Skepticism

Is “Hacker X,” who Helped Natural News Take Over Facebook, Stupid or Lying?

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Transcript:

Last week, Ars Technica featured an exclusive interview with HACKER X, which is an extremely cool nickname for a guy named Bob who is actually kind of a giant chud. 

Okay, so this started back in the spring of 2020 when Theresa Payton published her book about the proliferation of misinformation online, Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth. She interviewed an anonymous programmer who said that in 2015 he was hired by an anonymous (to us, not him) company with three goals: “run an online news campaign that would net them a lot of money, make sure they did not get caught, and not let the deep state get Hillary elected.” In other words, to game Facebook to brainwash credulous bigots.

You may already guess at this point that this guy is, in fact, a chud. Sure, we’ve all been tempted to bend our morals to make that next rent payment but at this point he’s already described himself as “the best at building algorithms that could target the right message to the right people,” which suggests that he had other options. And it turns out, he did!

More than a year after Payton’s book launched, HACKER X (!!!) decided to reveal himself to Ars Technica as Robert Willis, a programmer who has worked with well-known “white hat” hacking group Sakura Samurai (founded in 2020, so long after he worked as a misinformation specialist). He also revealed that when he accepted the Facebook-alrorithm job, he already had another job offer from another company. So. Yeah, this wasn’t done out of desperation unless that other job offer was hacking the Make a Wish Foundation to funnel money to neo-Nazis.

While he revealed his own identity to Ars, he still didn’t want to reveal the name of the company he worked for, so they just referred to it as “Koala Media.” But immediately after the article was published, a lot of people were very annoyed that this apparently evil empire was being protected, so he published a blog post revealing that “Koala” was, in fact, Natural News.

That’s when I finally got interested, because I’ve been acquainted with Natural News and its founder, Mike Adams, for a long, long time now. For instance, here’s a video I made about Adams five years ago, criticizing him for selling a “chemical-free” mosquito repellent to protect people from Zika virus in an ad that literally appeared next to an article he wrote claiming that the Zika virus was a hoax propagated by the CDC and Barack Obama.

That’s hardly the worst thing Adams has done, though. That award probably goes to the time back in 2014 when he published a “kill list” of scientists and journalists who he compared to Nazi collaborators because they supported the manufacture and sale of genetically modified organisms. It started with a bonkers blog post on Natural News in which he called for a new “Nuremberg trial” to prosecute people in the “new Nazi science” of biotechnology, writing “it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.”

That screed was almost immediately followed up with the establishment of an entire website called Monsantocollaborators.org, which featured the subheading “agricultural holocaust” and a giant swastika above a list of “collaborators.”

The site claims that “Every 30 minutes, a farmer commits suicide due to GMO crop failures. The responsibility for these deaths falls upon those individuals and organizations shown on this site.

Until this global Agricultural Holocaust is stopped, these deaths will continue.”

So…yeah, that’s a pretty clear dog whistle encouraging people to murder journalists and scientists. People immediately reported the site to the FBI and it was removed, but the internet, of course, always remembers. Adams updated his post on Natural News a few days later to point to the website, but after the FBI got involved he claimed that he had nothing to do with it and that it was actually set up as a false flag operation by the people on the “kill list.” The site was registered with a private proxy, but Nick Price on his blog TWIPScience found that MonstatoCollaborators was registered BEFORE Adams’ blog post was published, and also that the site shared with Natural News “entire files (which do not appear elsewhere on the internet), to shared graphics, to using the same proprietary fonts, to similar code structure, matching file naming conventions, and other code quirks.”

That, again, happened in 2014 and was pretty widely reported on. This tells us two things: one, it’s very clear that Mike Adams realized he was out of his depth when attempting to create “anonymous” websites that would further his own goals while leaving his hands clean; and two, Robert “Hacker X” Willis is either lying or revealing an incredibly deep-seated stupidity when he told Ars Technica that in 2015 he had no idea that Adams was so dangerous, and that Willis thought Adams was simply “an internet natural health guru looking to use his current viewership to explore other topics outside of natural health—which included stopping Hillary Clinton. There were already random things like ‘chemtrails’ but like I said, I thought it was entertainment.”

Willis quickly helped establish Natural News as one of the worst peddlers of dangerous misinformation on the internet, mostly by setting up fake Facebook profiles that then set up groups that shared Natural News stories and other articles that were anti-liberal, anti-vaccine, and anti-rationality. In 2018 even Weather.com was acknowledging the incredible job Natural News had done of making itself into an alt-right pipeline that efficiently led Facebook users down a path from “Grapefruit Juice Protects Against Weight Gain and Diabetes” to “The Government Controls the Weather.”

In 2019 The Atlantic profiled Natural News as the leading peddler of anti-vaccine misinformation on the internet, considering their dubious distinction as one of the seven anti-vaccine pages that accounted for about ? of the top 10,000 vaccination posts on Facebook. In 2020, the London think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) published a hefty analysis of Natural News as a “Disinformation Empire” that subverted Facebook’s weak attempts to lessen their influence thanks to a network of more than 400 sites posting content from off-shore troll farms in places like the Philippines. ISD found that many of those sites hosted violent extremist content, and that the earliest sites were registered in 1996 but the bulk of them were registered in 2015, the year that Robert Willis was hired.

Oh, and speaking of extremism and the Philippines, one Facebook group that was set up in 2015, the year Robert Willis was hired at Natural News, was “Manila Central University Graduates,” which the ISD notes is the fourth most active page that linked to Natural News and also shared posts promoting Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, known for his various human rights violations and extra-judicial killings. He literally ran on the campaign promise that if elected president he would pardon himself for murder. Oh and one of his most well-known critics, journalist Maria Ressa, was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, causing pundits to wonder whether or not that should shame Mark Zuckerberg into stopping people like Mike Adams and Robert Willis from doing what they’re doing. So. Yeah.

Is it possible that Willis had, as Ars Technica reported, “no indication that the company that was about to recruit him was extreme or would become so in the future”? That, “In his perception, the company was just “investigative” with regard to its journalism”? Sure, anything is possible. Willis could, of course, consider himself one of the world’s greatest hackers but also do absolutely zero due diligence in the company about to hire him, and he could further take absolutely no curiosity in world affairs, like wondering who Rodrigo Duterte is, or whether or not vaccines are important.

But Willis describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—”very punk rock, borderline anarchist.” Which, if you have two working eyeballs in the year of our lord 2021 you can see is an entire field of red flags. And according to his Wikipedia page, prior to joining the Natural News team he headed the 4th Congressional campaign for the Connecticut Tea Party in 2009 and according to a press release he was “a member of the Fairfield Republican Town Committee and volunteered for many Republican campaigns across Fairfield County” before running as a Republican for the Connecticut state congress in 2014. He also told Ars that he is “neurodiverse” and has “major issues with understanding empathy.” Hmm.

So yeah, a lifelong Republican who considers himself “very punk rock, borderline anarchist” with a severe empathy deficit just happens to end up (despite having a job offer for another company) at Natural News, a year after that site was in the news for encouraging the murder of scientists and journalists. He then helps them become one of the biggest peddlers of dangerous misinformation on the planet. By accident. Whatever you say, Hacker X!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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