The article ArsTechnica wrote about “Hacker X” (Robert Willis) seemingly coming clean about his involvement in election disinformation with the goal of electing Trump in 2016 is atrocious. It’s nothing but a cheap attempt at reputation laundering, and it’s sprinkled with right-wing chan-style talking points to the extent that nearly everything should be considered extremely suspect.
It’s gaining momentum primarily because in the first section are these saucy nuggets:
Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people’s perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.
“Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar,” the hacker told me recently. “This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it.”
This is catnip to a few different groups and it’s being shared as if it’s a definitive source that Russia didn’t have any involvement in the election disinformation machine at all – this is not at all what was actually said. The quote is very deliberately chosen to be easily taken out of context – Republicans who want to deny any possible Russian involvement at all, leftists sick of liberals blaming every disinfo campaign on Russia, and so on. As you read this article you have to keep in mind that all this info and framing is coming from someone extremely well versed in disinformation. ArsTechnica itself is a tech news outlet owned by Condé Nast built for clicks and engagement, while they should have a much better grasp of disinformation and online communities which power them (such as the -chan sites) they apparently do not.
The article continues to setup Robert’s authority and paint him as some kind of highly ethical person by talking about his attachment to Sakura Samurai (an “ethical hacking” group). Responsibly disclosing vulnerabilities doesn’t magically make you an ethical person, especially considering the rest of the content of the article.
Some in the information security community might know “Rob” today as an active member who speaks at conferences and works with the Sakura Samurai ethical hacking group. (The Sakura Samurai have, on many occasions, responsibly disclosed vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government and private entities.
He then goes on to brag about SEO skills, which anyone in the industry knows is an absolute cesspool.
Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had gained an extensive technical skill set in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship, and management. He knew how to take advantage of search engine algorithms, once, he said, getting a random phrase to the No. 1 spot on one engine within 24 hours. “Many will say this is/was impossible, but I have the receipts,” he said, “and so do other credible people.”
He describes a weirdly secretive interview process which isn’t necessarily relevant here, though they should have been gigantic warning signs to begin with. The interview process continues and starts dropping major red flags.
Then the interview took a political turn. “They told me that they were against big companies and big government because they are basically the same thing,” Willis said. They said they had readers on the right and the left. They said they were about “freedom.” That sounded OK to Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—”very punk rock, borderline anarchist.”
There’s your first right wing dogwhistle – “social liberal and fiscal conservative.” That has never translated to anything other than “I’m a right wing person who doesn’t want to admit it.” If you’re skeptical, it becomes pretty explicit in the following text:
Then the interviewers told him, “If you work for us, you can help stop Hillary Clinton.”
“I hated the establishment, Republicans, and Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was as establishment as it got and was the only candidate that was all but guaranteed to be running on the main ticket in the future 2016 cycle,” said Willis. “If I were to choose a lesser evil at the time, it would have, without a doubt, been the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city due to the Democrats literally destroying my previous home state. It felt like good revenge.”
This is a textbook example of someone stuck squarely in the alt-right pipeline, and that in and of itself should be a huge red flag to any journalist who’s got even a passing familiarity with the alt-right in the US. However, it’s not even mentioned until the very end of the article, and even then it’s just handwaved away.
Willis says he had no indication that the company that was about to recruit him was extreme or would become so in the future. In his perception, the company was just “investigative” with regard to its journalism.
This is an absolute lie. The entire premise and goal of the org was extreme, obvious to anyone else. The crazy layers of secrecy and weird interview process even supported this fact – he just didn’t care.
The article then goes on to talk about medical hoaxes and the amount of cash that rolled in on the backs of highly motivated and gullible targets.
The owners of Koala Media reeled in good money at the time. Koala’s main site covered “health” topics and hawked supplements and alternative cures. A tiny front-page ad would bring in $30,000 a month, Willis tells me, with mailing lists enriching the Koala Media empire further.
“Getting highly targeted individuals to sign up was huge for financial gain,” he said. “[Koala] would advertise products directly to individuals and sell thousands of them at a time.”
Emails were sent out twice a week, one promoting a sale and the other some new product. Additionally, affiliate links and virtual event promotions garnered further income in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” range for a single opportunity.
This is, again, textbook right wing shit. Alex Jones slings supplements. Joe Rogan slings supplements. QAnon influencers sling supplements. Anti-vax groups sling supplements and similar fake “cures.” This is in no way new or novel and should have been acknowledged and addressed, but again the article does not do so. They try to absolve Willis of any responsibility in these actions because he (supposedly) personally didn’t believe the harmful and inaccurate nonsense that the organization was pumping out – again a hallmark of the alt-right.
“What saved me was a couple [of Koala Media] employees,” he added. “One came into my office and closed the door and looked at me and said, ‘You don’t actually believe this stuff, do you?’ and I let out a sigh of relief when I said, ‘God, no’—and laughed. It became an ongoing joke.”
Forgive me for not laughing.
From that moment onward, the hacker and office staff would joke about the stuff they were being assigned to write—like a conspiracy-laden writeup on “chemtrails” or a piece on “lemons curing cancer”—thinking that only a small “ultracrazy” percentage of readers actually believed what was being written.
We then move into the explicitly political section of this media company, where a clear shift to conspiracy theories made up out of thin air just to attack democrats and Clinton in order to push people towards Trump.
Toward the end of 2015, more and more pro-Trump stories started emerging on Koala. But after Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, the focus shifted heavily toward anti-Clinton stories. During this time, Koala’s already-loose editorial standards relaxed even further. Stories became increasingly bizarre or opinionated. Citations that did exist were often placed in a misleading manner, misconstruing the linked stories or pointing to existing stories in the Koala webring, making it hard for readers to fact-check the material. The “search bar” on these news sites even took users to a search engine created by Koala; it showed stories from “independent media,” i.e., sites from the webring. Pieces that ran during this crucial period claimed, among other things, that Clinton had plans to “criminalize” gun owners, to kill the free press, to forcefully “drug” conservatives, to vaccinate people against their wills, to euthanize some adults, and to ban the US flag.
They cultivated a base of users knowingly susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories and explicitly setup a system to trap them in an echo chamber that pretended to be multiple sites which hid their affiliation to one another. This is outright vile but is again just glossed over by ArsTechnica. They actually try to shift blame to other platforms like Facebook instead which, although culpable, does not in any way release “Koala” or Willis from their part in this horrific effort. Willis instead opts for the Nuremburg defense.
Yet Facebook, which directed plenty of traffic to Koala, never cut the site off. In the two years of the operation that Willis oversaw, Facebook banned only one of Koala’s posts, Willis said.
Through it all, Willis did what he was hired to do: he put his technical skills in the service of boosting Koala’s reach—by any means possible.
This is the antithesis of being a hacker/hacker culture, something that should be especially obvious to a tech news outlet, but again is not addressed at all by ArsTechnica.
“I oversaw everything and even had stacks of SIM cards purchased with cash to activate different sites on Facebook since it was needed at that point in time,” admitted Willis. “Every website had a fake identity I made up. I had them in a sheet where I put the name, address, and the SIM card phone number. When I accessed their account I created on Facebook, I would VPN into the city I put them in as living in. Everything attached to a website followed these procedures because you needed to have a ‘real’ person to create a Facebook page for the websites. We wanted no attachment, no trace of the original source. If anyone were to investigate who owned a page, they would be investigating a fake person.”
When you are buying SIMs with cash and creating tons of fake identities to push misinformation with the specific intent of hiding the actual source, you are the bad guy. There’s no grey area here.
The article goes on to describe the posting schedule and how it was optimized for engagement, posting different types of content at different times to hook readers. However, buried in this section is a one-two punch of dogwhistling and blame-dodging:
As Willis puts it, this all felt “like playing a video game and getting new high scores to me. I did not think of the readers as people but more like background characters in a video game.
This is straight out of the alt-right playbook. Again, Willis chose his words very carefully because he knows that if he mentioned “NPCs” then more people would immediately make this connection. He instead uses the circuitous path of calling them “background characters in a video game.” That way it’s not obvious, and if someone (rightfully) became curious and started searching the article for keywords it wouldn’t pop up. Then the blame dodge that infuriates me the most:
I am neurodiverse and have major issues with understanding empathy due to my condition. Crunching numbers is something I love to do; these were numbers I wanted to go up, and I would do it with no emotional attachment to the material or people.”
Never in a million years is this an appropriate explanation or in any way responsible for his actions. Neurodivergence is presented as another excuse on top of the pile of excuses Willis uses to try to weasel out of any responsibility of his actions. Willis posted his own blog post briefly mentioning his own ADHD and Asperger’s diagnosis, seemingly only in the context of identifying someone else he suspected of having a similar situation. As someone who shares a similar story, I’m disgusted at the insinuation that it’s in any way responsible or contributed to his reckless actions.
Willis and his army of fake news editors knew that millions of Americans targeted by their pro-Trump and anti-Clinton propaganda were real people who actually showed up to vote. “There were other pro-Trump news organizations,” Willis told me, “but nothing was built [as] extreme as ours. We had without a doubt contributed to Donald Trump winning the presidency.”
This again reflects the goal, and the fact that everyone involved knew they were explicitly part of a disinformation campaign intended to swing the results of an election. You don’t get to go “oops lol my bad” after that. ArsTechnica instead tries to spin a narrative where Willis supposedly found a conscience.
By the end, Willis was hoping that he and his team would be caught, that someone would be able to connect the dots. But it didn’t quite happen.
By 2017, after being with the fake news farm for nearly two years, Willis couldn’t take it anymore. “I had a soul-searching moment and money in the bank and decided what I liked doing most was hacking, and I wanted to get back to it. So I decided to get a job in the security industry as a hacker,” he said.
Deciding you made enough money and taking a different job isn’t a soul-searching moment. It doesn’t make you a good person, it doesn’t repair the acutal tangible harm you’ve caused.
“He knew he should talk about the system he had helped to build. “I helped contribute to the monster of fake news,” he said. “I knew I had a responsibility to be a whistleblower on what exactly went down—even though the network I helped build looks like a shell of its former self, especially after they’ve been banned from basically every platform, along with other ‘alternative’ news outlets.””
Here ArsTechnica tries to spin what Willis began to do as whistleblowing. That is not in any way what’s happening here. You want to actually blow the whistle? Name names. What’s actually being done here is twofold. First, Willis is trying to spin his own narrative and launder his reputation to preserve an air of credibility in the infosec space. Second, he’s trying to make it look like he’s a hero for explaining the disinformation campaign.
There’s one problem with that – this is literally nothing new. The formula here for what he’s done is not new, it’s not novel, and it’s not clever. There are tons of disinformation experts that, when asked how a typical campaign works, would lay out a high level overview that matches Koala’s entire operation to a T. The article almost makes this point when describing Theresa Payton’s communications with Willis during their factfinding meeting when asking Willis what he looked like.
Without ever laying eyes on him—as his video was turned off during our first interview—I ask if he would let me guess what he looks like. He laughs heartily, thinking I’ll never guess correctly. Based on our two hours speaking and my profiling skills, I hazard a guess. “You’re a five-ten to six-foot twentysomething male. Earnest-looking face, perhaps—someone who could be in a J. Crew or Brooks Brothers ad or lacrosse-team picture of an Ivy League school.”
“Wow!” his handler says. “That description was stunningly accurate.”
There’s a reason why this guess was accurate. And yet again, no actual examination of that fact beyond simply acknowledging it as “an interesting detail.” Payton’s book also has more hints of right-wing tendencies shining through, while at the same time downplaying them.
Hacker X quietly adds, “I gave up almost two years of my life serving the cause.” Not once does he mention anything about “moral values.” I have no idea if Hacker X is religious; he never says anything racial, bigoted, anti-immigrant, or antigay.
He does demonstrate a deep dislike for the “elites” and for Hillary Clinton, repeatedly using the phrase “destroy Hillary”; otherwise, he seems to generally love his fellow Americans and all walks of life.
Again, this is absolutely emblematic of someone caught in the alt-right pipeline whether they want to admit it or not. This is not a sane or measured objection to a candidate or even a political party – this is the exact kind of destructive sentiment that the alt-right tries to instill in the people caught in its web. The article then weakly tries to shift towards the motivation of Willis coming forward now, but does it in a completely non-confrontational way. It’s as if they are a traditional news outlet reprinting a police department’s press release as the truth.
Willis admits the decision to join Koala Media was at least partially motivated by political revenge, but based on my understanding from people who have known Willis, he isn’t actually “right wing.” Willis isn’t a Democrat or even a proper Republican, his handler Stephenson tells me. He’s just antiestablishment. Willis’ self-proclaimed title—”original punk rock right-wing millennial”—aptly describes his ideology.
There is nothing less punk rock than the American right-wing. There is little less in line with the hacker ethos than the American right-wing either, for that matter. Yet this is completely unchallenged. They then try to distance Willis from the right wing machine under the guise that he grew up in poverty, knew gay people, was the only white kid on his bus – all extremely common right wing dodges of accountability.
The hacker says that he comes from a place of poverty, though as a child he was never aware of it. “I had a unique upbringing; I was poor but didn’t know it when I was young,” he said. “I remember that I wasn’t allowed to cross the street since my neighbors were crackheads. I grew up around the gay community from a young age with gay relatives. My schoolmates and friends were very diverse since I was just outside New York City. I was always very open-minded and accepting of everyone. I was the only white kid on my bus. I grew up as diverse as one could imagine.”
This is actually not a unique upbringing, these are not get out of jail free cards, and yet they’re presented as such with no pushback. The story then quickly diverts into “but that’s not why he joined Koala!” Then why would this info be presented here, right before this attempt at justification rather than at the introduction?
But poverty isn’t what fueled his journey into the secretive Koala empire. Rather, what seemed like a “fun-sounding job” came his way years after he had already left Connecticut and a life of poverty behind.
So for those paying attention, he’s claiming that he took the job for the money but at the same time wasn’t fueled by money. Sure.
He claims remorse and insists this is the real reason he came forward:
Prior to approaching me, Willis had disclosed his history with fake news farms to his family, hoping to undo the brainwashing done by these websites. Unfortunately, it was too late. To this day, Willis’ father does not believe the hacker’s story, Willis said, adding, “He has been too manipulated.”
This is one of the only things I can truly believe in the article. Willis didn’t come forward because he felt sorry about what he’d done. He doesn’t feel bad about what he created, all of the horrible things that came about as a part of his organized disinformation campaign, lives shattered and lost. No, he finally spoke up once the consequences reached his personal doorstep. Just like the rest of the right-wing he swears up and down he isn’t a part of. Also, again, if he was actually sorry and wanted to be an actual whistleblower then he should name names and do the work necessary to not only get himself out of the alt-right pipeline but also dismantle it. I won’t be holding my breath.
Willis is free to call himself whatever he wants, and he’s free to try and spin things however he’d like and chase clout. I’m not an authority on hacker culture, I’m just some random person with some SDRs and an ear on the cops, but in my opinion the last thing we should do as a community is fold our hands and let someone like this weasel their way back in after an admission like this and pretend everything’s fine. He’s not punk rock, he’s not a hacker, he’s a right wing asshole (evidenced by his actions, regardless of his words) who had a massive, tangible, negative effect on the weaponization of disinformation globally. Don’t let him weasel out of taking full responsibility.