Sasha #Resister. Maria #TheResistance. Elena #Resist. These are just a few of the names listed on the hundreds of Twitter accounts causing drama in the past few months. Each account’s feed has identical tweets promoting liberal news articles from VegasHill, LuxuryPolitics, HillPress, Epolitico, ShareDoom, and dozens of other politics blogs you've never heard of. It shouldn't surprise you that these Twitter accounts are not real people, they’re bots. Of course, following the FBI indictment of 13 Russian nationals who attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election, there’s reason to believe the Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, is up to its old tricks. But you can’t just see every Internet bot and chalk it up to them. In fact, there’s still plenty of reason to stir up political discord online that have nothing to do with actual political outcomes: making money off of Americans’ willingness to believe anything they see online is becoming a real cottage industry abroad. And this most recent example, which stirred the ire of several high-profile Twitter users and news outlets, can be traced to a single Indonesian person: "Tari Pujowati" of Semarang, Indonesia. Pujowati has no political affiliations or motivations, no backers or oversight; they just saw an opportunity to make some money.
Foreigners have discovered that there is a lot of money in U.S. news, thanks to the current political landscape. Much has been made of the Macedonian teenagers who made a living off their news websites filled with fake news and clickbait headlines in 2016. They gamed search engines and social media to the tune of roughly 15 times the average $371 salary in Macedonia. Paul Horner, an American writer who ran similar websites, was extremely successful at leveraging political froth for financial gain. In 2016, he claimed to be making $10,000 a month via Google ads. These type of websites became such a problem during the election season that Google claimed to ban 200 publishers in one quarter alone. However, this has done little to deter this new industry with many already preparing whatever changes they need to make in order to profit off the next U.S. election. It doesn’t take much effort from an individual person, like the one controlling the bots mentioned above, to earn a lot of attention, and thus money, just by riling a couple of high-profile Twitter users. But as long as people continue to fall for the profit-driven shouting campaigns of bots, and Twitter continues to permit the activity, it will remain a noisy place where it’s virtually impossible to figure out what is true or worth listening to.
She and others like her racked up thousands of retweets after discovering the thousands of #Resistance Twitter bots tweeting out the same link to a positive story.
There’s a certain mindset you need to understand why Jen Kirkman, a comedian with a big Twitter presence, would see coordinated tweets from the accounts mentioned above in her feed and declare the mastermind to be Russia. She and others like her racked up thousands of retweets after discovering the thousands of #Resistance Twitter bots tweeting out the same link to a positive story about Bernie Sanders and the bill he was introducing to cease U.S. funding of the war in Yemen. Since the FBI indictment of the Internet Research Agency revealed the IRA would "promote" Sanders in an effort to drive a wedge between liberal factions in hopes of weakening Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party during the election, when users see what looks like a mass campaign to put Sanders in a positive light, they get suspicious.
Kirkman wasn't even the first to uncover these bots. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, while holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, stumbled upon these Twitter bots a month earlier when they were pushing out what Assange classified as "anti-Trump, pro-McCain stories." His right wing followers theorized that this must be a plot funded by liberal billionaire George Soros or the Democratic Party apparatus themselves.
People including self-styled expert Mike Farb, who most recently pushed the "Al Franken lost his Senate seat thanks to Twitter bots" narrative that mainstream outlets like Newsweek picked up and later retracted, have also shared their findings on these Twitter bots. Farb, who runs a website called Unhack the Vote which focuses on foreign influence in our elections, unsurprisingly backed the Russia theory. Elsewhere online, like on Steemit which has become a haven for conspiracy theorists and far right wingers who get banned from other social networks, a few people are running with the assumption that the hugely popular Occupy Democrats Facebook page are responsible for the bots.
Three possibilities come to mind:— MikeFarb (@mikefarb1) February 18, 2018
1. The tide has turned and the propaganda machine is going after Trump making the Bots considerably smarter than the GOP.
2. This goes hand in hand with Putins plan to sow discourse in our country.
Unfortunately for Assange and Kirkman and their followers, the bots they attempted to shed light on didn’t have anything to do with Russia at all. They were a simple moneymaking scheme, run by a single person.
All their tweets are the exact same because they're hooked up to IFTTT, a service that allows you to connect two apps or websites to automate various processes.
The websites mentioned earlier, like VegasHill and Epolitico, all run off of Google’s Blogger platform. They post multiple left-leaning news stories a day, but none of it is original content. Every time another website posts original content, these blogs scrape their feeds and automatically post it on their sites. This is what’s known as a content farm, specifically churning out a multitude of posts in hopes of appearing in your internet searches. The Resistance Twitter bots that initially caused the furor are set up in the same way as the blogs. All their tweets are the exact same because they're hooked up to IFTTT, a service that allows you to connect two apps or websites to automate various processes. Each automated task on IFTTT is called an applet (formerly known as a recipe), and certain applets automate the Blogger.com to Twitter workflow; the most popular one has over 35,000 accounts using it. Blogger even maintains its own official applet on IFTTT for this very automatic process. The applets allow someone to set IFTTT up so that each of these Resistance Twitter bots automatically tweets with a headline and link every time one of the blogs above posts an article. (IFTTT co-founder Alexander Tibbets confirmed in an email that this type of automation was possible.)
The majority of the content posted to the blogs come from a site called WashingtonPress.com, which is run by Occupy Democrats. I reached out to a managing editor there to confirm that Occupy Democrats have nothing to do with the Twitter accounts or the blogs. The reposting of its full original content, without proper attribution, does nothing to help its operation.
Looking at the content farm blogs, there are a few things to notice. They're all hosted on Blogger.com, using a similar blog theme, obscuring any mentions of author, owner, or contact person. The domain names are all using Whois Privacy or, as it shows for the site Epolitico.us, are listed under "Rima Bix," a person who does not exist. The address listed is connected to a company called Shipito, which provides people overseas with a U.S. address to ship packages to.
The most peculiar thing, if one is under the belief that this is a Russian or politically motivated propaganda operation, is that Google Ads fill each page throughout all the sites. Vladimir Putin certainly isn't trying to diversify his passive income stream while attempting to take down the United States of America.
Viewing the source code from the various different news blogs, I was able to reverse engineer the Google Adsense publisher code. This is a code unique to each publisher so when they embed Google Ads on their websites, Google knows who to pay. With this info, I compiled a comprehensive list of all the blogs sharing the same Adsense code. This uncovered a significant number of blogs similar in style to the U.S. news ones, but were posting Indonesian news content. As luck would have it, the Whois Privacy subscription for a few of the Indonesian website domains had lapsed, revealing the name "Tari Pujowati" of Semarang, Indonesia.
A Google search of Tari Pujowati provides us with a bit of online history; a Google Plus profile, comments in forums and blogs about making money via Adsense. But the most important confirmation is when you go through the Indonesian blogs registered to Tari, you'll eventually comes across that obscured Blogger.com profile which provides the proof of their connection to and ownership of the various U.S. politics content farm blogs in question.
Reached via email, Pujowati confirmed ownership of the blogs as well as a few other things. It seems like Tari does see herself as a bit of an activist, opening her response with "we are the wings of resistance" and claiming that she chose to use WashingtonPress.com as her blog network's source because "it has a common interest." She made it clear that she "does not like Donald Trump." However, it should be noted that one of the sites I found is a pro-Trump blog pulling articles from sites like Red State and Gateway Pundit. Also, as I sort of suspected, "Tari Pujowati" is a pseudonym. Lastly, before disappearing from my follow-up questions, Tari left me with these words: "I am not Russia."