Summary of my (Zach Elwood’s) investigations into deceptive online activity
I’m using this page as a place to compile work that I’ve done related to researching and investigating deceptive online activity, including fake news and fake accounts.
Who am I?
My name is Zachary Elwood. My main claim to fame is that I’ve written some books on poker behavior (aka “poker tells”). You can find me on Twitter at @apokerplayer or at Facebook.com/zachelwoodbehavior. I also have a psychology-themed podcast called People Who Read People (summaries and links here).
I’ve also done some research into online deception, fake news, and fake accounts. Some of my work has been featured in major news outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Buzzfeed. On this page is a synopsis of the work I’ve done and press mentions I’ve gotten. Here’s a table of contents:
- Deceptive George Floyd-related Facebook activity, June 2020
- Quarantine protest Facebook groups, April 2020
- Fake news downplaying coronavirus goes viral in rightwing news, April 2020
- A look at a popular deceptive Trump-supporter Twitter account, April 2019
- A look at some weird and funny social media accounts, Sept 2018
- An investigation into fake news creator True Pundit, Aug 2018
- Fake foreign-origin, American-impersonating Facebook accounts, 2017–2018
Deceptive George Floyd- and police-brutality-related Facebook activity
In early June 2020, I examined some deceptive Facebook activity related to the George Floyd protests. You can see a Twitter thread about this here.
Some of this work was featured in a CNET.com article by Dara Kerr and Shara Tibken entitled Private Facebook groups are using ‘Justice for George Floyd’ as a cloak for racist behavior.
Quarantine protest Facebook groups
In mid April 2020, I noticed that a few of the most popular anti-quarantine Facebook groups (using the name form “Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine”) were started by an extreme rightwing family, the Dorr brothers, and their associates. As far as I know, I was the first person to draw attention to this connection.
I have a tweet thread about this here. I shared this with some journalists, and was interviewed by the Washingon Post for this article.
My WaPo quote was used in some other articles on the subject, including Daily Mail and Salon.
Worth noting: this stuff was very obvious and not hidden and it took me only a few minutes of time to look at a few of the groups. Honestly I’m disappointed that major news outlets don’t seem to have people dedicated to covering these kinds of things. It should be well known by now what a horrible influence Facebook is to our society. It’s filled with a bunch of what are essentially radicalization chambers (hence how Facebook was a factor in things like the Myanmar genocide). Checking these kinds of platforms and groups for manipulation should be par for the course by news outlets by now.
Here’s another Twitter thread examining the admins of a similar Facebook group: one was a religious prophecy author, the other writes about UFOs/aliens.
Dan Proft-owned “news” piece downplaying coronavirus goes viral in conservative media
On April 13 2020, I examined a story on a low-quality news site, ChicagoCityWire.com, that downplayed the coronavirus threat using an interview of a Chicago-area phlebotomist. The phlebotomist was obviously uninformed about the implications of testing and the disease in general, as you’d expect from such a non-expert role, and the story lacked context that the coronavirus antibody tests are notoriously bad/inaccurate. But regardless, this story went viral and was mentioned by Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, undoubtedly other conservative figures, and in a bunch of Reddit threads and conspiracy-theory forums.
I have a Twitter thread examining this article here. I didn’t find much original but more just maybe an interesting look at how viral a low-quality, biased news piece can be when put into the hands of biased actors. The chicagocitywire site and many other similar “news” sites are owned by well-known politically-motivated news creators Dan Proft and Brian Timpone. There are some links about them in that Twitter thread and if you search for their names, you can read a lot about their attempts to influence politics with a slew of low-quality, politically-motivated “news” sites.
An examination of a deceptive pro-Trump Twitter account
In April 2019, I wrote a piece examining a popular rightwing Twitter account @emilia_suze, which (as of May 2020) has 50K followers and is almost certainly deceptive. Like many of these kinds of deceptive accounts, it uses a young woman’s name/image and a respectable-sounding background (PhD) to get attention. This specific account isn’t that important, but considering how rampant these kinds of deceptive political accounts are, it may be interesting to look at a specific popular one.
A look at some weird, funny and deceptive social media accounts
This piece is from September 2018. This was meant to be a more humorous, entertaining piece looking at some of the more weird fake and deceptive social media accounts I’ve encountered over the last few years, including fake accounts apparently being used to do public relations for a well-known poker player, and a man who liked to send naked pictures and videos of himself to people.
Investigating fake news creator True Pundit
Leading up to August 2018, I’d been researching the well-known fake-news creator True Pundit for several months. I was beaten to outing his identity by Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman. The Buzzfeed article, which exposed True Pundit as a disgraced former journalist named Mike Moore, mentioned my contributions.
Afterward I wrote a piece summarizing the things I’d learned from the investigation, including how I overlooked some obvious clues that should have led me in the right direction.
Fake, American-impersonating Facebook accounts
During 2017 and 2018, I spent some time looking into fake, deceptive, and American-impersonating Facebook accounts. These were rampant at the time, and continued to be rampant for quite a long time. For all I know, it’s still a rampant, but perhaps fake-account creators have gotten better at hiding the more obvious indicators.
To this day (May 2020), I don’t think Facebook takes the problem seriously, as it would be easier for them to create more barriers to creating fake accounts. It’s still easy, and they still obviously value ease-of-account-creation over security and fake news concerns.
My work on this topic was featured in a couple of major news outlets:
- Nov 2017 NY Times article on fake Facebook accounts
- May 2018 Washington Post article about American-impersonating accounts
When that was going on, I also wrote several pieces on this subject on Medium:
- A look at Macedonian accounts spreading fake news
- A look at foreign American-impersonating posting political content on Facebook
- Top 7 signs a Facebook account is fake
- “City of Lies”: an English translation I did of German journalist Alex Ruhle’s account of going to Macedonia to investigate the fake-news industry there