Technology

“Hacker X” – the American who constructed a pro-Trump faux information empire – exposes himself

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Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

This is the story of the mastermind behind one of the largest fake news operations in the United States.

For two years he ran websites and Facebook groups spreading false stories, conspiracy theories and propaganda. Under him stood a dedicated team of writers and editors paid to produce fraudulent content – from frank jokes to political propaganda – with the ultimate goal of overturning the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing locations from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got celebrities – including Trump – to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And it led careless American citizens, including the hacker’s own father, to value fake news sources above the mainstream media.

Experts and governments may have simply put too much trust in Russia, he says, when an entire system for manipulating the perceptions and psychology of people was developed and operated in the United States.

“Russia played such a subordinate role that they weren’t even on the radar,” the hacker recently told me. “But that was normal for politicians … if you lie often enough, everyone will believe it.”

Formerly known as “Hacker X”, he’s now ready to reveal who he is – and how he did it.

The samurai

The fake news impresario who has now decided to break his silence is the “ethical hacker” Robert Willis.

Some in the information security community today may know “Rob” as an active member, speaking at conferences and working with the ethical hacking group Sakura Samurai. (The Sakura samurai have responsibly exposed vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government and private entities on many occasions. I have interacted with Rob at least twice before when I had questions about Sakura Samurai’s vulnerability reports.)

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But in 2015, Willis was just another hacker looking for an IT job. He had already received a job offer – but one more interview with a last company.

“I was thinking of not showing up for the interview,” he told me. “After all, I had just committed to another company.”

This last company was opaque – it wouldn’t reveal its name or what it was doing until Willis showed up in person. But the opacity alone was fascinating. Willis decided to do the interview.

<a href=Willis in 2017 when he was writing for the now-closed Conservative Country website.

Robert Willis

“I showed up at the location, a large company building. I was instructed to wait downstairs for someone to pick me up. The secrecy was fascinating. It may have put some people off, but I love adventure. Anyone else given information about the job, they were very excited because it was very rare to find someone like me – I had tons of random, overlapping, highly technical skills from years of wear several hats in smaller private companies. “

Prior to his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had acquired extensive technical skills in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship, and management. He once said he knew how to use search engine algorithms to get a random phrase to number 1 on a search engine within 24 hours. “Many will say this is / was impossible, but I have the receipts,” he said, “and so do other credible people.”

A man came down at the interrogation point to get him, and they took the elevator to a floor with an almost empty office. Inside, a woman was waiting next to three chairs. They all sat. His hosts finally revealed the name of their company: Koala Media. The moment felt like an orchestrated big reveal.

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“I wasn’t scared, but I was excited about how crazy it was [to be]’Willis told me. “I have listened to. I was told that there were big plans for the office I was in and that they had already hired the first writers and the editor for the new operation. “

The company’s interviewers told Willis that “everything should be built with security in mind – at extreme levels”.

Should he get the job, his main role would be to quickly grow a single, popular website already owned by Koala Media. To do this, they needed someone with Willis’ diverse abilities.

Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me that they are against big corporations and big governments because they’re basically the same thing,” Willis said. They said they had readers right and left. You said it was about “freedom”. For Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative, that sounded okay – “very punk rock, borderline anarchist”.

Then the interviewers said, “If you work for us, you can stop Hillary Clinton.”

“I hated the establishment, the Republicans and the Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was as established as it could get and the only candidate who was almost guaranteed to run on the main ticket in the future 2016 cycle,” Willis said. “If I chose a lesser evil then, it would no doubt be the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city because the Democrats were literally destroying my former home state. It felt like a good revenge. “.”

Willis says he had no evidence that the company he was trying to hire was extreme or would be in the future. In his perception, the company is only “investigative” in relation to its journalism.

When Koala offered him the job, he accepted it.

What does a content farm look like?  It's not glamorous.  This is the koala office.Enlarge / What does a content farm look like? It’s not glamorous. This is the koala office.

Robert Willis

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