POLITICS

Anyone Can Get Trolled — Even The New Yorker

Proto-troll Jonathan Lee Riches has been wreaking havoc for years. In a political landscape flooded with disinformation, he’s more dangerous than ever.
A town hall event where, according to troll Jonathan Lee Riches, "they placed me right behind Hillary Clinton, as a Muslim fo
A town hall event where, according to troll Jonathan Lee Riches, "they placed me right behind Hillary Clinton, as a Muslim for Clinton. I shook her hand and everything."

On the evening of the midterm elections in November, The New Yorker published a short online profile of Jonah Rich, a “Trumphead” who claimed to have attended about 20 of President Donald Trump’s rallies. The 41-year-old Rich compared the rallies to the World Series or the Super Bowl. He said he’d met people who’d been to hundreds of them.

Rich had a familiar “Make America Great Again” backstory. In college, he’d been “indoctrinated” by “left-wing” professors, he said. Later, he’d been deprogrammed by Sean Hannity, Breitbart and Alex Jones. When the Trump train pulled up billowing nationalism, Rich jumped on board.

But that wasn’t why photographer Mark Peterson plucked him from the crowd at the Trump rally in Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 31 and posed him for a low-angle portrait. Rich stood out because of the sky-blue yarmulke on his head and his T-shirt, emblazoned with the Star of David and the words “Jews for Trump.”

Four days earlier, a gunman — allegedly a white nationalist — had murdered 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Rich was at the rally, he said, to show Jewish support for Trump, despite his misgivings that the president’s rhetoric was fueling bigotry.

“I sometimes have visions of potential confrontations with Proud Boys, or with white supremacists, or with some other Trump supporter who might not appreciate having Jews around,” Rich told New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz, “but it’s never happened. To be honest, everyone I meet at the rallies feels like family.”

Jonathan Lee Riches poses as Jonah Rich at a Donald Trump rally in Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 31, 2018.
Jonathan Lee Riches poses as Jonah Rich at a Donald Trump rally in Fort Myers, Florida, on Oct. 31, 2018.

This was good material. Too good, it turned out. Within days, the Rich article had disappeared from The New Yorker’s site. (It’s preserved here.) Eventually, editors put up a note stating that “the interview subject had misrepresented himself, and the piece was removed.”

The hoax was nothing to mock. Journalists today operate in an information environment crawling with right-wing propagandists looking to dupe the media so they can cry “fake news.” Not even The New Yorker, with its vaunted fact-checking department, is immune. 

And it wasn’t an ordinary shitposter who’d bamboozled the magazine. Like TMZ, Radar Online, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, SB Nation, BuzzFeed and other outlets, The New Yorker had been rolled by an OG troll. Jonathan Lee Riches was his name ― his given name ― but he had plenty of other monikers he’d created for lulz in the past: Johnny Sue-nami; the Crackpot Matlock Judicial Sasquatch; the “Patrick Ewing of Suing.” He was as warped as wet wood.

An underground menace long before Gamergate and the alt-right, Riches, who is not Jewish, hails from a time when trolling wasn’t the political blood sport it is today. It was wackier and funnier. More prankish, though still irredeemable.

(Want to know more? I interviewed Riches below.)

As a young adult, Riches got into phone phreaking, then phishing scams. He went to prison in 2003 for wire fraud. Behind bars, he became a world-class irritant by filing absurdist, frivolous pro se lawsuits. He filed thousands of them, against anyone and anything (e.g., the Kardashians and Kanye West, whom Riches accused of running a secret al Qaeda camp.) So prolific a litigant was Riches that he became a one-man burden on the federal court system, a troll tagging the docket forever. In 2010, federal prosecutors won an unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional nationwide injunction against him to prevent him from suing, claiming that if he weren’t stopped, the government would “suffer irreparable harm.” 

I was just creating a clusterfuck. That was my entertainment when I was in prison. Jonathan Lee Riches

Riches immediately bypassed the injunction by slipping a batch of suits to a soon-to-be-released inmate to file on the outside. The prison cracked down hard. No paper in his cell. No stamps. Riches went on a hunger strike in protest. After 22 days, the warden had him force-fed through a tube. Imagine one of today’s millennial edgelords showing such commitment to disinfo.

Riches was different. He trolled harder, unafraid to use his name and face, often shunning a keyboard in favor of real-world trickery. All of which made him a more effective hoaxer.

In 2013, I wrote a story about Riches for Details magazine. He was out of prison just long enough for me to have lunch with him at the King of Prussia mall. A few weeks later, he was back behind bars after violating the terms of his probation by crossing state lines to visit the site of the Sandy Hook school massacre, where he pulled off one of his more reprehensible trolls.

At a makeshift memorial to the murdered children — whose corpses far-right propagandists like Alex Jones have tried to convert into money — Riches dropped to one knee to pray. When a reporter asked him who he was, he mournfully said he was the uncle of shooter Adam Lanza. Soon, Riches was in the middle of a media scrum giving interviews, an early example of a bad actor creating “fake news.”

Riches gives interviews to the media and pretends to be the uncle of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza while vi
Riches gives interviews to the media and pretends to be the uncle of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza while visiting a memorial to the victims of the shooting.

Riches and I stayed in touch sporadically over the years. I knew that when he next got out of prison, he’d enter a far uglier trolling landscape created by companies like Twitter and Facebook. On social media, racists and harassment crews roam freely, threatening lives, undermining democracies and radicalizing future Adam Lanzas. There’s nothing fun or funny about it.

As expected, Riches waded into the fray. He embraced the new weapons and gravitated, in particular, to Facebook, where he lures marks by creating fake pages connected to real events. Amid the media fracas over MAGA-hat clad boys from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky facing off with a Native American elder, Riches and other trolls created several Covington-related pages — including a fake page for Covington student Nicholas Sandmann that bashed the elder, Nathan Phillips. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to make lying like this on his platform alarmingly easy.)

A fake Covington Catholic High School Facebook page set up by Riches.
A fake Covington Catholic High School Facebook page set up by Riches.

But Riches’ real-world stunts continue to set him apart from the lumpentrolletariat. He attended the Bill Cosby trial in September 2016 and offered Cosby Jell-O every time the rapist entered court. He turned up in Florida with gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum as a Black Lives Matter demonstrator. A particularly successful ruse was posing as Muslim and attending political events. He did it at a Trump event in Manheim, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 1, 2016.

Riches at a Donald Trump event in Manheim, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 1, 2016.
Riches at a Donald Trump event in Manheim, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 1, 2016.

Three days later, he was front-row at a Hillary Clinton town hall in Haverford, Pennsylvania, representing “Muslims for Clinton.”

Riches, posing as Muslim, approaches Hillary Clinton in October 2016.
Riches, posing as Muslim, approaches Hillary Clinton in October 2016.

That appearance led to Riches being featured in the lead image of a Breitbart story attacking the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group that the political right has used as a bogeyman to whip up Islamophobia.

The photo is the very definition of fake news. It is still live on Breitbart over two years later. 

Riches appears in Breitbart as a fake Muslim for Clinton.
Riches appears in Breitbart as a fake Muslim for Clinton.

Riches may be a Zelig-like figure photobombing America for his own twisted enjoyment rather than for any clear ideological purpose, but his shamelessness, narcissism and lack of empathy place him squarely on the political right in the Trump era.

Riches moves in on former President Bill Clinton.
Riches moves in on former President Bill Clinton.
Riches photobombs a Michael Flynn court hearing.
Riches photobombs a Michael Flynn court hearing.

He has found himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder at events with people like Jack Posobiec, the Roger Stone protégé who spearheaded the near-deadly Pizzagate disinformation campaign and has collaborated with armed neo-Nazis yet still has a platform on Twitter from which to sow discord and lies. 

In November, Riches released a book about his litigation exploits. One of his co-contributors also writes for white nationalist publications such as Counter-Currents and Arktos Media and last month appeared to endorse a political run by alt-right leader Richard Spencer.

What Riches has failed to grasp is that there’s little room left for the merry trolling of yore when truth is under assault in America. If your goal is to sandbag reality, you’re bedding down with grifters, foreign agents and an army of deplorables.

And Riches has no intention of stopping. This past weekend, he put on his “Jews for Trump” outfit to troll a benefit in Tampa where Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was speaking. Outside the venue, he helped provoke a confrontation that led to a woman being taken away in handcuffs.

Nevertheless, Riches might still have few lessons to impart ― about gullibility and how a newsy character in outlandish attire (a living meme, essentially) can slip past journalism’s antiquated defense systems. At a time of peak truthiness, he is here, above all, to remind us that skepticism is mandatory.

***

Note: After being contacted by HuffPost, a spokesperson for The New Yorker provided a more detailed statement about the fake “Jonah Rich” story. We are publishing the statement in its entirety here:

On November 6th, The New Yorker published a piece on its Web site about a man who claimed to travel the country attending Donald Trump’s rallies. The article was done in an as-told-to style, meaning that the interview subject’s own words formed the basis of the story. Though the subject of the piece was not able to speak with the fact checker before deadline, the checker took steps to verify the subject’s account, including conducting an interview with a woman who claimed to be the subject’s mother and who confirmed his story. We learned on November 7th that both the subject of the piece and his purported mother had deliberately misrepresented themselves. Upon learning this, we unpublished the piece. The next day, November 8th, after further reviewing the matter, we added an editor’s note. Reporting an as-told-to story involves both trust and verification; in this case, our trust was misplaced and our system for verification intentionally manipulated.

***

It is generally unwise to give trolls attention. A troll willing to explain his motives and tactics, however, can be worth listening to, if for no other reason than to understand how bad actors operate in an era when they are empowered by social media companies that do so little to combat disinformation. To that end, we’re including the following Q&A with Riches, from November. The interview has been edited for clarity.

How long were you in prison for?

Ten years, got out, and then I went to Sandy Hook and left the state without permission, so I violated [probation]. I got three years for a violation.

I actually went up there like a conspiracy theorist to see what was going on. I just thought it was fascinating to go there. I actually got on my knees and prayed at the memorial. Then, I got up and some reporter was in my face. Then I just winged it.

I just said, “My name is Jonathan Lanza. I’m the uncle of the shooter and I’m here to give respect to the victims’ families.” Then, next thing I know, I get bombarded by media people. “You’re the uncle of the shooter. Oh, my god. Oh, my god.” They’re putting cameras and microphones up in my face. I gave like a press conference there. I drive home. Next thing I know, my phone’s blowing up and everybody’s telling me I’m on the news as the [shooter’s uncle].

After the Sandy Hook stunt, you were in prison for three years?

Yup. At that time, I’d stopped the lawsuits and I shifted towards the Pennsylvania “right to know” law, which is like the Freedom of Information Act but on the state level. I just kept submitting them and submitting them, like “I want to know Taylor Swift’s educational record.” Every department in Pennsylvania. “I want to know how many gallons of milk your milking department made in the month of ...” Just stupid stuff.

I was just creating a clusterfuck. That was my entertainment when I was in prison.

You got out of prison the second time in May 2015, which was coincidental because not long after that, Trump declared his candidacy.

That’s where I got fascinated, because Mr. Trump comes and then he just is not politically correct. He’s just a candidate that I instantly paid attention to. I was looking at the online reactions to him and stuff and then I trolled off of other people’s reactions.

So Trump was your entry point to political trolling?

Political and online trolling, yes. And real life trolling. Once he got the nomination, then that’s when I started. Especially in Pennsylvania, because Pennsylvania was a hotbed state. So I was going to every single rally with anybody that was a high-profile political figure.

I went to a Hillary Clinton town hall meeting and they placed me right behind Hillary Clinton, as a Muslim for Clinton. I shook her hand and everything. Sometimes the campaigns put people behind a certain candidate if you fit a narrative, whatever, like that.

My next troll is I’m gonna start running for political office. Like mayor, city councilman, sheriff in different elections. Like mock campaigns.

Tell me where and when that New Yorker interview happened.

It was at the Fort Myers Trump rally. I was just standing in line as “Jews for Trump” and this photographer came up to me, liked my shirt, and started asking me some questions, wanted to take my picture. He was directing me. He was telling me exactly what to look at, the way I should position myself. Which was strange, cuz I never had anybody do that. So he took my picture and gets my information and says a reporter is going to get back to me.

And you were wearing a yarmulke the whole time?

Yarmulke, “Jews for Trump” shirt, Trump shoes, shoes that have “Trump” on it. And then I just told that guy my name is Jonah. I just took a Jewish name, I figured Jonah was Jewish. Jonah Rich, I was gonna say Rothschild, but I just said Jonah Rich.

You were posing as a Jew after a massacre in a synagogue. Do you think there’s anything wrong with that when so much anti-Semitism is swirling around, and you’re not Jewish, and people might interpret it as you making light of a tragedy?

My mind at that particular moment, for that particular rally, was, go down there “Jews for Trump” and show that Jews do support Trump.

But you’re not Jewish, right?

No, I’m not Jewish at all.

So you were creating disinformation that in the wake of an actual tragedy could be viewed, especially by people in the Jewish community, as very disrespectful.

I’m just thinking of myself in the moment. With different rallies, I try to go with different themes. So I had that “Jews for Trump” shirt and I had the yarmulke for a while, and it was just an opportunity to use it at that time. Just the luck that the tragedy happened, I’m like, “OK, I’m going to run with the ‘Jews for Trump,’ because of the tragedy.” I don’t think about the long-term consequences as far as disinformation or offending anyone.

But I understand after the fact that people could be offended. My belief system shows no disrespect whatsoever toward that tragedy.

What did you tell The New Yorker reporter when he contacted you a few days later?

We talked about my life and I just created a whole story that wasn’t even true: I come from a Jewish family. I’ve been ostracized from the community, or from my Jewish community, for supporting Trump.

The only thing that was real that I told him was maybe close to my name, Jonah Rich, Jonathan Riches, and my age. I’m from Philadelphia. Other than that, everything I told him was complete bullshit.

I was telling him I was going to rallies I’ve never even been to. I was Googling Trump rallies from 2017 to get the time and month right so I could spit it out to him. He did ask me on the phone, “OK, so who’s your parents?” I’m also looking up the white pages and I just find some family [in Philadelphia] linked to a guy named Jonah Rich in their 60s. I shot him off their names so it backed me up.

How long was the story up?

The next day, I put a Facebook post up that said, “Haha, look at this, I trolled them.” And then that evening it was gone.

[Trump] knows what he’s doing. I think he’s trolling the presidency, to be honest. For what reason? I think he’s just getting a kick out of this, man.

In terms of effective trolling, how important is it for you to do things in person?

It’s like testing my own boundaries, testing my own limits. My next troll is I’m gonna start running for political office. Like mayor, city councilman, sheriff in different elections. Like mock campaigns.

Getting out diversifies my craft, it gives me confidence to do these feats. And I like to try to test the limits.

Social media has made it much easier to troll, right?

I think the tools are available now that can be exploited and it’s easy to get that message spread. The disinformation that I want, I can put out there. The next mass shooting, before they identify the shooter, I can set up 10 Twitter accounts looking like news sites and then create whoever I want as the shooter, and then use the other news sites to retweet that. Vulnerable, gullible people will see that, they think it’s from a news site and then they will copy it and tweet it out.

Whenever there’s disasters, I also set up Facebook groups and then just thousands flock into the groups. I encourage everyone to basically fight each other. I don’t censor anything.

Is Facebook aware of the groups?

Facebook is aware. Every single tragedy that happened in this country since, I would say, 2015, I got a group set up in that topic. I can create fake Facebook accounts under people’s names so I can be anonymous. If a mass shooting happens, I’ll create a video real quick and put whoever I want to identify as the mass shooter, put some music, photo edit it real quick and then throw it up on BitChute because I know that will be the searched word.

People think of trolling in a negative way for good reason, but can trolling have a positive effect?

I think if someone trolls, I think they should expose their troll to bring awareness. When I troll something and troll events, I go on my Facebook page and talk about the troll. Kind of like informing everyone what I’ve done. One, to brag, but also to wake people up. It provokes thought. It plugs the loopholes.

What do you believe, underneath all this? Do you have any firm beliefs? What are your politics?

I’m just an atheist from a Christian family. I don’t practice any religion. I don’t hate anyone for their religion. I might pretend I [belong to] a religion but not to disrespect it.

What about your politics?

I made a choice: Whoever’s in power, that’s who I’m going to support. I just try to go with the flow. Obviously, I was in prison and I strongly believe in criminal justice reform.

Do you think Donald Trump is a troll?

I would consider him the king troll. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what to say to provoke attention. He’s a showman. I think he’s trolling the presidency, to be honest. For what reason? I think he’s just getting a kick out of this, man. This might be some sort of bigger thing. Maybe with Russia or something. Create division. Because there’s no unity in this country. It’s getting more and more divided.

I don’t know what the future’s gonna be like. I just think that 2019 is going to be a bloody political [mess], right before the election again. It’s gonna be tense, man. And it depends on what Trump trolls around and tries to excite everybody with. I just know whatever is going on, I’m gonna be trolling. Whatever breaking news, you can expect me to troll it.

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