This is the story of the mastermind behind one of the largest “fake news” operations in America.
For two years, he ran websites and Facebook groups that spread fake stories, conspiracy theories and propaganda. Under him was a dedicated team of writers and editors who got paid to produce deceptive content—ranging from outright hoaxes to political propaganda—with the supreme goal of tipping Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent figures—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to his followers. And he unwittingly fooled American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, about more fake news sources than the mainstream media.
Pundits and governments would probably have given Russia much credit, they say, when an entire system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within America.
“Russia played such a small role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” Hacker told me recently. “It was common for politicians, though… if you lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”
Previously called “Hacker X”, he is now ready to reveal who he is and how he did it.
A note on sourcing: In a rigorous effort to fact-check the claims made here, Ars has observed written correspondence between hackers and notable entities involved in creating fake news; emails sent to them by prominent figures publicly known to own (or be linked to) fake news sites; Tax forms showing income received by him from fake-news generation companies; Receipts for IT asset purchases, such as domain names; emails on his behalf explaining the strategy to the employees and assigning them tasks on a regular basis; and archived copies of webpages, forums and Tweets produced as a part of this larger operation. We also contacted sources who did not wish to be named, some of whom are “authors” who worked at the same company, and confirmed the hacker’s claims.
Because he requests that the company he worked for is not explicitly named, Ars refers to the fake news company… with a fake name, Koala Media.
The Fake New Impresario Who Has Now Decided To Break His Silence Is The “Ethical Hacker” Robert Willis.
Few in the information security community today may know “Rob” as an active member who speaks at conferences and works with the Sakura Samurai Ethical Hacking group. (Sakura Samurai has, on several occasions, been responsibly exposed in the computer systems of government and private entities. I’ve previously interacted with Rob on about two occasions, at least, when I had Sakura Samurai writing vulnerability. I had questions.)
But back in 2015, Willis was another hacker looking for an IT job. He had already received a job offer – but still had an interview scheduled at one last company.
“I was thinking about not appearing in the interview,” he told me. “Eventually, I had committed to another company.”
That last company was opaque – she would not disclose her name or actual job duties until Willis appeared in person. But the opacity itself was tricky. Willis decided to do the interview.
“I showed up at the location, which was a large corporate building. I was instructed to wait downstairs until the gathering. The privacy was interesting. It may have put some people off, but I like an adventure. I don’t They were very excited except to give any information about the job, because it was very rare to find someone like me—I had random, overlapping, high-tech skills from years of wearing multiple hats at small private companies.”
Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had acquired a wide range of technical skills in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship and management. He knew how to take advantage of search engine algorithms when, once, he asked to get a random phrase to the No. 1 spot on an engine within 24 hours. “Many would say it is/was impossible, but I have the receipts,” he said, “and so do other credible people.”
At the interview site, a man came down to pick her up, and they climbed off the elevator to the almost empty office floor. Inside, a woman was waiting near three chairs. They all sat down. Their hosts finally revealed the name of their company: Koala Media. The moment felt like an orchestrated big reveal.
“I wasn’t scared, but excited at how crazy it had already been [to be], Willis told me. “I heard. I was told that the office I sat in had big plans for it and that they had already hired early writers and editors for the new operation.”
Company interviewers told Willis that “everything had to be built with extreme levels of security in mind.”
Should they land the job, their primary role will be to rapidly expand the single, popular website owned by Koala Media. For this they needed someone with Willis’ diverse skills.
Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me they were against big companies and big government because they’re basically the same thing,” Willis said. He said he has readers on his right and left. He said they were about “freedom”. This seemed fine to Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—”very punk rock, borderline anarchist.”
Then the interviewers told him, “If you work for us, you can help stop Hillary Clinton.”
“I hated the establishment, Republicans and Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was as much the establishment as she got and was the only candidate guaranteed to run on the main ticket in a future 2016 cycle,” Willis said. . “If I had chosen a lesser evil at the time, it would undoubtedly have been the Republican Party, as I moved to the new city because of the Democrats destroying my previous home state. It felt like good revenge.”
Willis says he had no indication that the company that was supposed to recruit him was peaking or that it would be in the future. In his belief, the company was just “investigative” in regards to its journalism.
When Koala offered him the job, he took it.