Researchers working to expose Russia's undue influence on American affairs have labeled the viral news website Ending the Fed a tool of the Kremlin's propaganda efforts.
Inc. exclusively revealed last week that the website, the source of many of the most-shared news hoaxes benefiting Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election, is operated by Ovidiu Drobota, a 24-year-old based in Romania. Drobota told Inc. he created the website in hopes it would help Trump get elected, and he explicitly denied any connection to Russia.
Ending the Fed's viral headlines were Liked and shared millions of times on Facebook in the final few months of the election. It was behind four of the 10 most shared hoax stories on Facebook in the three months before November 8, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed. The site's erroneous or baseless claims included reports that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump, that Hillary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS, and that Clinton had been disqualified from holding federal office.
Those false reports bore the distinct hallmarks of Russian propaganda, according to the website PropOrNot, whose creators identify themselves as "an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including professional experience in computer science, statistics, public policy, and national security affairs."
In a November 16 post listing websites that have contributed to the success of Russian "influence operations" around the globe, PropOrNot called Ending the Fed a "minor source" and "major repeater" of the Vladimir Putin regime's propaganda. The post singled out as an example of what it calls "absurd pro-Russia content" a September 17 Ending the Fed story headlined "Vladimir Putin Escapes New World Order Assassination Attempt." The first paragraph of the story states, "Brave Vladimir Putin was the subject of a failed assassination attempt in Moscow as the New World Order attempted to silence their most formidable enemy."
According to PropOrNot, most pro-Russian fake news on the internet originates with a few dozen outlets and then spreads through a much larger network of "repeaters" and their social media accounts. PropOrNot has identified 18 websites that act as both sources and repeaters.
The group says its criteria for flagging websites are "behavioral," meaning it does not claim to know the motives or affiliations of the website operators behind the fake headlines. "Some people involved seem genuinely unaware that they are being used by Russia to produce propaganda, but many others seem to know full well," the group writes. It analyzed both content and technical factors in making its determinations; some explanation of methodology can be found in a lengthy report published Friday.
A spokesman for the volunteer organization told Inc. its members do not wish to have their names appear in print; The Washington Post reports that they fear becoming targets of sophisticated pro-Russian hackers. Critics of PropOrNot, like Fortune's Mathew Ingram and Katrina van den Heuvel of The Nation, say the group sacrifices credibility by remaining anonymous and has flagged a number of well-regarded news sites as propaganda.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that PropOrNot and the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Research Institute both attribute the flood of so-called fake news, or hoax and misleading headlines, during the 2016 election to an elaborate Russian propaganda campaign aimed at sowing distrust in the American political system and undermining public consensus.
Clinton Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says Ending the Fed falls into a "gray" category of propaganda. While "white" propaganda outlets, like RT, publicly affiliate with the Kremlin, "gray" outlets either conceal their ties or repeat propaganda claims based on shared affinities rather than allegiance. The latter include so-called "useful idiots" who serve Russian interests without realizing it, even when they operate in a different part of the ideological spectrum.
An FPRI report in national security magazine War on the Rocks says contemporary gray tactics differ from those used during the Cold War. "Today, gray measures on social media include conspiracy websites, data dump websites, and seemingly credible news aggregators that amplify disinformation and misinformation," the report states.
When this Inc. reporter contacted Drobota via Twitter last week to confirm he was running Ending the Fed, he insisted, without being asked, that he was not working on behalf of Russia.
"I am not related with the Trump campaign. I am just a Trump supporter," he wrote in a direct message. "I don't like to be in public because a lot of liberals calls me a racist, which I am not. I have a lot of Facebook messages. They are harassing me. I also don't have any relation with Russia or WikiLeaks. Just to be clear."
Meanwhile, Inc. has also confirmed that Drobota was operating a site targeting Romanians with misinformation, called Expunere, meaning "exposure." The site runs stories that are "half true, half hoax, and that makes them believable," according to a Romanian journalist who first reported on Drobota in March.
"And, yes, there's a long list of websites who do this reporting about, I don't know -- stuff that doesn't exist," Simina Codruta, who reports for Romanian daily news website PressOne, tells Inc. She estimated between 20 and 30 such sites are targeting Romanians.
Expunere dates to May 2015, according to a WHOIS lookup. It appears to be down as of the writing of this story. Ending the Fed remains active.
Asked last week by Inc. if Expunere was his site, Drobota told Inc., "Yes. It is mine. But that should not be in this story." The site was active at that time, but now displays only the message "This page is under construction. Please come back soon!"
Responding Friday morning to a request for comment about Expunere for this story, he told Inc. in a Facebook message, "I am not interested in giving more interviews. But thanks anyway."
Codruta said she made the connection earlier this year between Drobota and Expunere on Facebook, where he identified himself in one of his Facebook profiles as the founder of the site. He later removed reference to the site from the profile, she said. She had been reporting a story about a viral video that had been posted on Expunere and other sites.
Drobota also told her he worked with a relatively new political party in Romania called Partidul Noua Romanie, or New Romania Party, for which Codruta reported he manages online communications.
Inc. found last week that Drobota was maintaining six personal Facebook profiles, in violation of the social media platform's guidelines. Facebook confirmed Friday it had removed duplicate profiles belonging to Drobota. As of the writing of this story, Inc. located only one personal profile for him as well as one public figure profile.
The banner photo of Drobota's public figure page is a picture of Trump with the slogan "TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT."
Facebook did not provide further comment on the report in The Washington Post or on Drobota's role with Expunere, noting that the company was closed Friday and that people were on vacation.
A Facebook page titled Expunere.com that shares links from the site has roughly 281,600 Likes. Another page titled Chestionare Auto DRPCIV, which has more than 13,300 Likes, also frequently posts links from Expunere. Drobota confirmed last week that he ran the Chestionare page, and he said the page pertained to education. "Chestionare" translates to "questionnaire."
Ending the Fed and Expunere operate similarly. Both sites post content that appears on numerous other websites.
Prior to its going offline, Expunere featured an article disputing the timing and circumstances of Adolf Hitler's death.
"History Television has made a startling investigation, based on evidence the FBI. The film shows how Hitler fled through a secret tunnel beneath Berlin," reads a Google Translate version of the subheadline.
Citing a British publication called Express, the story continues that Hitler "traveled on a submarine Nazi to Spain where he spent the rest of his life plotting the formation of the Fourth Reich in the Argentine jungle," according to a Google Translate version of the text.
Historians agree Hitler killed himself at the end of World War II in 1945, and Germany subsequently surrendered to the Allied forces.
The headline on a cached version of another Expunere story reads, according to Google Translate, "God help us: the US is moving its nuclear weapons from Turkey to Romania." Citing a website called EurActiv, the story cautions, "The movement of the United States to bring nuclear weapons in Romania could create new tensions with Russia."
The claim had also been picked up by Russian media outlets Sputnik and Pravda, according to Foreign Policy, which concluded "there doesn't seem to be any basis at all for the report."
Watts of FPRI says the fact that Drobota was targeting both Romanians and Americans with propaganda "just points more to attribution" to Russia, he tells Inc. "Why would he care about both of those audiences? There's only one nation-state that does: Russia."