold to private labels and possibly also to political campaigns.

The results, made available to the Washington Post, shed light on the financial motives for spreading bipartisan news of poor quality. And they show how distributors of misinformation use data collection techniques to use polarization and falsehoods more efficiently and to target specific communities more effectively.

“This is for-profit scare tactics that are compounded by aggressive data collection,” said Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis, Alethea Group. The digital marketing apparatus enabled by the websites, including lucrative data profiles of their visitors, “provides an opportunity to support political advice or campaign work,” said Otis, a former CIA analyst and author of “True or False: A CIA” analysts’ guide to spotting counterfeits News. “

Email marketing and campaign list building are not cutting-edge tactics. However, Alethea Group’s findings shed light on a practice that goes to the extreme, with no obvious mission to collect news, and that unfolds almost entirely in the shadows, with recycled content and archive images.

Peter F. Aquart, an Evans employee who is listed as an agent on several of his businesses, reported this summer on “skip tracing,” a bounty-hunter-related practice used to track a person’s whereabouts and other private information. “Who are you using?” he asked on facebook. Around the same time, Aquart hinted at a possible use for the more robust records he was following. He wrote on LinkedIn that he was looking for support for a mass text program, a service that is becoming increasingly central to political campaigns.

“Coupling collected data with things like skip-tracing software and bulk messaging apps – that’s where a lot of these networks head to,” said Otis. “It’s the future of political disinformation.”

Neither Evans nor Aquart responded to calls or text messages for comment or emailed questions about the websites, some of which had previously been traced back to Evans by BuzzFeed News and linked to ads for masks. Aquart confirmed receipt of a text message but stopped responding after a Washington Post reporter identified himself.

Several LLCs operated by the two men, including Rightside Data and Direct Mailers Group, are set up to sell the data collected on the right-wing websites. The companies provide contact information that is also linked to some of the news sites, and a media and marketing specialist listed as a Rightside employee, Andy Pangerl, ran ads in May asking for access to “30 Conservatively Leaned E -Mail Lists “claimed.

The lists, he wrote, include “1.5 million baby boomers”. A few months earlier, a Facebook page affiliated with the company had advertised a list that was collected on one of its websites, Real American Pundit. 173,000 email addresses were offered for $ 2,500.

A LinkedIn profile for Rightside Data, also serving as the Cash Flow Lead Gen, states that it is focused on “delivering highly targeted, high-quality email leads … using our newsletter resources” .

The description adds: “We drive clicks.”

The nimble company offers a case study of how local actors can benefit from the pollution of the online information ecosystem, which experts say has only intensified since the 2016 elections brought the dangers of disinformation to the fore. The labor involved in setting up the websites and repackaging existing headlines with a more explicit partisan or sensational angle is minimal, said Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher with the Oxford Computational Propaganda Project. But the potential payoff of even a few stories that get viral attention on social media is substantial.

“It’s a big crisis,” said Chris Vargo, professor of data analysis and digital advertising at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “There are thousands of these websites out there promoting bipartisanism, empowering people’s existing beliefs and making it possible to target them with dangerous disinformation about anything from an election to a vaccine against the coronavirus.”

Partisan interests do not seem to be a primary motivation for the people behind the online network. Pangerl – whose LinkedIn profile suggests he used to work for Newsmax Media, a conservative company whose email lists were used for online fundraisers by President Trump’s 2016 campaign – has made pro-Trump posts, including a tweet ridiculing a primary democratic debate and including the president and his eldest son and daughter, as well as a number of right-wing experts.

However, Evans rarely publishes political messages openly, though he uses news events to advance his business philosophy. A few days after Trump’s election in 2016, he titled a post entitled “The 100-day plan of President-elect Trump …”. The flashy headline was just a catch to let clients know that the president’s plans were less important than how they were as Evans wrote, asking, “So what’s your 100-day plan?”

The tactic speaks for Trump’s place at the center of viral clickbait.

“The worst thing on the web used to be cat videos,” said Joshua Braun, an online media scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “Now it’s Trump or viral coronavirus hoaxes.”

Expanded ad targeting enables the passions the president inspires to market products to an ever narrower segment of people, Braun said. These technologies, tampered with by the Russians in 2016, took a close look at Capitol Hill. They have also sparked a wave of research documenting how ad targeting based on Internet browsing behavior increases racial bias and, among other things, ignites partisanship.

In the case of the network affiliated with Evans, the profit does not appear to come from web advertising, but from newsletter signups. Evans owns or operates a group of companies – with addresses in West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach, Fla., Among others – that focus on digital marketing, real estate transactions, and other means of creating meaningful fortunes quickly.

But his main job seems to be that of a life coach. Claiming to advise “thousands of people around the world”, he offers to transform clients from “mules” who struggle with little reward to “wizards” who get results in 10 minutes. He sends his advice in the morning “cigars and coffee” sessions, which are broadcast live on social media. There he calls on his followers, who normally do not number more than several hundred per session, to “become dependent on winning”.

Evans offers his own life story as a model for potential customers. A self-published essay tells of his rise from a trailer park in Ohio – “barely high school” – to living in South Florida “making more money than I ever thought possible while traveling the world.” He identifies two major companies – “a massive real estate investment firm and a lucrative media company” – that he says “generate millions of dollars each year”.

One of the lessons he learned from his childhood reads in a video: “Be honest, be ethical, do the right thing even when it hurts.” At the same time, the overarching promise he remembers was: ” I will do everything in my power to achieve prosperity on a whole new level. “

That promise took shape in American Wealth Builders, a company that helps real estate investors diversify their holdings. Comments on the group’s Better Business Bureau profile raise questions about effectiveness. “This is by far the worst investment you could ever make,” wrote an obvious customer in April 2019. “It would be better if you just set your hundred dollar bills on fire.”

The warning hasn’t kept customers away from Rightside Data, which advertises four customers on its website: Agora Financial, Family Survival, New Market Health, and Oxford Club. All but Family Survival are subsidiaries of Agora Inc., a Baltimore-based publishing network, and an Agora spokesperson confirmed they received email addresses from Rightside Data.

In the past, Agora subsidiaries have expanded their marketing reach by leasing email lists from prominent Conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate, and Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, who was twice nominated for the GOP -President ran.

Information from right-wing blogs serves the same purpose as conservative politicians contact lists. The websites of American Pundit, Bearded Patriot and Wolf of Washington seem to be part of a joint network that, according to the Alethea Group, is centrally designed and operated. Many of them share domain registration details, IP addresses, and Google AdSense identification numbers.

The websites also use similar coding and design features. Practically all of them offer the option of entering an email address and registering for a newsletter. They also have similar privacy policies that say the websites collect data from their visitors.

According to the Alethea Group, some of the people who run the sites have taken steps to hide their involvement.

One called “Patriot Reserve”, who uses a common tactic of selling Trump paraphernalia, identifies its executive director as “Ron Madison”. However, the headshot is an archive image, and the website uses the same Wisconsin address that is listed for the Direct Mailers Group and other websites on the network. The website offers a Trump commemorative coin that usually sells for $ 127 for $ 9.

It assures the audience: “This is not a gimmick!”

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