On 18 February 2014, anti-government protesters and police clashed violently in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The fighting left at least 80 people dead and 1,000 injured. The protesters were calling for the removal of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was seen as being too close to Russia and a threat to the country’s burgeoning relationship with the EU. They got their wish: Yanukovych fled on 22 February, and a government more sympathetic to the people, and the west, was put in place. It was a bitter blow to Vladimir Putin’s hopes for greater influence in his former vassal state.
On 23 February 2014, an individual going by the name of Adam Baum registered as a commenter on the Guardian website.
Baum’s first comment, at 4.35pm GMT, is innocuous enough: an anodyne remark under a piece about the American healthcare system. Forty minutes later, though, he weighs in on a topic that will prove to be very dear to his heart.
The article is an opinion piece by the Observer’s Nick Cohen about Ukraine and Russian money-laundering. The YouTube account hosting the video Baum links to has been deleted, but it’s a fair guess, judging by the rest of his posts, that it was some conspiracy theory about TV coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which had recently finished.
Twenty-seven of his 67 comments over the next three years are devoted to the Ukraine crisis, all firmly on the side of Putin and Russia and against the west. Most of the rest are about – have you guessed already? – Brexit, and the last two, posted in January this year, are a defence of Trump and a dig at Hillary Clinton.
So what, you say? Perhaps Mr Baum is a Russian-speaking resident of eastern Ukraine. Perhaps he has every right to have an opinion on these issues. Well, this is where things get weird.
On his Guardian profile, Baum describes himself as a “political analyst and commentator” interested in “global issues”. But I could find no mention of a recognised political commentator of that name anywhere. In fact, I couldn’t find any third-party mentions of anyone called Adam Baum fitting this person’s description.
So I downloaded his profile picture and carried out a Google image search. And wouldn’t you know, the photograph doesn’t seem to depict “Adam Baum” at all, but a certain Nick Bateman, a 30-year-old male model from Canada. Moreover, you’ll notice a little black, blue and red flag superimposed on the photo. Kudos to you if you get this one in the flags round of the pub quiz, because it turns out to be the emblem adopted by the People’s Republic of Donetsk, a self-proclaimed but largely unrecognised state in eastern Ukraine almost certainly supported by Putin.
That would at least tie in with the ethnic-Russian-in-Ukraine story. But why the fake pic? And if he is in Donetsk, why, in his third Guardian comment, does he tell us this?
Note: “I’m an American.” This would all have remained a mildly baffling nothingburger, were it not for the fact that in Baum’s last comments, in January this year, he provides a link to a post … on the Facebook page of one Adam Baum.
I say Adam Baum’s Facebook page, but the chap depicted at the top (see main image) looks rather different from our Ukrainian Arizonan Canadian friend. This man, it transpires, is British model David Gandy, 37. (Hey, if you’re going to post a fake picture, you might as well set the bar high, eh?)
Now we begin to see a broader – but no less confusing – picture of Adam Baum. His bio says he is self-employed and “looking for a FaceBook Relationship with an intellectual & sexy Woman”. His friends aren’t public, but two people are listed as “family”: one an obvious fake sub-porno model account, inactive for three years, the other someone called John Ayaz, with no public details and a profile picture of the Indian actor John Abraham – another imposter.
The Facebook timeline featured more links, which in turn led to more, and more, and it soon emerged that “Adam Baum” (sometimes in his Gandy guise, sometimes as Bateman) has a presence on every social media platform you can think of. Tumblr, YouTube (35 subscribers), Twitter, Instagram, Minds.com (new “libertarian” site), Pinterest, LiveJournal, VK.com (the “Russian Facebook”), Patreon, and gab.ai, the new refuge of the alt-right since many of its chief agitators started being booted off major platforms. He runs a WordPress blog, and, until its recent suspension, had a Medium page too. He’s even, in a farcical show of completeness, got a MySpace page.
None of these accounts are quite what you’d expect, either from a middle-aged Arizonan or a Russian spy. They’re a mix of putative personal photos (mostly stock shots stolen from Greek and Turkish websites), memes, crackpot conspiracy theories, shit jokes, anti-globalist propaganda, and, disturbingly, dozens of pictures of scantily clad or naked women. In some cases very young women.
A few are outright pornographic, and one shot on his Twitter feed looked very much like a photograph of Britney Spears spattered with semen, but most are just glamour shots of borderline anorexic teenage models like the ones below. Among his “liked” pages are those of Liberty Grant, a 14-year-old singer, and Laneya Grace, a model aged 13. He’s a member of five public Facebook groups: something about Syria/Ukraine, a Putin fan page, a porn group and two pages devoted to teenage girl celebrities.
The deeper you dig, the more slippery the identity of this person or persons becomes. Baum’s English, good on the whole, is marred by the occasional serious lapse, and not of the type that a native speaker would make: “The #US Coup Junta has given the peaceful #Maidan protesters a bloodstained Fascist reputation to live down” (why hashtags on a comment? Suggestion of automation here?); “We were put here with all that we needed to be fruitful and share in with thanks for it going to are all common creator”; “From my dead cold hands”.
Halfway through his Guardian history, there’s a particularly startling moment: beneath a story about diplomatic calls leaked on YouTube, he has posted a comment entirely in Russian. Was this a drunken mistake? (Once you’ve posted a comment on the Guardian website, you can’t delete it.)
Here’s a rough translation: “I’m all for the California idea … the main problem here will be that it seems the Chinese beat you to it. Before the overthrow of the regime there, America should look closely at Cuba. Florida may be up for a referendum on secession. [laughs]) Why would Baum be interested in California? Simple: the Californian independence movement is one of a number of causes believed to be supported by Vladimir Putin in his campaign to destabilise America and Europe.
But according to Russian friends of mine, this is clumsy, unidiomatic – the sort of result Google Translate might produce. English may not be Baum’s first language, but it doesn’t seem as though Russian is either.
Of all the “personal” pictures I checked out, I could find only one that wasn’t obviously lifted from somewhere else, and that shows the One World Trade Center in New York. Not terribly helpful. He’s no tech wiz, because in three years of posting comments on the Guardian, he never figured out how to use the “link” tool.
He follows only 49 people on Twitter: radical political commentators of left and right, “alternative media” (bullshit artists), cosplayers, porn, Trump, alt-right propagandist Paul Joseph Watson, and Julian Assange. His bio links to a video on the sharing service RUTube, the Russian YouTube, showing someone apparently being shot in Ukraine in 2014. His 57,000 tweets, made at the rate of about 25 a day, are as eclectic as the rest of his output, and rarely provoke a response from any of his 2,000 followers. The most informative resource is his profile on VK.com, which describes him as a 42-year old resident of Los Angeles. Which sort of fits with some of what we’ve seen. But that just raises the question of why an LA resident has a profile on Russian Facebook in the first place.
As for life history, all we have is that bizarre reference to Arizona jail time. It seems an odd thing to make up, and since he never refers to it again (but does leave a couple of comments on stories about US jails), it seems unlikely that it’s part of some elaborate cover story. I think the individual behind Adam Baum really did serve time in prison. The event he describes took place in 1998, which would put him in his late 30s or early 40s – consistent with the VK.com bio, and in the same ballpark as Gandy.
Most perplexing of all, across all these accounts, Baum never really seems to have any meaningful interactions with anyone. His Facebook posts get no likes or responses, ditto for his tweets, and there are no comments under any of his ripped-off blogs. If he is a paid Russian shill, Putin ain’t getting much bang for his rouble. (It’s worth noting, though, that his mere six pages of comments on the Guardian site generated more than 100 pages of responses.)
I messaged the Twitter account asking him to explain who he was and why he was so interested in Ukraine, and he immediately blocked me. I sent him a message over Facebook asking the same thing; no reply came.
I have three vaguely plausible theories as to what we’re dealing with here. One, a Ukrainian national in his early 40s, now living in the States, who has maintained an interest in the motherland and swallowed a load of conspiracy tosh. Two, a seedy failed glamour photographer supplementing his income by spreading dezinformatsiya for Vlad or Robert Mercer. Or three, a full-time employee of Putin’s who inexplicably thought the best choice for his fake persona would be a kiddie fiddler.
I might be able to narrow it down if I did some more combing through his online corpus, but frankly, I don’t have unlimited time to devote to one small cog in what I now firmly believe to be a colossal propaganda machine.
Human operatives, directing automated and semi-automated accounts, are poisoning the waters of discourse with lies and propaganda, most of it directed against Muslims, liberals, and the EU. The extent of these operations is not yet clear, nor exactly who is behind them, although suspicion has alighted on Vladimir Putin, big tobacco, big sugar, and billionaire investor Robert Mercer, among others.
It’s even harder to tell just how effective the campaigns have been, but the fact that both Brexit and Trump won in defiance of virtually every prediction – Trump in exactly the electoral colleges he needed to – strongly suggests something fishy was going on.
Thing is, we all believe that we’re independent thinkers. We think we’re savvy enough to look at the available facts and form sensible opinions therefrom. But the painful fact is, not many of us are right. Many people – especially those who haven’t got the time or the inclination to look into matters for themselves – tend to go along with the majority view (or at least the consensus among their identity group – their class, their neighbours, their political party).
In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch performed an experiment in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Groups of people were given a test with one very obviously right answer and two very obviously wrong ones.
The catch was that only one person was actually being tested. The rest were plants. The surprising conclusion of the research was that if the plants all insisted on giving the wrong answer, 32% of the test subjects, instead of defending the correct solution, caved in and went with the flow. (In the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, subjects gave the wrong answer only 1% of the time.) Subsequent tests with different subjects and criteria reported the effect to be smaller, but it is undoubtedly there.
We’re all familiar with the phenomena of mass hysteria and mob mentality. When all your friends feel a certain way, there’s huge pressure, both internal and external, for you to go along with it, because you don’t wish to rock the boat, or be considered the odd one out. It’s how most cults and religions work.
I am no longer in any doubt that this is a human weakness that Vladimir Putin, or Robert Mercer, or whoever, is pulling out all the stops to exploit. If you can change the minds of 33%, or 15% – sometimes even only 2% – you can start rigging results to go your way. Remember, the Solomon Asch experiment was a relatively clear-cut issue. How much stronger could the conformity effect be if the matter at hand were something more complex and less obvious, like the relative costs and benefits of leaving the EU?
In online and telephone polls before the referendum, Remain was winning comfortably until about two weeks before the vote. The proportion of “don’t knows” held steady at about 20% for most of the campaign, narrowing to 10% immediately before the vote. The margin of victory on the day was less than 4%. What changed these waverers’ minds?
Analysis of social media activity has shown that in the final days of campaigning before the referendum, messages promoting Leave outnumbered those promoting Remain by anything from 3 to 1 to 7 to 1, depending on the platform – even though we know that younger people are far more active on social media and that young people were far more likely to vote Remain. A similar phenomenon was observed immediately prior to the US presidential elections. How many of these messages were from people like Adam Baum, and how many floating voters did they hook?
One thing’s for sure: you need to be very, very concerned about Baum and his friends. Yes, even you, Brexiters. Because the point of this barrage of misinformation was not just to help win Brexit and elect Trump. Vlad (or Bob) is not done yet. He wants our countries divided, conflicted, broken. And his efforts to turn Brit against Brit and American against American are having a side-effect: they’re destroying our reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world.
You may not be a racist Leaver, and this may not at heart be a racist nation, but because these troll armies are shouting their xenophobic tripe so loudly, other countries are starting to believe we are. EU citizens and UK nationals are leaving in droves and investment levels are through the floor. The decline in tourism to America since Trump took power is projected to cost the US around $7.5bn this year (and that estimate was made before Charlottesville). Regardless of whether Putin and Mercer achieve their long-term goals, the short-term damage could still be immense.
I was inspired to carry out this work partly by the recent sterling efforts of Mike Hind and Conspirador Noreño in outing an industrious Russian troll on Twitter, @DavidJo52951945. “David Jones”, who has over 102,000 followers including a number of Ukip MEPs and has been tweeting anti-EU, anti-immigrant propaganda for years, was finally, conclusively proven to be a Russian plant this week. (Do check out Conspirador’s highly informative and entertaining thread on it.) I would like to think that, if a few more people can start hunting down and exposing these trolls, then we can start fighting back against the tide of disinformation that’s threatening to swamp our democracies.
I don’t expect everyone to put as much time as I have into these activities. But I would ask you, when you next come across a suspicious account, not to ignore it and hope it goes away. These people aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Challenge them. Report them. Inform the photographers whose copyright they have violated. If you’re on Twitter, tweet about them, and maybe someone else will be able to take up the cudgels. Our society, our very way of life are under attack, and since our governments don’t seem willing or able to do anything about it, the job of protecting them falls to us.
UPDATE, 30/8/17: I feel vindicated. (Screenshot from the “Make Adverbs Great Again” tool, which I’ve only just discovered, that grades Twitter accounts on their likelihood of being trolls.)