Things I learned from the True Pundit investigation

“True Pundit” (aka “Thomas Paine”) is an influential fake news creator, probably the most influential source of fake news in the United States. True Pundit was responsible for fake anti-Hillary-Clinton news leading up to the 2016 presidential election, and undoubtedly had an effect, however small, on that election. His news has been read and shared by prominent people, including General Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr.

Today, as I write this, on August 29th, 2018, True Pundit still has a large following; his two Twitter accounts combined have hundreds of thousands of followers, and his site is estimated to get substantial traffic (although with someone like him, there’s always a strong possibility he has artificially inflated his traffic). He also still gets many likes and shares on social media (here’s one popular tweet from the last day).

On August 27, 2018, Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman identified True Pundit as Michael Moore, a former journalist, located in Pennsylvania, who had an obvious grudge against the FBI for being arrested by them for selling unauthorized hockey-related DVDs and video downloads. Much of True Pundit’s content was dedicated to stories attempting to make the FBI look bad, filled with anonymous FBI/government sources saying outlandish things.

One example of the many outlandish, unsubstantied stories True Pundit put out. Many were dedicated to hurting the reputation of the FBI, who had previously arrested him.

I’d been investigating True Pundit for a few months leading up to his outing, trying on my own to identify him. I eventually set up the site www.whoistruepundit.com to accumulate and organize the existing clues, so that other people, like Silverman, could more easily delve into the case.

I get a shout-out in Silverman’s article for the work I did on this. Based on the clues Craig used to discover True Pundit’s identity, I have no doubt he would have accomplished this without me, but I think I helped speed up the process, and maybe helped him not waste his time going down some dead ends that took up my time.

I’m happy that this shameless liar has been outed publicly, but I’ll confess I’m disappointed that I wasn’t the first to identify him. All the pieces of the puzzle were there, just waiting for me, as I suspected they might be. To make a long story about my shortcomings short, I didn’t spend time on the things that mattered. So I wanted to write this article to share some things I learned from this investigation. Here they are:

Avoid the Jurassic Park mistake

The “Jurassic Park mistake,” as I call it, is when you stop searching for something when your expectations for what you’ll find have been met.

In Jurassic Park, the park’s automated surveillance system was set up to count dinosaurs. Every day the system searched the cameras for the various dinosaurs in the park, and when the system reached the expected number of dinosaurs, the program shut off. No more dinosaurs were counted. As you might recall, the dinosaurs, against all odds, were actually breeding and multiplying, something the surveillance system was not set up to catch.

One of the first things I did when starting to investigate True Pundit in early 2018 was to review the earliest tweets on his @thomas1774paine Twitter account. There were tweets on that account from before he started the True Pundit site/brand, and in those early tweets you could see him behaving like a regular guy: insulting celebrities and politicians, talking about sports, etc. One thing I did was to record the most interesting tweets: ones that seemed likely to contain a personal clue, or ones that seemed unusually worded/phrased/formatted.

My own Jurassic Park mistake was in ending my Twitter search when I reached a dead period in his Twitter activity. I saw a few of his regular-guy tweets from late 2015 and then, when I didn’t see any from a year or so before that, I amateurishly assumed those were his first tweets, or that he’d deleted all the previous ones. I also didn’t see any archived tweets in the Internet archive. Also, I disregarded the obvious clue that his Twitter join date showed March 2011.

Also a factor in my careless Twitter search: I assumed that someone who seemed as careful as True Pundit would have erased early tweets, especially tweets that might lead to his identification. As we all are told over and over again: never assume anything. By now, we should all know that people, even quite intelligent people, are frequently caught due to neglecting very obvious things.

The combination of these mistakes caused me to miss earlier Twitter activity from True Pundit, tweets from 2014 and 2013. I found out about these a couple months after I’d started my research, thanks to seeing a tweet thread from @c_david_k about True Pundit’s early tweets with the handle @hockeyintel.

Those earliest tweets were what ended up revealing his identity.

Focus on early behavior

In The Silence of the Lambs, what helped Clarice Starling solve the Buffalo Bill case was Hannibal Lector’s tip that the bad guy’s earliest transgressions were the most revealing thing about who he was. A deceiver’s early behavior gives us clues, whether it’s from before they’ve started their deceptive behavior, or whether it’s from the earliest stages of their deception, when they are still perfecting their craft and making mistakes.

On finding the early tweets of @thomas1774paine, and his earlier @hockeyintel handle, I thought they were likely to be the most valuable clues. These were clues from before he started True Pundit, and they seemed to contain a good amount of information: he seemed genuinely passionate about hockey, including junior hockey, and it was likely he had at least one kid who played hockey. You can see images of these tweets in this Google doc.

Potentially more important than his tweets were other people’s responses to his tweets. You can delete your own tweets but not other people’s. Could there have been people interacting with him early on who knew his identity?

Perhaps my biggest mistake in this investigation was that I did not focus my attention on these early tweets as much as I should have. I knew they were likely big clues, and somehow I only spent a few hours looking at them. I even wrote on my whoistruepundit.com website that there were likely still clues there, and yet I did not spend time following up on these. The Twitter account that ended up being True Pundit’s undoing was another account he ran called @dig_dirt, which, in a Trumpian attempt at PR, had a couple times responded to the @hockeyintel account in a supportive-wingman-type way:

After True Pundit had been outed, I saw that my Twitter account was actually following the @dig_dirt account, which I must have done soon after I looked at the early tweets. I realize now that that most certainly accounts for why @thomas1774paine blocked me near that time, and why he never once responded to my tweets about him being a liar, even though he was known for responding aggressively to some other “haters.” He had been scared because he knew that I was very close.

Most frustrating was the fact that, looking at the @dig_dirt account after True Pundit had been exposed, I saw that there were obvious clues that would have tipped me off almost immediately that it was a True Pundit sockpuppet account. For one, he liked to capitalize multiple word phrases that most people wouldn’t, and had a penchant for ass-related insults:

These were both things that True Pundit also frequently did:

There were other fairly obvious clues, too. You may have noticed Dig_Dirt’s use of ‘scoop’; this was also something True Pundit would sometimes say, along with other journalistic slang. He also mentioned Philadelphia in his tweets.

But on a quick perusal, the capitalized ass-insults would have definitely been enough to get me to delve deeply into who this Dig_Dirt guy was. And the account’s frequent mentions of Jack Moore would have been something obviously worth delving into to: Jack Moore, a minor league hockey player, turned out to be Michael Moore’s son.

I do also wonder if my following of @dig_dirt several months ago was a factor in Moore not deleting the @dig_dirt tweets. Deleting those tweets would have been something very easy and logical for him to do, especially after I followed him. But, as far as True Pundit knew, I had already saved those tweets, and if he had deleted them after I followed him, that action would have made me realize (so he would assume) that there was definitely something there. So it’s possible my fairly random following of that account was a factor in those tweets being around later for analysis by Craig.

Little would True Pundit have guessed, but I never would have noticed if he had deleted all those @dig_dirt tweets, and it’s doubtful anyone else would have either.

Then again, it’s possible he had completely forgotten about the Dig_Dirt account, and wasn’t monitoring it anymore. And there’s always the possibility he actually wanted to be exposed, and was tired of the efforts to keep himself secret.

One other thing I would have done would have been to find/hire someone close to the hockey world to analyze his early hockey-related tweets. I was told later that junior hockey, specifically, is a pretty insular and unique world, with a relatively small group of passionate fans. At the very least, someone hockey-knowledgeable would have been able to point me to other locations/forums/people, from which I might have received more clues.

Don’t assume people are smart or mentally stable

Again, it’s never good to assume. One naive assumption I made was in assuming that True Pundit couldn’t possibly be an award-winning journalist (as he claimed), or a journalist at all. His writing was okay but it was also weird and unsophisticated (the capitalization of phrases like ‘Ass Hat’ is but one example). Also, his book Trumped Up, which claimed to be the “Ultimate Guide to the Deep State’s Evidence of President Trump’s Russia Collusion,” was merely a sad attempt at humor, with basically zero serious content. (You can read my Amazon review here.) I never thought an actual former journalist, even if disgraced, would let his voice/silhouette be recorded, as True Pundit had multiple times in podcasts, because there’d be at least a few people who could easily identify them. And I especially never thought True Pundit would be truthful about having won a specific journalism award, because if he was trying to remain anonymous this would be a very bad strategy.

(If you’re curious, you can read my thoughts on his journalism claims from before he was identified here, under the Journalism lies section of the site.)

It turned out Michael Moore had won a Loeb Award, as he’d claimed: one from 1996 (see the bottom of this page). One consequence of my assumption that he wasn’t a journalist was that I didn’t follow up on the journalism-related leads as much as I could have. For example, True Pundit had shared an image of a Loeb Award, which was identified as being one from 1992. What was unknown was if other year’s awards had the same design, and that’s something I could have followed up on sooner. But I assumed the wrong things.

My mistake was in being naive in not recognizing that it’s easy for people to hit hard times, and be disgraced, and be desperate. Desperate enough to not care if someone from his past recognized his voice. It was naive of me to think that someone could go from winning a fairly prestigious journalism award and later be shamelessly churning out fake news.

It was also naive of me to think that just because someone seems dumb (to put it bluntly) that they couldn’t have won a journalism award.

Don’t assume.

The importance of organization

I learned that it’s very important to organize your research. One reason I did not follow up on the early tweets like I should have was a lack of organization. With all the avenues of potential research, and a lack of organization, I quite literally just forgot one of the main avenues of inquiry.

If I could do it over again, I would have had a spreadsheet with the major areas of inquiry and what the status was of each area.

Stay calm: Coincidences do happen

Several times during this investigation, I got very excited, thinking that I’d stumbled onto a major clue and was close to finding his identity.

This happened once when I found out a new iteration of the @hockeyintel Twitter account had started tweeting again in early 2018. Seemingly very meaningful, they had started tweeting within a day of someone saying publicly on Twitter that @thomas1774paine’s old Twitter handle was @hockeyintel. Was it True Pundit trying to throw people off the trail with a seemingly legitimate-looking hockey-related business? Was he trying to distract from more meaningful areas to look at (like old tweets)?

After finding the identify of the young man behind the new @hockeyintel account, and finding information about him and his father, I was almost certain I’d found the people behind it. Especially when I searched online for the father’s name and found pro-Trump and anti-Hillary statements from someone with his name.

But after speaking to the family, I felt confident they had nothing to do with it. It was just a coincidence, as strange as that seemed. Even the pro-Trump statements I found, that I thought were clues, were from a different man with the same name.

This happened a few times. One time I found someone in a AR-15-themed gun forum who used very similar language to True Pundit, including some specific turns of phrases that only returned a handful of hits on Google. But they were all dead ends. And through most of these events, I was ignoring clues that I should have recognized were more important.

Conclusion

I’m a little conflicted about sharing these thoughts, as I was when I wrote a piece on how to identify fake Facebook accounts. As with that piece, there’s the fear that you are just teaching liars and propagandists how to do their job better. But I think the pros — sharing tips with other investigators, professional and amateur — outweigh the cons. Because the more people are educated about how to do this type of research, the more likely it is that people work more quickly on identifying fake news creators and liars, before they can cover their tracks.

Identifying True Pundit shouldn’t have taken as long as it did; all the clues were there for the picking from the day he registered the site www.truepundit.com, up until the present. And looking back, these were not hard clues to find. If anything, I think most of the people who delved into the True Pundit mystery were hampered by the assumption that they were up against someone fairly sophisticated and careful, who had covered his tracks very well. I assumed that it would probably come down to someone identifying his voice, and that’s why I spent time working on a video featuring his voice, which I hoped could be easily shared with the public. So the main learning for me was: don’t assume people are sophisticated; delve in and do the fundamental work. And do it as soon as you’re able before they delete something important.

I’m confident that True Pundit influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. When you consider that only a 1% swing in every state’s votes from Trump to Clinton would give Clinton the presidency, it’s easy to imagine the widely-shared fake news of True Pundit having an effect around that size. And considering his influence, it does bother me that big-name news sites did not identify him significantly earlier.

Finally, just want to say that I believe our country owes gratitude to Craig Silverman for his work on this. This was something that I’m surprised was not broken by bigger name news outlets. Craig followed every lead he could find to the end; he was disciplined and determined. With people like Craig working against fraud and corruption, we can all sleep a little better at night.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).

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