This is the story of the mastermind behind one of the largest “fake news” operations in the US.
For two years, he ran websites and Facebook groups that spread bogus stories, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Under him was a dedicated team of writers and editors paid to produce deceptive content—from outright hoaxes to political propaganda—with the supreme goal of tipping the 2016 election to Donald Trump.
Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And he fooled unwary American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, into regarding fake news sources more highly than the mainstream media.
Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.
“Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”
Previously dubbed “Hacker X,” he’s 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 seen written correspondence between the hacker and notable entities involved in producing fake news; emails sent to him by prominent personalities publicly known to own (or be associated with) 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 from him to staff explaining strategy and assigning them tasks on a regular basis; and archived copies of webpages, forums, and tweets produced as a part of this large operation. We have also communicated with sources, both named and unnamed, some of whom are “writers” who worked at the same company and have corroborated the hacker’s claims.
Because he requests that the company he worked for not be explicitly named, Ars has referred to the fake news company with… a fake name, Koala Media.
The fake new impresario who has now decided to break his silence is “ethical hacker” Robert Willis.
Some in the information security community might know “Rob” today as an active member who speaks at conferences and works with the Sakura Samurai ethical hacking group. (The Sakura Samurai have, on many occasions, responsibly disclosed vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government and private entities. I have previously interacted with Rob on about two occasions, minimally, when I had questions regarding Sakura Samurai’s vulnerability writeups.)
But back in 2015, Willis was just another hacker looking for an IT job. He had already received one job offer—but still had an interview scheduled at one final company.
“I was thinking of not showing up to the interview,” he told me. “I had, after all, just committed to another company.”
That final company was opaque—it would not reveal either its name or the actual job duties until Willis showed up in person. But the opacity was itself intriguing. Willis decided to do the interview.
“I showed up at the location, which was a large corporate building. I was given directions to wait downstairs until I was collected. The secretiveness was intriguing. It may have turned some people off, but I love an adventure. I had not been given any information on the job other than that they were very excited, because to find someone like me was very rare—I had tons of random, overlapping, highly technical skills from years of wearing multiple hats at smaller private companies.”
Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had gained an extensive technical skill set 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, once, he said, getting a random phrase to the No. 1 spot on one engine within 24 hours. “Many will say this 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 get him, and they rode the elevator to a floor with a nearly empty office. Inside waited a woman beside three chairs. They all sat. His 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 this was already turning out [to be],” Willis told me. “I listened. I was told that there were big plans for the office I was sitting in and that they had already hired the initial writers and editor for the new operation.”
The interviewers at the company told Willis that “everything was to be built with security in mind—at extreme levels.”
Should he get the job, his primary role would be to rapidly expand a single, popular website already owned by Koala Media. For this, they needed someone with Willis’ diverse skill set.
Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me that they were against big companies and big government because they are basically the same thing,” Willis said. They said they had readers on the right and the left. They said they were about “freedom.” That sounded OK 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 establishment as it got and was the only candidate that was all but guaranteed to be running on the main ticket in the future 2016 cycle,” said Willis. “If I were to choose a lesser evil at the time, it would have, without a doubt, been the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city due to the Democrats literally destroying my previous home state. It felt like good revenge.”
Willis says he had no indication that the company that was about to recruit him was extreme or would become so in the future. In his perception, the company was just “investigative” with regard to its journalism.
When Koala offered him the job, he took it.