The Taters’ fate: how Trump supporters are lied to, radicalized, and infected with malware

Taters Gonna Tate is a satirical website. It puts out articles such as “Ilhan Omar spits on the tomb of the unknown soldier” and “Two star witnesses against Biden found floating in River Ukraine”: false articles, intended to provoke. They have done so at least since 2018, from their network of pages called “America’s Last Line of Defense”, run by self-identified liberal Christopher Blair. Another website in their stable is called Obama Watcher. On it you see articles such as “Obama’s sister arrested overnight” and “Michelle Obama slips up and admits she’s a man”, with the requisite photo-shopped image of Michelle Obama.

Now this doesn’t sound much like satire to me, since it is devoid of actual humor—unlike, say, The Onion’s classics, such as “War declared by all“. The cast of the articles is very similar to other MAGA news that is meant to inflame, not amuse.

But Blair makes his satirical intent clear with tags such as “This hasn’t happened ever” and “Conservative fan fiction”, and indeed, the very name itself: “Taters”. In Blair’s private notation, “tater” refers to “fragile, frightened, mostly older caucasian Americans” who will believe “nearly anything”. The MAGA demographic, in other words. Sure enough, most do believe his stories, as the comments on his posts show.


Taters parasites

There’s another group that preys on Blair’s “Taters”—foreign purveyors of fake news websites who use social media’s viral algorithms to generate monetized clicks. Over the years, Blair’s articles have proved a boon to people from other countries who might not be conversant enough with English, nor with our politics, to create content on their own. They just copy-paste text that Taters Gonna Tate puts out, slap it into a blog post, and off they go to spread it on Telegram, Gab, and elsewhere. Or—as Christopher Blair pointed out in email to me—they steal his content from RSS feeds.

Debunking Taters articles from foreign sources is a cottage industry. Over the years, FactCheck.org, Politifact, and Washington Post have debunked not only the misappropriated satire from Christopher Blair—but also the harm done to the “Taters”, as they are driven into paranoid rabbit holes by their social media consumption. Reporters have uncovered Macedonian, Georgian, and Pakistani networks that form, and quickly dissolve, turning clicks into dollars before they get reported and suspended. Blair himself has reported several.

A native English-speaker immersed in US politics may not realize how insanely valuable Taters content is. Entire click-shop networks, some that own more than a dozen websites, are powered solely on Taters articles. While they may be false, the articles are well-written, with grammatical English, made-up names that sound believable, and fake quotes that sound natively American. The facts recounted in the articles never happened, but the storylines make sense. The headlines are written with an exquisite understanding of the emotions that will drive Taters to click.

Rage-click, share, view ads—all leads to $$$. In a country with a lower cost of living like Pakistan, Taters content can power livelihoods. What follows is a survey of two separate Taters-powered click-shops, both set up in Pakistan; one in Islamabad, and the other in Rawalpindi.


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Digital Hive: Islamabad, Pakistan

Source: TheWashingtonNews.us

Digital Hive, an Internet marketing agency in Islamabad, Pakistan, set up shop in September of 2020. In that same month, the owner of the agency Muhammad Hamza Razzaq created his website GreenTodayNews.com. Over December and January, he created 14 more: FinalNews.us, USNewsNetwork.us, etc.

These websites cycle through Taters content week after week. A roundup of archives from GreenTodayNews.com, ProTodayNews.com, and USAState.us highlights stories such as: “Bill Barr has been accepting payment from Soros for years”, “Sasha Obama’s arrest record is now worse than Malia’s”, and “Omar proposes amendment to remove all references to Christianity from Constitution”—all false content drawn from Taters articles.

Does it strike you as strange that a Pakistani national might be pushing plainly Islamophobic content to a US market?

It did me. For instance, like in the article above, Taters often takes shots at Rep. Ilhan Omar in ways that explicitly pit her Islamic faith against Christianity. Here’s another example from BustaTroll.com, a Taters property. Invariably, these articles show up on Digital Hive websites. In fact, an oft-debunked 2015 article from another fake news outlet called TopRightNews.com, titled “Muslims demand that ‘offensive’ crosses be removed…from Catholic school”, was copied over to run as brand new content dated May 2020 on TheWashingtonNews.us, a Digital Hive website.

But upon emailing with Muhammad Hamza Razzaq, it was clear that he saw content on his websites as pure commodity. I asked him if he was aware that Taters content was false: he merely responded that his lack of better content was an “investment” issue, and he would obtain better content as soon as he could. It seemed that his approach to choosing text for his websites was entirely about it being better or worse for click-generation, not really about the meaning behind the words at all.

As it is, he said, he generates 100K clicks daily from his stable of 15 websites (I could not verify this claim). He even offered to run ads for my own website (this very one) on his banner space. As for how he accomplishes this much traffic—well, he didn’t want to get into that. It would be giving away a trade secret.

Another stable of 4 websites (PoliticToday.us, TheNewsBreak.us, TheDCNews.us, TheBreakingNews.us) are registered by Muhammad Asad Razzaq, also of Islamabad, Pakistan. In their design, hosting, content, and even the code behind their websites, all appear to also be owned by Digital Hive. It is quite possible that the two Razzaqs are part of the same organization, even though they are registered at different addresses. My email requesting comment got no response.

Knock-off About Page

You know we are in the nether regions of the Internet when you find websites where the content is stolen from one source, while the About page is stolen from another completely unrelated source.

Such is the About page that proliferates across Digital Hive websites, with just the name of the website changed or left out entirely.

Here, side-by-side, are the About pages from GreenTodayNews.com and PoliticToday.us. The text appears to have been lifted from a TV news station, probably originally in Urdu, then put through Google Translate to English.


Blogger and WordPress

One of the major sources of traffic for Digital Hive websites is the blogging platform, Blogger.

This is strange. But one weird trick explains it: a trick that I have noticed other website owners in the monetized fake news space use as well, such as the Macedonian-run websites I covered a while ago. It is that they create a specialized blog for each other their articles. I really do mean an entire blog, not just a post on a blog. Each article gets a blog of its own, with just one post on it—and that post instantly redirects to the article on the website. Here, for example, is the set of blogs (archived) created just in order to direct traffic to the Digital Hive website RedBoxNews.com.

It could be that this is done as a means of generating traffic. People forget that these venerable blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress also behave like social media, in that they amplify new blog posts across other users on the platform.

But it also might be a way of escaping detection and masking links. Given that Facebook and Twitter have tightened up their policies around spam websites, by dropping Blogger links instead of direct website links, they can avoid the prime website being noticed and banned. This is a trick used by many spammers—for example, in this long list of such spam Blogger links collected by researcher Alan Neilan off of Facebook groups, one can see a heavy representation of Taters-created false stories, from “Barr orders raid on Adam Schiff’s house after audit reveals fraud” to “Casey Anthony running for Congress as a Democrat“.

Only digital thieves know how to defeat other digital thieves

Sure, Digital Hive websites lift content from around the internet. But one can’t have downstream thievery, right? As such, I found that these websites use some clever coding tricks to block digital thieves who might be tempted to lift content from their pages.

Think about what your first step might be if you were a digital thief yourself, looking to fill up your pages with ready-made text. You’d go to your source material, drag your mouse over to highlight text, and either Ctril+c to copy, or right-click and pick “Copy”.

Well, sorry. You can’t do that on Digital Hive websites. Some code behind the websites explicitly blocks selection of text and images, copying, and the right-click menu entirely—and detects which browser you are on to pick the right code. If you were hoping to cut in on Digital Hive‘s Taters-parasitic business, you’re out of luck.

Message on GreenTodayNews.com

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English Wire: Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Another group that is a parasite of Taters content is the English Wire group. Their websites date from around the middle of 2020, with EnglishWire.today being the most-visited of the group. It also has the dubious distinction of having drawn a fact-check on its own strength, not just as Taters content.

The registered owner of one of these websites (ApparentPolitics.us) is listed as Daim Hussain, of Rawalpindi, Pakistan. I reached out to him via his registered email, however, I got no response.

These websites earnestly cycle through Taters content: for example, the latest stories on EnglishWire.today as I write this are, “Harvard admits Michelle Obama’s degrees are fake”, and “Military-hating Kamala wants to shut down the VA”; the first is Taters content from March of 2020, debunked by Snopes, and the second from just last month, debunked by LeadStories.

Interestingly, though, their About page is copied verbatim from a different website entirely: from Patriot Journal, down to even copying the Patriot Journal real-life author’s name.

It isn’t just text that they copy. One of the websites in their stable has a curious domain name: MikePuree.com. I searched on various search engines to see if I could find a clue about this person: is there a Michael Puree living somewhere? What sort of name is that? I found no one.

Then it struck me that in all likelihood, the English Wire folks have decided to imitate the website of a very popular conservative influencer: Wayne Dupree, who runs a heavily-trafficked eponymous website.


New MAGA social media

How do these websites find enough traffic to make money? An obvious method would be to generate a large following for a Facebook group or page, and cycle through links from the 15 websites in your stable. However, lately, Facebook has tightened up their policies against disinformation (yay Facebook!), and thus, I saw that some shares of Digital Hive articles had been flagged by FB as false. In other cases, mere images had been shared, which makes it hard for Facebook’s content moderation to detect, but also doesn’t generate clicks for the website.


But Facebook is not the main source of traffic for Digital Hive websites.

Using SemRush, a traffic analysis tool, I found these websites linked in from a number of new social media sites that cater to MAGAs who find Twitter and Facebook too restrictive. Among these, Parler, Gab, and Telegram need no introduction. But here are the lesser-known social media platforms:

  • Freedom Lake, a social media site allied with the Texas Open Carry movement that was recently banned from Facebook
  • MAGA Book, a social media network for conservatives created by Fresno, CA couple Eric and Caroline Thompson. Eric Thompson is the host of talk show The Informant.
  • Xephula, created by Nicholas Kingsland of Halifax, Nova Scotia, owner of online store Trump Season. He used to be in the monetizing of clicks business himself—until Facebook shut down his network of disinformation sites. Here he is promoting Xephula links on VK, the Russian social media site.
  • CloutHub calls itself a “NextGen” social network. It was created by Jeff Brain of Irvine, California, who is known for two things: in 2002, leading a movement for the San Fernando Valley to secede from LA; and in 2021, for becoming a meme: “Jeff Brain of CloutHub“, due to a tweet about his speech at CPAC 2021. Here’s a CloutHub user whose posts are all links to AmericanLookout.xyz, an English Wire property.
  • WimKin, that bills itself as the “100% uncensored social media” was created in August 2020 by Jason Sheppard. It grew quickly as Parler went down; however, in January, it was suspended from the Apple App Store and Google Play due to violent content around the January 6 insurrection.
  • WeGo.social and AnonUp.com are owned by the same entity. They market themselves heavily to a deplatformed QAnon/Patriot user base, with buzzy phrases like “They Go 1 They Go All”, and “Duel blockchains”. Some QAnon heavy-hitters like GhostEzra have made AnonUp their home. I could not find clear information about who owns it, but this Twitter account who calls himself “Kobayashi” and uses an image of Tom Anderson of MySpace as its avatar, claims to administer the servers. They appear to have gotten started last January.

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Maladvertising

So this is where one’s heart breaks for the Taters. A Tater finds an engrossing headline; they click on it to discover why, exactly, say Kamala Harris despises the military so much (they just knew it: she seems so foreign); and on the way to confirming their worldview, the website that promises them the goodies is swiped out from under them, replaced with an intrusive web page that asks you to install Flash, or speed up your PC, or perhaps wants to show you porn.

What happened to the news about Kamala Harris hating on the military?

What happened was this. Your purveyor of fine fake news didn’t even care enough about you to permit you to read the story—he signed up for an advertising platform known in the industry to be scammy and insecure; at best, one that hijacks your webpage to redirect you to content from their advertisers—and at worst, has been known to be a gateway for notorious malware.

Let’s back up.

Most ad platforms work by inserting code into your website’s pages. Upon inspecting the page’s code, the ad platforms included are clearly named (clarity being an important software principal): GoogleAds, or Taboola, or what have you.

Not this one. Upon inspecting the code behind these websites, one finds some code that comes from vaguely named domains: “HighRevenueCPM.com“, “DisplayFormatRevenue.com“; and some just bizarre: “JennyUnfit.com“, and “PubFruitlessWording.com“.

It turns out that these domains are all registered through eNom, all in Leningrad Oblast, Russia, and all hosted at DataWeb Global BV. A little more digging discovers that this is the AdsTerra ad network, created by Russian software company Mediatech.

AdsTerra, as a platform, is notorious among web mercenaries as being a vehicle for malware. A recent investigation by security firm Check Point found that AdsTerra was being used as a gateway to “trojans, ransomware, and more”—and made users vulnerable to a campaign by a well-known cybercriminal known as Master134.

The secret behind those vague and senseless domain names? An intent to hide. An intent to evade blocks. An examination of the IP addresses where AdsTerra websites are hosted (192.243.59.20, 192.243.59.13, and 192.243.59.12) shows thousands of domains, some with sequences of randomly-generated letters and numbers, and some with sequences of randomly put together words.

If you navigate to any of these domains, they instantly redirect to Google. However, they are repositories of code files that perform AdsTerra’s advertising function. It is these code files that I found linked in the Digital Hive and English Wire websites: with links that look like this:

www.gatetodisplaycontent.com/5a8c688f458fb95f8c7b19d431f86807/invoke.js

In keeping with their intent to hide, the code in the file is highly obfuscated.


Heirs to Richard Viguerie

This is often a focus of my writing, but the conservative movement in the US is a long marriage between the outraged and the thought-leaders who milk that outrage for profit. In the 1970s, Richard Viguerie’s direct mail campaigns frightened the base about civilization’s imminent collapse—who promptly signed up to receive more such letters. Here’s historian Rick Perlstein:

Rick Perlstein, New York Times, “I thought I understood the American Right. Trump proved me wrong.”

Today’s heirs to Viguerie run clickbait websites that terrify Taters about Muslims, immigrants, and Democrats who want to destroy your way of life. In return, they collect email addresses, self-selected for exquisite gullibility.

It is a fact that never ceases to amaze me: that today’s heirs to Richard Viguerie may know little about US politics, but nevertheless have a deep understanding of MAGA hot-buttons. They live in Macedonia, in Romania, and—in Pakistan.


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Websites

Digital Hive (certain)Probably Digital Hive (Anonymous registration)Same fingerprints as Digital Hive (Registered under different name)
FinalNews.usGreenTodayNews.comPoliticToday.us
NewsNetwork.usTheDailySignalNews.comTheNewsBreak.us
USNewsNetwork.usRiddleNews.comTheDCNews.us
TheCapitalNews.usRedBoxNews.comTheBreakingNews.us
USAState.usProTodayNews.com
NewsArticle.us
TheWashingtonNews.us
DailyWorld.us
NewsExpert.us
USANewsAlert.us
English Wire websites
ApparentPolitics.us
NewsHead.today
conservativepole.org
AmericanLookout.xyz
cj-news.xyz
EnglishWire.today
mikepuree.com
Christopher Blair websites
AmericasLastLineOfDefense.com
BustATroll.org
ObamaWatcher.com
TatersGonnaTate.com
PotatriotsUnite.com
DailyWorldUpdate.us
TheMAGAHeroes.com
FreedomFictions.com
TaterForceOne.com