The last thing I expected when I went to bed on Monday, Aug. 31, was to wake up to a slew of reporters requesting an interview with me. But that’s exactly what happened once news broke that the website Peace Data was connected to the notorious Russian-based and Vladimir Putin-linked Internet Research Agency. I had contributed an article to Peace Data in June, and once the shock wore off, I searched for information that might explain what happened.
I soon learned that Facebook and Twitter had removed a number of profiles linked to Peace Data after receiving an FBI tip alleging the website was tied to the Internet Research Agency. The IRA was identified in 2016 and again in 2018 as a company employing numerous fake social media accounts in order to stir dissent among U.S. voters and influence American elections.
The House Intelligence Committee refers to the IRA as a “Kremlin-linked ‘troll farm’” and Russia has been on Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” list since 2014. Allegedly, Peace Data was working on behalf of the IRA to attract a left-leaning, progressive audience and divide it by promoting negative claims against the Democratic ticket in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Through additional research, I saw headlines calling the journalists who had written articles for Peace Data “gullible” and looking for “easy money.” I saw reports alleging the ways the freelancers learned of the opportunity, what they were told and how much they earned, all containing misinformation. Even some of the most well-researched articles from some of the most credible publications didn’t capture the full picture as I now know it.
A New Opportunity
In June, I was contacted via LinkedIn by an “Alice Schultz.” While it’s not everyday that I receive a random contact from a potential client offering work, it wasn’t the first time it happened, and my longest client relationship was established in precisely that manner. Plus, LinkedIn is a place where I market myself ― the entire reason I am a member is to attract potential clients.
The information on the user’s LinkedIn profile was thorough and checked out ― at the time. I even conducted a reverse image search to be sure it wasn’t a stolen identity, and the only instances of her photo were on her social media accounts and on the Peace Data website.
Schultz explained she was reaching out on behalf of Peace Data, and she described it as a new online publication dedicated to telling stories that larger publications ignore. The articles I found on the site at that time supported that goal, and Peace Data stories conveyed a variety of positions.
According to Peace Data’s website, it “focused on armed conflicts, corruption, environment crisis, abuse of power, activism and human rights.” In other words, a freelance journalist’s dream. The fact that the site was fairly new wasn’t too concerning to me. After all, some of the most popular online publications started out as small, independent websites in the not-so-distant past. The only question that remained unanswered was who funded the site, but Schultz assured me that it was financed through private donations.
Journalistic writing is my passion, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Those earnings have traditionally come from online web content for both domestic and international businesses, and those jobs have all but ceased for me since the global pandemic began earlier this year. As a result, the opportunity to be paid to write about topics that really matter to me ― and the world ― was incredibly appealing.
Schultz asked me my rate, and she agreed to my offer: an amount far more than the maximum $75 or $100 per article that Peace Data has been reported to pay. In fact, the rate was in line with my best-paying clients. Still, I spent a good deal of time constructing the article and wouldn’t call it anything close to “easy money.”
Schultz asked me to write about a specific topic: the recent attacks on U.S. journalists. Schultz asked for the article to be objective and filled with facts ― not a request I would have expected from someone looking for propaganda. Had Peace Data presented as a publication pushing bias and rhetoric, I would not have become involved. In fact, the resulting product is an article I would stand by today if it appeared in a reputable publication.
Red Flags Emerge
Peace Data published the article as written and even paid ahead of time. There hadn’t been a single red flag ... until after publication. Schultz had given wholly positive and enthusiastic feedback about my article, and she expressed interest in a pitch I’d offered. Then ... crickets. While we had been in steady contact before, she never replied to me again, and her LinkedIn profile was deactivated.
I contacted Peace Data by messaging its primary Twitter account, asking about Schultz and the pitches I had submitted. I received a single reply from “Alex Lacusta” informing me that there was a known issue with Peace Data’s LinkedIn accounts, which they were working to resolve. He also said they had stopped accepting pitches for the present time, which seemed odd for a fledgling publication.
Upon learning of the announcements from Facebook and Twitter that linked Peace Data to the IRA, I contacted Peace Data through its primary email address. I received a prompt reply expressing the editorial board’s shock and dismay.
“These accusations are false, and the whole situation is nothing but a direct attack on free speech and independent journalism,” wrote the email’s author, who did not sign their name. Based on my concerns, they added, they removed my name from the contributors list.
Oddly, I hadn’t requested that my name be removed, although I gladly accepted it. Even stranger, when I pulled up the “About Us” section of peacedata.net to confirm my name was removed, I saw the entire page had been taken down since I’d looked at it just a couple of hours earlier. The site no longer identified any of its principle players.
When I replied to Peace Data’s email, I informed the recipient that I would love nothing more than to provide readers of the article I wrote for Peace Data proof that the allegations against the site were false. I asked who funds Peace Data, and I asked what happened to Schultz and the LinkedIn accounts. I received no further communication.
The Peace Data team did provide an additional response to the allegations in a post to its website, which has since been removed. In it, the team said, “We perceive this is a declaration of an all-out war against Peace Data and we’re prepared to put up a fight.”
The writer took to task Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, Nathaniel Gleicher, and even the FBI. The article characterized Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as miserly, accumulating wealth amid a falling economy, and it accused him of unethical collaborations and prideful associations with “monstrous figures” like Donald Trump. It definitely wasn’t the response one would expect from an outlet claiming journalistic integrity.
The post went on to attack several major publications that have covered the story, and accused the FBI of creating a “sham” in order to demonstrate its “hard work and justify millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on the expensive actions of combatting foreign influence.”
Peace Data even claimed it was “supported by our own finances,” as well as contributions from readers. I asked Peace Data to explain who “our” was, and again received no response. Likewise, the post offered no evidence backing any of its claims.
Looking for Answers
New York-based network analysis firm Graphika, however, offered plenty of evidence that Peace Data was lying. In its Sept. 1 report “IRA Again: Unlucky Thirteen,” Graphika provided a full analysis of the website.
According to Graphika:
The personas of Peace Data’s editorial team, listed on its “About Us” page before it was taken down, were artificial-intelligence-generated profile pictures. Whereas stolen photos can be identified more easily through a basic search, the AI-generated avatars were far more convincing to the freelance writers contacted by Peace Data editors and recruiters. Graphika even acknowledged that this was the first time it has observed an IRA-linked account using generated avatars in this manner.
Peace Data only began publishing in December 2019, and its Facebook profile was not established until May. The organization failed to gain significant traction, with many posts receiving only single-digit engagement figures.
The Peace Data strategy built on the trend of IRA-associated groups using fewer yet more convincing accounts to accomplish its goals. While the IRA ran thousands of accounts between 2014 and 2017, the Peace Data operation relied on just 13 accounts and two pages on Facebook, and Graphika identified about the same number between Twitter and LinkedIn. The fake personas, such as Schultz, were maintained across platforms to amplify their legitimacy. Another of the fake personas included Alex Lacusta, mentioned above. The online personas had even accumulated their own friends and followers.
While Peace Data allegedly existed to influence U.S. elections, very few of its posts ― only about 5% of all English-language articles on the site ― dealt with the U.S. election or its candidates. Many articles had no relation to U.S. politics at all. A Sept. 2 search of the entire site resulted in 20 pages of articles mentioning “Trump,” compared to just two pages of articles mentioning “Biden.” “Harris” was only referenced in six articles.
Graphika then noted that Peace Data’s “English-language content on Biden and Harris was noteworthy for its hostile tone,” and pointed to a specific article that accused the Democratic nominees of “submission to right-wing populism.” The article I wrote, on the other hand, did nothing to support these goals.
It since has been suggested that articles like mine were used to legitimize the site and give the impression it wasn’t biased. Later, however, the Peace Data team, whoever they are, took down all content from the site, save another unprofessional message on what was its homepage.
Still, the entire situation left more questions than answers. As time went by, Peace Data’s explanations ultimately shined an entirely unprofessional light on its efforts. It has grown clearer by the day that the allegations against the website have far more support than any remaining defense. Even clearer, the IRA’s efforts to mislead have grown more sophisticated, and the freelancers involved were far from gullible for participating in the scheme.
Just because we weren’t gullible, however, doesn’t mean I couldn’t have taken additional actions to verify the authenticity of the offer. I’m now aware that I’ll probably need to use more advanced detection methods as time passes. Instead of sticking to a basic investigation and moving ahead, I’ll need to keep up to date on the latest ways organizations like Peace Data and other “catfishing” type efforts are disguising their identities ― as should everyone else.
But if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that even the best verification efforts can quickly become ineffective, and both content creators and content consumers will need to remain hypervigilant about attempts to mislead and misuse.
A native of southern Missouri, Samantha Lile is a successful web content creator with a journalism and mass media degree from Missouri State University. She contributes to various web publications from her home in the beautiful Ozarks, where she resides with her husband, three dogs and one cat.