On being pwned by the VRWC
It was the cute kids that got me.* It just never occurred to me that a "family" website like the Gidcumb's, with a Bible quote (Gen 2:1) right there on the home page, would be part of a disinformation ploy to plant fake photos of Karl Rove on the Internet. Then, when the Gidcumb printed a White House photo of himself with Bush**, I thought the case was closed, and the Rove photo couldn't have been faked. I mean, Bush's handlers wouldn't want him photographed right next to disinformation artists. Right?
Of course, the photo of Rove was faked.
I got p0wned by the VRWC.
And it doesn't feel good. But I'm not alone: Bush--with a timely assist from Colin Powell at the UN--p0wned the entire country on Iraqi WMDs. And apparently the country feels as good about being p0wned as I do, which is why Bush's approval ratings are in the 30s, and the Democrats were elected to provide the authoritarians in the White House with some oversight and checks and balances.
This post is a post partum of the entire episode. First, I'll give the sequence of events that led to the posting. Then, I'll examine the shifting claims provided by the disinformation artists--Coptix, and Gidcumbs, and a website called Irresponsible Journalism. Then, I'll look at some implications for 2008, and future Republican disinformation campaigns. I'll conclude with lessons learned and some personal reflections.
For those of you are visiting the site for the first time, we're an old-school blog. Many of us write, like the authors of the Federalist Papers, under noms de plume. None of us are paid for what we do. We take no advertising. Comments are moderated, but only to filter spam. Many people front page freely. And when we're wrong, we correct the record and move on.
And not all us are Democrats. And we don't follow anybody's line about what to write and when to write it. If there's something that all of us share, it's a willingness and a desire to say what hasn't been said--but needs to be said. Often, this leads to the need to do research: To connect dots that need to be connected, which our famously free press has so dramatically failed to justify its Constitutional protections by doing.
Sequence of events
So, research. Sometimes alert readers leave us tips; we follow up. On March 30--two days, you will notice at once, before April 1--a comment alerted us to this photo on the Gidcumb's site (copy here). The image--now known to have been faked--seemed to show Karl Rove with a marketroid folder under his arm bearing the logo of a firm called "Coptix."
I was intrigued, because Coptix was known to have a business relationship with the RNC: They handled a nameserver for the RNC's gwb43.com domain, through which Rove routes 90% of his mail (and through which a good deal of Justice's email on the attorney firings was also routed). The photo didn't alter those facts, but it seemed the first evidence of Rove's personal involvement. I wrote up a post that made this point, and then added a long essay on nameservers so that readers could understand the gwb43.com story.
When putting up the post, I checked:
1. The Gidcumb's site. As I said, the cute kids got me. Further, other photos were posted there that seemed authentic.
2. The Secret Service tends to be very touchy about letting people into a Presidential event that aren't on a list of approved attendees. Therefore, the Gidcumbs had enough juice to get into Porkers, where Bush, Rove, and many other dignitaries were having their BBQ, and take photos. So, given Gidcumb's access, it seemed unlikely to me that a single fake photo would be planted among real ones. (Gidcumb claims he only posted the one fake--we'll see.)
3. It also seemed reasonable that the White House would be concerned about nameserver administration, and since Coptix was already providing that service to the RNC, it was reasonable that Coptix would be attempting to sell new services to an existing client.
4. Cheney's official counsel, David Addington, had already expressed concerns about parody sites that "portray people in a false light"; it seemed unlikely that a loyal Republican would do what Cheney clearly did not approve of.
So, I added those links to the post.
Finally, I checked the Google cache for another site for a contemporaneous link to the Gidcumb's site, and found one. It mentioned the photo from "Gid" as the "money shot."
So, I pressed the submit button--and betrayed my readers, colleagues, and friends. In retrospect, I should have added a disclaimer about what must have been in the back of all our minds: That the photo was a Rovian disinformation ploy.
[Pause. Drains drink.]
Then I let some other sites know about my find, sat back, and watched Sitemeter.
The action was in the comments. First, other researchers showed up; they are not relevant to this post, so I will concentrate on questioners, concern trolls, and detractors.
The first questioner showed up at 14:28 on March 31--again, you will note, not April 1--reminding us of Dan Rather as a precedent. I answered, saying that "the photo does come from a Christianist site, so caution is indicated; this could be disinformation", but that the M.O. was not Rove's, since Rove has never been personally visible in any of his exploits. (Again, the "personal touch.")
At Sat, 2007-03-31 16:5, the taunting*** began, and, in retrospect, the April 1 cover story (the stories shift) began. At 2007-03-31 17:24 one Ralphe referred readers to a link to one of the fake sites [DCOW]. On Sunday--finally, April 1--the taunting continued. I responded with the following:
A disinformation campaign run by Coptix and a web site, apparently of ordinary Chattanoogans, posting doctored photos. I guess it would have been the photos of cute babies that made me too trusting. Then again, generally when we get Christianist operatives posting here, they try to convert us. That hasn’t happened here, so possibly the site is not genuine, or doesn’t look at their referrals. Then again, maybe the Bible verses I posted served as a prophylactic.
No, but seriously, if that’s happening, that would be an even bigger story, would it not? The handwriting would be just like the Rather case, where when CW agreed that one datapoint on Bush’s military service was discredited, all where. Mission accomplished!
And it would have been a long-running operation too, since the Rove photo was originally put up back in February. If so, kudos to the party of Alice in Wonderland! They may not be able to run a government or win wars, but they can Ratfuck with the best of them!
Which, interestingly, turned out to be exactly what happened. As I started out by saying, it was the photos of cute babies that got me.
Of course, if the Coptix guys had a shred of decency or honor, they would have responded to this comment by saying "April Fools!" Right there on April 1. Instead, the story ran three more days.
Unfortunately, my comment was wrong on two details:
1. I should have taken the failure of the Christianist Gidcumb's to proselytize me more seriously. We've had some experience with this, and that's their M.O. In retrospect the Gidcumb's failure to try to convert me--I left a comment on their site, to give them the opportunity--was a sign that all was not right with their enterprise.
2. I was wrong that a link to the (faked) Rove photo was put up back in February. In retrospect, it looks like Irresponsible Journalism backdated his post, to make the link to "Gid's" "Money Shot" look contemporaneous.
And now we come to the famous Sleestacks image; Tleilaxu facedancers always do leave the victim one way out.
At 17:01 on April 3--two days, you will note, after April 1--comes this comment, directing us to the the first hit for Sleestacks in Google image. (Note that the "first hit" has changed since then).
What I saw on the fake TV in the faked image of Rove at Porkers:
What I saw as a Google thumbnail:
And on the TV screen what I saw--I was tired, my eyes aren't good, and I'm not a visual thinker--what I had "seen on March 30": Two basketball players in yellow uniforms with a crowd in the background. (I guess if I were paid, I would have gone to the TV listings in Chattanooga to see if there was a basketball game on. But you know? I don't even own a TV.) So, I took the post for one of the many taunts, not real information, and moved on. (It didn't help that "sleestacks" is a cultural reference not available to me. A.A. Milne, Shakespeare, yes; Sleestacks, no.
That's the story of how I got p0wned by the VRWC. Now, for the shifting stories from the guys who fed us the disinformation.
The changing stories
Here are the reasons I've heard given for the disinformation ploy:
Thanks for that. Four years of free work and thousands of posts, not just by me but by a whole team, down the tubes because, as I keep being told, some people have a different sense of humor. Not that I'm bitter.
2. Many commenters: An April Fool's joke [DCOW]. That's the line the the Times Free Press takes. And note carefully the use of the April Fool to, by implication, deny that Rove has committed any crimes. A classic Rovian result. [That's what sluttish concentration camp advocate Michelle Malkin did as soon as she saw the money was on the dresser:**** She knows the playbook well, and gets right to work by using the faked, planted, revealed evidence to discredit the true story. (That's why she focuses on Rove's email at once. Since all the evidence there is a matter of public record, the Coptix disinformation ploy has nothing to do with it.)
Nonsense. The ploy started on March 30. A site was altered to look like a post occurred in February. The "joke" continued until April 4. Three sites--Coptix, the Gidcumbs, and Irresponsible Journalism were involved. Coptix was, on their own account, involved as a business, so this isn't a lighthearted prank by individuals. And the kind of photo fakery that took place has brought down White House retribution in the past. This was no joke. It was serious.
3. Coptix: Anger, because Coptix was being painted as part of the VRWC.
Apparently, Coptix believes in collective punishment, since this blog has consistently said that, as nameserver vendors, it was likely that Coptix could only have played a minor role.
3. Irreponsible journalism: an "experiment" in social networking [DCOW].
Any "experiment" that takes place without informed consent is unethical, as was this experiment.
I'm sure, given their evident hipness, intelligence, and expertise, Coptix could have devised an ethical marketing campaign that didn't plant false information that would destroy the reputation of those who were taken in. In addition, they could have devised a plan that wasn't wired into one of he most explosive political issues of the day. Unfortunately, malice seemed to be an essential part of the plan.)
So much for the changing stories. Frankly, I don't care what the motivations were: Malice, curiosity, profit, anger, whatever. I guess I'm with the Bible on this one: "By their fruits you will know them." (Matthew 7:16) And, in this case, the fruits are a wounded C-list blog, another one of the endless series of talking points and anecdotes for the VRWC, and the classic ratfucking Rovian ploy: Fake evidence on a story, make sure the evidence surfaces, reveal the fake, and discredit the entire story. We've seen it before with the TANG records.
One thing we know with Republicans: When their stories change, they're lying.
Implications for disinformation campaigns in 2008
It's unfortunate that we live in a political environment that is not sane. We've got a Vice President who's anointed himself as a fourth branch of government (whether before, or after, he shot an old man in the face is not clear), a media environment where that yawns when a Federal court hands down a judgment that says Bush is guilty of 30 felonies, where massive, illegal, and unconstitutional surveillance has become the norm, where Republican presidential candidates believe in the power of imprisoning American citizens with no charges or review, and where secret prisons and torture are the new norm.
Oh my goodness. Do I sound like I've lost my sense of humor? Like I can't take a joke?
[Pause here to find a good joke that starts "A Republican walks into a bar..." This is the best of the lot. I decide not to link to it. Sigh.]
Not only is the political environment insane, the administration is the very reverse of open and transparent. Therefore, the rest of us--those of us on the outside, not on the cocktail wienie circuit, certainly not wired enough to get into Porkers, take photographs, fake one, get away clean, and then write an Op-Ed about it--have to do the job that our famously free press should be doing. (With sites like TPM, this is changing. But it hasn't changed enough yet.) Since it's clear that neither the press nor the administration has any interest in telling the truth, we have treat politics as a form of police work, and look for the modus operandi: "A criminal's characteristic patterns and style of work. Far from propagating conspiracy theories, Xan analyzes Rove's M.O. and concludes that the techniques that Coptix used to plant and propagate disinformation in our blog are the same techniques that Rove would use.
We've never said that Rove picked up the phone and ordered Coptix to make sucker some C-List blog and protect Rove against his email being subpoenaed; that would be absurd. Nevertheless, that could be the end result.
I do say that we're in an insane political environment where acting like Karl Rove will be rewarded; this is quite evident from what Coptix did and the happy (for them) result.
So, in 2008, we can expect many more such operations, now that the method--pioneered by F/Buckhead in the Bush TANG records case--has been reinforced for all to see by Coptix. Rove doesn't need to pick up the phone and order anything: The Kool-Aid drinkers will do it for him.***** (In an environment even more insane than ours, this was called working toward the Fuhrer). It won't be two bloggers working secretly for the Thune campaign: "Next time," there will be multiple sites involved, apparently disconnected, many backdated posts, more planted evidence, and so on, and so forth.
That's going to be the new modus operandi. Thanks, guys. Good work. Nice fruits to know you by. Uncle Karl must sure be proud. Trim those goatees one time for me.
There are more than a few loose ends that I'd like tied up. here are two:
1. Did the Gidcumbs really take all the photos? Again, it seems remarkable that somebody on the Secret Service approved list would lightheartedly use one of those photos in a prank. But if the Gidcumbs didn't take the photos, who did? The other likely candidates for being on the list are an official White House photographer, and the Chattanooga Free Press.
2. Why was the ploy aborted when it was? After all, the so-called April Fool's joke ran through April 4, and disinformation artists at Coptix had a golden opportunity to admit the "joke" right on April 1 (see the comments analysis, above), but didn't take advantage of it. But why not keep the ploy going until April 5th or 6th or 10th? [Readers, if somebody not from Coptix caught onto the fake, could you leave a link?] Could it be that nobody from the national media picked it up, so the perps decided that there was no Rathergate in the offing?]
1. Never trust a Christianist. (Hey, ha ha, where's your sense of humor? I'm sure I'll meet a Christian Christianist. Some day). Yes, there is software, as Angela slash Anonymous helpfully, though belatedly, points out, that can analyze digital photographs to determine whether they are doctored or not. Surely, however, any such software can be fooled, if the disinformation artists have the proper level of funding. And if there's one thing that Republicans have, if in inverse proportion to honesty and integrity, it's funding. So, in the general case--"next time" as Angela helpfully warns us, software is not a solution.
So we don't have a technical problem, here: We have a social networking problem. The "picture that held me captive" was not, as Angela helpfully repeats, that I was "more interested in digging up a scandal than finding the truth." [Shit, if you've come this far in this post, you must see that I'd rather be doing anything than write it. Crow tastes really, really bad, and I've been eating helping after helping for hours.] No, it was the assumption that three apparently separate sites couldn't be in on a disinformation scheme--Especially when one of the sites had all those photos of cute babies on it. They seemed like the kind of people who you'd want to sit down and have a beer with, ya know?
The next time, the photos will be doctored better because the disinformation artists will have more money. (Think of this little episode as a proof of concept, eh?) But suppose I had said to myself what I already know: "Wait a minute! The Gidcumbs are Christianists! They're authoritarians! They'll do anything--lie, fake, imprison, torture--they even imagine The Leader wants them to do!" I would have been a great deal more skeptical.
2. Never assume that there's a rule that Republicans won't break. I know, I know.... Perhaps it was the local, Chattanooga aspect that fooled me here. It just didn't occur to me to attribute the same level of malevolence and malice to Chattanooga hipsters that we--and by we, I mean all the voters in the 2006 elections--have been experiencing from the national Republicans for the last six years.
I had a few "rules" in mind for normal, normative behavior: (a) I thought that April Fool's jokes took place on April Fool's Day. I didn't think that they got started with backdated posts from February, and continued until April 4th. (b) I thought that photos of White House figures would be less likely to be faked, since the White House retaliated against sites that parodied them.
Live and learn: IOKIYAR.
3. If it fucks like a rat, it's a ratfucker. See Shystee's prescient post on emergent conspiracy in this regard.
4. We need more citizen journalism, not less, contrary to Angela's helpful suggestion. The national press is well, let's just say, weak. The winger apparatus is utterly corrupt, from FUX at the top to the amoral goateed hipsters feeding at the bottom.
That means: Ourselves alone. And as this episode shows, a key aspect of our technical infrastructure needs to be authentication: Both on the software side--for "the next time," an image-"proofing" server for the blogosphere to use would be very useful--and on the social networking side.
Blogging is hard work. It's hard to do good work when you're exhausted all the time. My judgment would have been better if I hadn't been so tired. This week is the anniversary of a death in the family, so it started out bad. Then it got worse. Think of Jane, dealing with cancer.
And then think of all the people who are very well paid to mock and destroy our work and lives. Sweet dreams.
Then back to work in the morning.
* On the off chance that these photos are real, only an unidentifiable image is posted here. We're not talking Cheney's summer home here, fer gawdsake.
** Gidcumb says he only posted one fake photo. Assuming he's not lying, that makes the White House photo real.
*** Today, a commenter claims that some of the taunting (three of the four "Maybe" comments) was in fact intended to warn. If so, the warning was not distinguishable. In retrospect, it would seem to have been more effective for the commenter to have been somewhat less Delphic.
**** I'm sorry. I didn't mean to call Michelle a sluttish concentration camp advocate. I mean to call her a sluttish, pouty-lipped, autocoprophagic concentration camp survivor. Sorry. Hey, where's your sense of humor?
***** Not, of course, that the Coptix guys--being hip, young, goateed, even, in some cases, putatively Christian--are KoolAid Drinkers. They've only showed the KoolAid drinkers the way.
NOTE See also Leah's letter to Jeffrey at Coptix here. Leah is the least vitriolic person in the world, and her comments offer a second perspective.
UPDATE Welcome Hot Air readers. First Malkin, now you! Such an honor to be visited by all the members of the VRWC that everyone keeps telling me doesn't exist.