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Make my mind up time

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Well it’s got to that stage where I have to decide which party I’m going to vote for in this election. There never really was any chance that I would vote Conservative. I’m not a great fan of them at the best of times. And this is certainly not the best of times for that party. I don’t like Brexit.  I don't like Johnson.  And, remarkably, I am not even sure I trust him to behave in a constitutional way.   Could he declare a state of emergency and become an effective dictator?  I am not sure I would put it past him.

So that's the easy decision.  I think that although I like a lot of what the Labour Party is talking about I have some doubts about their programme.  The biggest thing is it is just too big.  I can't see them delivering more than a tiny portion of it.  I am also dubious about their Brexit position. I can sort of see how it works logically.  I just don't think that a compromise will satisfy anyone at this stage.  The argument is going to continue.  And with possibly as many 17 million different versions of Brexit being hoped for, I can't see how it is going to end until Brexit is decisively rejected and off the table.  Another narrow election result whichever way it goes isn't going to change anything that actually matters.

I quite like a lot of what the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are saying.  The Liberal Democrat candidate turned up in town last Saturday and had a large team with her.  It looked like at least 10.  This compared to less than half a dozen with the Conservative one.  They had a lot more energy about them too - offering me a leaflet and when I didn't appear hostile inviting me to meet the candidate.  I was busy with something else unfortunately so couldn't take them up on it.

So in a safe Tory seat should I vote Lib Dem?  They were third last time, but seem to have the momentum behind them.

In fact I probably would have done, but unfortunately my purdah slipped and I ended up seeing the opinion polls the Monday before election day.  They had been grim for Labour when I tuned out of the campaign, but they seem to have got worse rather than better.   I spent some time on Twitter and for what it's worth it seemed like the Anti-Semitism story was big on there.  If that is getting through to the general public maybe it is having an effect?   Who knows, certainly not someone who has stayed away from news broadcasts for a couple of weeks.

That swung what was a tricky decision.  It is important for our democracy that Labour remains intact and a threat to the government for the foreseeable future.  My doubts about their programme and their Brexit stance don't matter if they are going to lose badly.  But it is better for the country the less badly they lose.  So Labour it is. Given where I live my vote won't count for much but at least it will add to Labour's aggregate score during the post-mortem.
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Brexit civil war will not be over by Christmas


Otto English is the pen name used by Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London.

In August 1914, Great Britain ruled over an empire the likes of which the world had never seen and one upon which the sun never set. A quarter of the earth’s population acknowledged George V as their king and Britain was the only true global superpower. If you messed with the British back then, you did so at your peril.

So when Europe erupted into war that summer and the British imperial army was mobilized to teach the upstart Kaiser Wilhelm a lesson, most people assumed the conflict would be short-lived. Britain and its allies would give the enemy a bloody nose, a few maps would be redrawn and everything would go on as before, as it always had.

Buoyed by jingoistic newspapers and patriotic fervor, volunteers descended on military recruitment offices, determined not to miss out on the fun. Cheering crowds waved the men off to war. It would “all be over by Christmas!” they said.

Only it wasn’t — nor was it for the three Christmases that followed. As the German offensive stalled, stalemate ensued and the youth of Europe set about butchering each other on the fields of Flanders and across the Continent. The consequences of the needless “Great War” ricocheted — like a rogue shell — down the course of the 20th century and into the 21st. Long, long after the Armistice of November 1918, the ramifications of that terrible conflict endured, permeating Europe’s political landscape.

Unless you have been living in the U.K. since 2016, it’s hard to fully grasp the scale of acrimony that now exists in the British Isles.

Much the same, albeit on a more localized scale, will be true of the Brexit Civil War.

Of course, to make any comparison between the U.K.’s EU referendum and one of the bloodiest events in recent history is to risk inviting the ire of the keyboard warriors. But make no mistake about it — Brexit is a war. And this time Britain has declared it upon itself. Tweets, Facebook spats and that guy who shouts “Stop Brexit” outside parliament may have taken the place of bullets, exploding ordnance and yells of “charge,” but three years in, the battle lines have barely moved and mutual enmity infuses the struggle on all sides.

And contrary to current popular wisdom, this one won’t be decided by Christmas either — or for many Christmases to come.

* * *

Unless you have been living in the U.K. since 2016, it’s hard to fully grasp the scale of acrimony that now exists in the British Isles. The result of the EU referendum seeps into everything. Brexit has turned family members and friends against each other. It suffocates the news. The country has not been so divided since the days of Oliver Cromwell, and nobody is going to kiss and make up any time soon.


In Westminster, further chaos is almost guaranteed | Photofusion/Crispin Hughes/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Three years on, this is now war for the sake of war. It has no more to do with membership of the EU than the carnage at the Somme had anything to do with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It is about winning, getting it over with, breaking the stalemate and humiliating the other side in a wretched peace accord.

So the notion that a decisive win by either Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party or the Labour Party in this month’s general election will sort out the mess is delusional. It’s too late for that. This is Britain’s Catch-22 election and every option leads to further chaos.

Say, for example, that a new U.K. government green-lights a second Brexit referendum. A win for Remain would leave Brexiteers feeling aggrieved. They would regroup and try again and quite possibly succeed again. Likewise, if the new government continues to push to leave, the growing ranks of the pro-EU movement will only continue to swell. Millions of dedicated Europhiles, energized since June 2016, will not simply roll up their blue and gold flags and stuff them in the bin — even if the country does end up quitting the Union.

Despite what the different sides may claim, most Britons haven’t budged an inch in their opinions since the start of the conflict. This is the very essence of trench warfare.

* * *

The trouble doesn’t start and end with ardent Leavers and Remainers shouting platitudes in the street, of course. The cold dead hand of Brexit touches everything.

The coming decade of uncertainty — in which the U.K. government continues to wrestle with the question of how and when and whether to leave the EU — could see the U.K. pulled apart. For supporters of a unified Ireland, Brexit is an opportunity to call for Northern Ireland to be brought back into the fold. Another push for Scottish independence by the pro-European Scottish National Party is likewise inevitable.

There’s also the not-inconsequential matter of what all of this bedlam is doing to the economy. There are still those who believe that simply leaving the EU without a deal would be a quick-fix solution to the crisis, just as there were once people who believed that God was an Englishman and that a lady called Britannia ruled the waves with a trident. The cold hard fact is that in the short term a no-deal Brexit — or indeed any Brexit — would lead to price rises of basic goods, create supply chain mayhem and sound the death knell for many small companies.

Whether we stay or leave, Britain’s reputation as a safe place to do business is well and truly sullied, and it’s unlikely it will ever truly recover.

And the economic ramifications extend way beyond the short term. Prior to 2016, the U.K. had a hard-earned, well-deserved reputation for economic stability and pragmatism. Britain was viewed as a place where business could thrive. A sensible country, with a “can do” attitude, that nurtured trade and commerce. All of that is likely to go the way of the British-built Nissan Qashqai.

In Boris Johnson, the country has had a prime minister who responded to concerns over a no-deal Brexit by literally saying: “Fuck Business.” The attitude of many of his fellow Brexiteers, in their rush to “get Brexit done,” has been similarly cavalier. Whether we stay or leave, Britain’s reputation as a safe place to do business is well and truly sullied, and it’s unlikely it will ever truly recover.

* * *

It’s not all Grinch, Grinch, Grinch though. Not every outcome of war is bad.

World War I may have destroyed Northern Europe and killed millions of people, but it did at least lead to women getting the vote in Britain, speed up the development of airplanes and create some lovely poetry. Likewise, the English Civil War of the mid-17th century may have turned father against son, caused Christmas to be canceled for a decade and visited misery on Ireland — but at least a parliamentary democracy was forged out of the event, and we were also bequeathed some lovely Restoration comedy.

Inevitably, the Brexit turmoil will have some positive side effects. The U.K.’s London-centric parliamentary democracy, for example, has long needed a good kick up the constitution, and Brexit has certainly shaken things up. Out of the chaos, new parties will inevitably emerge and some of those may seek to tackle the problems of the 21st century, rather than trying to refight the battles of the past. The new political climate could also finally rid us of the first-past-the-post electoral system that has distorted our political landscape.


Boris Johnson, the U.K.'s prime minister, has so far taken a cavalier approach to delivering Brexit | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

As Britain stumbles into the 2020s, many may even come to appreciate the jolt to their complacency that Brexit has delivered. Brexit voters might finally understand our place in Europe, come to terms with our reliance on our partners and realize that Brits are no longer citizens of a superpower that rules a quarter of the globe.

Indeed, as Brexit Christmas follows Brexit Christmas and as the nation tucks into chlorinated turkeys and a limited range of vegetables, reminiscing about all those cheap winter breaks they once enjoyed, many Britons might come to appreciate all they once had; much as the post-war 1920s generation mourned the lost world of Edwardian England.

But boy, what a way to learn a lesson!


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

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How Artists on Twitter Tricked Spammy T-Shirt Stores Into Admitting Their Automated Art Theft

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Yesterday, an artist on Twitter named Nana ran an experiment to test a theory.

Their suspicion was that bots were actively looking on Twitter for phrases like “I want this on a shirt” or “This needs to be a t-shirt,” automatically scraping the quoted images, and instantly selling them without permission as print-on-demand t-shirts.

Dozens of Nana’s followers replied, and a few hours later, a Twitter bot replied with a link to the newly-created t-shirt listing on Moteefe, a print-on-demand t-shirt service.

Several other t-shirt listings followed shortly after, with listings on questionable sites like Toucan Style, CopThis, and many more.

Spinning up a print-on-demand stores is dead simple with platforms like GearBubble, Printly, Printful, GearLaunch (who power Toucan Style), and many more — creating a storefront with thousands of theoretical product listings, but with merchandise only manufactured on demand through third-party printers who handles shipping and fulfillment with no inventory.

Many of them integrate with other providers, allowing these non-existent products to immediately appear on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, and other stores, but only manufactured when someone actually buys them.

The ease of listing products without manufacturing them is how we end up with bizarre algorithmic t-shirts and entire stock photo libraries on phone cases. Even if they only generate one sale daily per 1,000 listings, that can still be a profitable business if you’re listing hundreds of thousands of items.

But whoever’s running these art theft bots found a much more profitable way of generating leads: by scanning Twitter for people specifically telling artists they’d buy a shirt with an illustration on it. The t-shirt scammers don’t have the rights to sell other people’s artwork, but they clearly don’t care.

Once Nana proved that this was the methodology these t-shirt sellers were using, others jumped in to subvert them.

Of course, it worked. Bots will be bots.

For me, this all raises two questions:

  1. Who’s responsible for this infringement?
  2. What responsibility do print-on-demand providers have to prevent infringement on their platforms?

The first question is the hardest: we don’t know. These scammers are happy to continue printing shirts because their identities are well-protected, shielded by the platforms they’re working with.

I reached out to Moteefe, who seems to be the worst offender for this particular strain of art theft. Countless Twitter bots are continually spamming users with newly-created Moteefe listings, as you can see in this search.

Unlike most print-on-demand platforms like RedBubble, Moteefe doesn’t reveal any information about the user who created the shirt listings. They’re a well-funded startup in London, and have an obligation not to allow their platform to be exploited in this way. I’ll update if I hear back from them.

Until then, be careful telling artists that you want to see their work on a shirt, unless you want dozens of scammers to use it without permission.

Or feel free to use this image, courtesy of Nakanoart.


Nearly every reply to the official @Disney account on Twitter right now is someone asking for a shirt. I wonder if their social media team has figured out what’s going on yet.

I know I shouldn’t buy them, but some of these copyright troll bait shirts are just amazing.

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You know that scene in Home Alone 2 where Kevin gets the offended woman to deck Harry & Marv - this story reminds me of that.

Cops and spooks all over the world rely on a junk-science "walking polygraph" method to steer their investigation


SCAN (Scientific Content Analysis) is a lie-detecting method invented by Avinoam Sapir, a former Israeli spook turned polygraph examiner that involves picking out small textual details from writing samples to determine when someone is lying. Sapir has used his method to determine the veracity of the Book of Genesis, and to conclude that Anita Hill might be a secret lesbian and that James Comey was likely sexually assaulted as a child.

SCAN has no empirical support, and is so outlandish that it has hardly been studied by third parties at all. However, each time it was studied, it was found to perform no better than chance. For example, an Obama-era deep dive into investigation methods, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which drew experts from many fields who concluded that "SCAN did not distinguish truth-tellers from liars above the level of chance" and challenged SCAN's core assumptions, such as: "Both gaps in memory and spontaneous corrections have been shown to be indicators of truth, contrary to what is claimed by SCAN."

Despite this, SCAN is widely deployed in the US and abroad, with customers in "Australia, Belgium, Canada, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom," and within dozens (if not more) of US police departments, as well as the FBI, the CIA and the DIA.

Why would a tool with "no empirical support" be so widely used by police departments and spies? The best explanation is offered by Northwestern University law prof Steven Drizin, whose research focuses on wrongful convictions: "A lot has to do with hubris — a belief on the part of police officers that they can tell when someone is lying to them with a high degree of accuracy. These tools play in to that belief and confirm that belief."

SCAN is genuinely laughable in its methods. Sapir's site advertises that it can "Turn every investigator into a 'walking polygraph'!" and that SCAN can uncover lies in a simple, three-step process:

1. Give the subject a pen and paper.

2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.

3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

SCAN is laughable, but popular: one academic, University of Portsmouth psych professor Aldert Vrij, ended up including a chapter on the failings of SCAN after he gave an international symposium to 100+ law enforcement personnel who told him that SCAN was their most frequently used lie-detection tool.

Sapir gets a lot of government and police business through his company, Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation (LSI). According to purchase order data from GovSpend.com, the DoD spent $97,000 on SCAN in 2015, $41k in 2014, and $16k in 2012 (all these contracts are no-bid because SCAN training has "only one source" -- Sapir and LSI). Propublica's initial round of public records requests turned up 40 agencies that have paid LSI for SCAN training. Hilariously, the Middlesex County, NJ Prosecutor's Office declined to say who had gotten SCAN training because "It is better for the public good not to release the names of the particular people with this specialized skill."

SCAN has all the hallmarks of a junk-science scam, including claims by the inventor that he has secret and/or nonspecific studies to prove his product's efficacy, and a website filled with anonymous testimonials.

But most telling is when Sapir himself uses SCAN to analyze testimony: he published an ebook that uses SCAN to analyze James Comey's memoir, "A Higher Loyalty," and concluded that Comey was likely a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, because the book contains 14 instances of a door opening or closing: "This activity when it enters an 'open statement' is correlated very strongly to child abuse in the speaker’s past." This is due to the fact that child abuse starts when the door opens and it ends when the door is closed."

He used similar tactics to conclude that Anita Hill had a "problem with sexual identity" because during her televised testimony during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, she "never called herself a woman" (Hill used words like "person" or "individual"). He also believes that Magic Johnson may be gay because he said, "I'm not gay." Sapir explained, "So let’s go on from there. So, you know, I have a calculator. See I have a calculator? I take two. We punch two. Why do we punch two? Because she said you might be either gay or bisexual. That’s two. And he denied one. Yeah? We deduct one, what is the total?"

All of this would just be an indictment of cops' susceptibility to grifters who reassure them that they can "just know" when someone is lying, but for the fact that SCAN is widely used at the start of investigations to decide whom to focus on, which, in turn, leads to indictments (and 97% of US federal indictments result in a plea bargain, which means that being indicted is virtually synonymous with being convicted).

That means that America's overstuffed prisons almost certainly contain innocent people who were put there by this ridiculous junk science, and Sapir's making bank off of it.

Those steps appear on the website for Sapir’s company, based in Phoenix. “SCAN Unlocks the Mystery!” the homepage says, alongside a logo of a question mark stamped on someone’s brain. The site includes dozens of testimonials with no names attached. “Since January when I first attended your course, everybody I meet just walks up to me and confesses!” one says. Acronyms abound (VIEW: Verbal Inquiry - the Effective Witness; REASON: REport Automated SOlution Notes), as do products for sale. “Coming Soon! SCAN Analysis of the Mueller Report,” the website teased this year. LSI offers guidebooks, software, kits, discount packages, cassette tapes of seminars and, for computer wallpaper, a picture of a KGB interrogation room.

SCAN saves time, the site says. It saves money. Police can fax a questionnaire to a hundred people at once, the site says. Those hundred people can fax it back “and then, in less than an hour, the investigator will be able to review the questionnaires and solve the case.” “Past students … have reported a dramatic increase in the amount of information obtained from people,” the site says. “Thus, costly and time-consuming outside investigation was reduced to a minimum.”

SCAN works, the site says. “Analysis of statements has been found to be highly accurate and supported by a validation survey conducted in a U.S. governmental agency. In that survey, when SCAN was compared to other methods, the validity of SCAN reached above 95%,” the site says, without identifying the agency or citing or linking to any survey.

Why Are Cops Around the World Using This Outlandish Mind-Reading Tool? [Ken Armstrong and Christian Sheckler/Propublica]

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Even 50-year-old climate models correctly predicted global warming


Climate change doubters have a favorite target: climate models. They claim that computer simulations conducted decades ago didn’t accurately predict current warming, so the public should be wary of the predictive power of newer models. Now, the most sweeping evaluation of these older models—some half a century old—shows most of them were indeed accurate.

“How much warming we are having today is pretty much right on where models have predicted,” says the study’s lead author, Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Climate scientists first began to use computers to predict future global temperatures in the early 1970s. That’s when newfound computing power coincided with a growing realization that rising carbon dioxide levels could boost global temperatures. As the issue gained public attention, critics questioned the reliability of rudimentary model predictions. Even a 1989 news article in Science radiated skepticism, stating that “climatologists may have a gut feeling that the greenhouse effect is heating up the Earth, but they have not been close to proving it.”

Today, the models are much more sophisticated. Mainframe computers driven by paper punch cards have given way to supercomputers running trillions of calculations in 1 second. Modern models account for myriad interactions, including ice and snow, changes in forest coverage, and cloud formation—things that early modelers could only dream of doing. But Hausfather and his colleagues still wanted to see how accurate those bygone models really were.

The researchers compared annual average surface temperatures across the globe to the surface temperatures predicted in 17 forecasts. Those predictions were drawn from 14 separate computer models released between 1970 and 2001. In some cases, the studies and their computer codes were so old that the team had to extract data published in papers, using special software to gauge the exact numbers represented by points on a printed graph.

Most of the models accurately predicted recent global surface temperatures, which have risen approximately 0.9°C since 1970. For 10 forecasts, there was no statistically significant difference between their output and historic observations, the team reports today in Geophysical Research Letters.

Seven older models missed the mark by as much as 0.1°C per decade. But the accuracy of five of those forecasts improved enough to match observations when the scientists adjusted a key input to the models: how much climate-changing pollution humans have emitted over the years. That includes greenhouse gases and aerosols, tiny particles that reflect sunlight. Pollution levels hinge on a host of unpredictable factors. Emissions might rise or fall because of regulations, technological advances, or economic booms and busts.

To take one example, Hausfather points to a famous 1988 model overseen by then–NASA scientist James Hansen. The model predicted that if climate pollution kept rising at an even pace, average global temperatures today would be approximately 0.3°C warmer than they actually are. That has helped make Hansen’s work a popular target for critics of climate science.

Hausfather found that most of this overshoot was caused not by a flaw in the model’s basic physics, however. Instead, it arose because pollution levels changed in ways Hansen didn’t predict. For example, the model overestimated the amount of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—that would go into the atmosphere in future years. It also didn’t foresee a precipitous drop in planet-warming refrigerants like some Freon compounds after international regulations from the Montreal Protocol became effective in 1989.

When Hausfather’s team set pollution inputs in Hansen’s model to correspond to actual historical levels, its projected temperature increases lined up with observed temperatures.

The new findings echo what many in the climate science world already know, says Piers Forster, an expert in climate modeling at the United Kingdom’s University of Leeds. Still, he says, “It’s nice to see it confirmed.”

Forster notes that even today’s computer programs have some uncertainties. But, “We know enough to trust our climate models” and their message that urgent action is needed, he says.

The new research is a useful exercise that “should provide some confidence that models can be used to help provide guidance regarding energy policies,” adds Hansen, now director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University.

He communicated with Science from Madrid, where world leaders are gathering this week for the 25th annual United Nations climate conference. Delegates from around the world are negotiating how to implement emissions cuts agreed to at the 2016 meeting in Paris. Meanwhile, a U.N. report issued last month showed greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb since then, and that many of the biggest polluting countries aren’t on track to meet their promises.

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Inside the hate factory: how Facebook fuels far-right profit | Australia news

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The message from Israel arrived on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon for 36-year-old Beau Villereal.

At his family’s sprawling 42-acre property outside Live Oak in Florida’s rural north, Villereal sat alone in his bedroom trawling for news about Donald Trump to share on the rightwing Facebook page he runs with his mother and father.

The messenger, who gave her name as Rochale, asked Villereal to make her an editor of Pissed off Deplorables, a self-described “pro-America page” that feeds its thousands of followers a steady diet of pro-Trump, anti-Islam content.

“I totally understand you,” she wrote. “I’m from Israel and this is ... really important to me to share the truth.

“Please give me a chance for a day.”

About 1,000 miles north in Staten Island, New York City, Ron Devito was tapping away on his laptop to the 20,000 followers of his pro-Trump Facebook page, Making America 1st, when he received a similar message, this time from someone using the name Tehila.

“She pitched to me that she was a good editor, she could provide some good content to increase likes and views on the page,” Devito told the Guardian. “Could I just give her a chance and let her post her stuff, right? So I figured, ‘What the heck, give it a shot’.”

Villereal and Devito weren’t the only ones. Over the past two years, a group of mysterious Israel-based accounts has delivered similar messages to the heads of at least 19 other far-right Facebook pages across the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, Austria, Israel and Nigeria.

A Guardian investigation can reveal those messages were part of a covert plot to control some of Facebook’s largest far-right pages, including one linked to a rightwing terror group, and create a commercial enterprise that harvests Islamophobic hate for profit.

This group is now using its 21-page network to churn out more than 1,000 coordinated faked news posts per week to more than 1 million followers, funnelling audiences to a cluster of 10 ad-heavy websites and milking the traffic for profit.

The posts stoke deep hatred of Islam across the western world and influence politics in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US by amplifying far-right parties such as Australia’s One Nation and vilifying Muslim politicians such as the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the US congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

The network has also targeted leftwing politicians at critical points in national election campaigns. It posted false stories claiming the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said Jews were “the source of global terrorism” and accused the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, of allowing “Isis to invade Canada”.

The revelations show Facebook has failed to stop clandestine actors from using its platform to run coordinated disinformation and hate campaigns. The network has operated with relative impunity even since Mark Zuckerberg’s apology to the US Senate following the Cambridge Analytica and Russian interference scandals.

When the Guardian notified Facebook of its investigation, the company removed several pages and accounts “that appeared to be financially motivated”, a spokesperson said in a statement.

“These pages and accounts violated our policy against spam and fake accounts by posting clickbait content to drive people to off-platform sites,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook and we’ve updated our inauthentic behaviour policy to further improve our ability to counter new tactics.”

But this comes too late for some of the network’s victims. Australia’s first female Muslim senator, Mehreen Faruqi, felt the full force of the network in August last year, when 10 of its pages launched coordinated posts inciting their 546,000 followers to attack her for speaking in parliament against racism.

The posts prompted what Faruqi described as a “horrific feeding frenzy of racism, fake news and hate”, soliciting vile comments like “put your burka on – and shut the fuck up!”, “deport the whining bitch” and “Revoke citizenship and Deport”.

Faruqi said the network represented a “new level of far-right organisation and coordination”, and she places the blame squarely on social media companies.

“By allowing racist and misleading posts, social media giants like Facebook … are profiteering from the proliferation of hate speech and abuse,” Faruqi said.

“Facebook could do much more and shut these pages down but so long as they continue to profit from the reach and engagement, they don’t seem to be interested in decisive action.”

A spokesperson for Facebook told the Guardian: “Nobody can advocate or advertise hate or violence on Facebook and we remove any violations as soon as we become aware.”

‘The perfect foot soldiers’

It begins with a single post, curated by Israel-based administrators.

The post typically has an attention-grabbing headline and links to an article that mimics the style of a legitimate news story.

It employs a blend of distorted news and total fabrication to paint Muslims as sharia-imposing terrorists and child abusers, whose existence poses a threat to white culture and western civilisation.

It is then published almost simultaneously to the network’s 21 Facebook pages, which have a combined 1 million followers across the globe.

The content is so predictable that even Devito once complained to his Israeli counterpart. “I told her flat out, ‘you’re a one-trick pony’,” he said. “It’s Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam and more Islam. Like, enough with the Islam already, we get it.”

The Guardian conducted an analysis to confirm the extent of coordination across the network, checking where posts were identical in content and similar in publication time across different pages.

The network published 5,695 coordinated posts at its height in October 2019, receiving 846,424 likes, shares or comments in that month alone.

In total, the network has published at least 165,000 posts and attracted 14.3 million likes, shares or comments. The content is amplified further by other far-right Facebook pages, including those run by the rightwing UK Independence party (Ukip), who share it organically.

The posts link back to one of 10 near-identical websites masquerading as news sites with generic titles like “The Politics Online” and “Free Press Front”. Ad-heavy and poorly designed, the websites feature “stories” that usually combine slabs of copied text intermingled with unsourced opinion and graphic imagery.

The Guardian worked with researchers from Queensland University of Technology’s digital media research centre, who conducted an analysis of the order in which identical posts appeared across the 21 Facebook pages.

Their analysis indicates a single entity is coordinating the publication of content across the Facebook pages, likely using automatic scheduling software, and that a single entity controls the websites that receive traffic from the posts.

“It’s very obvious looking at the websites, the way that they’re structured, the way that they’re sharing design and code, and the way they share Google site IDs, that they’re all interconnected with each other,” said QUT professor Axel Bruns, one of Australia’s leading internet researchers. “They’re just cheap sites to set up, cheap sites to run … It’s not very sophisticated and it’s just brute force, to push all this stuff out.”

Bruns and his colleagues believe the motivation is commercial, and that hatred, division and political influence may be byproducts of the pursuit of profit.

“Here’s a bunch of people who – they’re not stupid but they’re highly prone to clicking on content that reflects their already held beliefs, especially content that is highly emotive and contains polarising and extreme material,” said Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer on social network analysis at QUT.

“These people are great for business. If you get them to come to your website, they’re not going to [look closely at] the content, they’re going to click through and keep [sharing] it. They’re the perfect foot soldiers.”

‘You’re the one profiting’

The network wasn’t always so extensive. The delivery of coordinated content began in 2016 through just a few pages in Israel and the US.

From 2018 onwards, the network began approaching the administrators of large, pre-existing Facebook pages across Australia, Austria, Canada, the US and the UK, promising content that would help grow their audiences.

In March 2018, the network gained access to a Canadian pro-Israel page dubbed Never Again Canada, which has 232,000 followers. A previous BuzzFeed News investigation into Never Again Canada showed it was regularly sharing content about the Jewish Defence League, an FBI-designated rightwing terror group, and coordinating content with other pages.

The network reached its peak in October this year with coordination across 21 pages. Each time a local page-owner agrees to let one of the Israeli administrators in, they become unwitting though not necessarily unwilling participants in the globally coordinated distribution of online hate.

Some page-owners, like Villereal, who runs Pissed off Deplorables, had no idea their new Israeli counterparts were making money from the following they had built.

“It’s a little disheartening to sit here and think I’ve been doing this for two years and I haven’t made a dime, and I allowed someone to come in who’s built the little back channel but they’re going to use my clientele to make money,” he said. “You know, it’s like I own the store, I built it and everything like that, and you’re the one profiting.”

Those behind the network went to great lengths to hide their identities, concealing personal information from websites and using different Facebook profiles when contacting the owners of existing far-right pages.

But by following a trail of digital breadcrumbs, the Guardian’s investigation traced the network back to a key player: a man going by the username Ariel1238a.

Finding Ariel

In December 2017, Ariel1238a made a seemingly benign request for help on an obscure search engine optimisation forum.

“I’m looking for more ways to monetize my site,” he wrote. “My niche is about politics.”

For the past two years, the same username has popped up regularly on similar web forums.

Writing in broken English, Ariel1238a frets about drops in his click-through rate, the inability to host “violent content” alongside advertising sourced through Google AdSense, and the low revenue return per-click on native advertising site Taboola. “I’m not satisfied with the profits they bring,” he told one forum.

He also complains about Facebook’s efforts to crack down on “fake news”. When the social media giant announced in April that it would step up its efforts to combat misinformation on the site, Ariel wrote: “Facebook has released another step on the way to its end, matter of time.”

Ariel1238a is not a web expert. He asks rudimentary questions including how to set up a business email domain and increase traffic to his sites. Yet his websites, he tells the forums, serve “leading countries” including the UK, US, Australia and Canada and have, he boasts, “somthing like 1m pageviews per month”.

The posts give no suggestion that Ariel1238a will become a driving force behind a wave of anti-Islamic hate across Facebook.

In fact, online profiles linked to Ariel1238a betray no political or ideological position at all. Instead, his digital footprint suggests that before he turned to exploiting the far-right’s obsession with Islam for profit, he had for years engaged in a number of unsophisticated online money-making schemes.

A now dormant account on a blog-publishing service links him to a “free sex dating” site, a “religious dating” site and a fan page for the fourth season of the Israeli Big Brother television series. He has dabbled in online directories for gyms in Tel Aviv, Botox injections, an online sim card store and a site described simply as “Online sex | Camera sex”.

Using web archiving services and domain registry information, the Guardian has been able to confirm the username Ariel1238a belongs to Ariel Elkaras, a 30-something jewellery salesman and online operator living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Soon after the Guardian contacted Elkaras for comment, several of the network’s websites were either taken down or had large amounts of content removed. The public posts on his Facebook profile were also removed.

Elkaras did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email and phone, but the Guardian was able to track him down.

When we turned up at his apartment in a town near Tel Aviv in Israel, an older woman answered the door. She called out to Elkaras, who arrived wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants.

Through a translator, Elkaras denied knowledge of or involvement in the network but said he had once been “included in a group, something about Israel”. He refused to answer questions about his job, other than to confirm he dealt with computers. “Yes, but it’s not your business,” he said. “[The network] is nothing related to me.”

When the Guardian asked about the username Ariel1238a, he said: “I don’t know.” He closed the door, but shortly after followed a reporter out on to the street and demanded to know how the Guardian had found him.

Elkaras was the only real person the Guardian was able to connect to the operation. We were unable to verify whether Rochale, Tehila, or the other names used by the Facebook profiles that contacted page administrators, were the names of real people.

Messages obtained by the Guardian show Rochale telling a local page administrator she doesn’t know how to make money online and that she doesn’t know who runs the websites she sources her content from.

“I only share posts on your page because this topic is important to me,” she wrote.

While initially describing Tehila as “a Pam Geller type”, Devito later admitted he had never actually seen or spoken to her. Asked how he knew she was real, he said: “We don’t, to be brutally honest.”

Of the page administrators who returned requests for comment from the Guardian, only one claimed to have physically seen Tehila via Skype but declined to provide evidence. Asked how he knew he was speaking to a woman, the administrator, who declined to reveal his identity, said: “It sure looked like one.”

None of the page administrators the Guardian spoke to for this story were aware that the Israeli group was making money from the scheme, or that their pages were part of a larger network.

“They weren’t upfront about it because as much as I saw in the message ... there was no talk about making money,” a pro-Trump page administrator based in Nigeria told the Guardian.

Political influence and Facebook’s failures

In April last year, Zuckerberg sat before an army of cameras and offered a mea culpa to the world.

Facebook, still reeling from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, had failed its users, Zuckerberg said. The company had struggled to stop its platform being used for coordinated political interference and the spread of disinformation and hate.

“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm,” Zuckerberg said. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake.”

Two months later, the Israeli-based network gained access to its 13th far-right Facebook page, expanding the already sizeable audience for its disinformation.

The network has operated with relative impunity for almost two years.

“Believe it or not she hasn’t done anything to get the page in trouble,” Devito said of his Israeli administrator. “I haven’t gotten anything from Facebook that ‘you’ve been posting inappropriate content that’s violated our community standards’ or anything of the sort. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”

As the network grew, so did its ability to influence the thinking of voters. By the time the Australian election came around in May, the pages were providing a significant platform for far-right candidates, including One Nation and Fraser Anning, a senator widely condemned for calling for a “final solution” to immigration.

The network boosted Anning and One Nation with 401 posts in the lead-up to the election, which attracted 82,025 likes, 18,748 comments and 33,730 shares.

A One Nation spokesman, James Ashby, said the network would not benefit the party, and engagement on leader Pauline Hanson’s personal page was far greater. “I would suggest the 401 posts you refer to has attracted a nanoscopic number of likes, comments and shares in comparison,” he said.

A spokesman for Anning said he was previously unaware of the network and did not believe it had helped his campaign.

It was a similar story in Canada. In the lead-up to the October election, the network pushed out 80 coordinated posts critical of Trudeau that were liked, shared or commented on 30,000 times.

In the UK, the network has savaged Corbyn. More than 510 coordinated posts have attacked the Labour leader since mid-2016, attracting 15,384 likes, 17,148 comments and 16,406 shares.

Facebook’s own definition of “coordinated inauthentic activity” reads like a blueprint for the network the Guardian has uncovered.

“Coordinated inauthentic behaviour is when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing,” Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, explained last year. “We might take a network down for making it look like it’s being run from one part of the world, when in fact it’s being run from another.

“This could be done for ideological purposes or it could be financially motivated. For example, spammers might seek to convince people to click on a link to visit their page or to read their posts.”

But Villereal said he had not heard from Facebook since the Israel-based administrator began distributing content from his page.

“I haven’t had no notifications from Facebook or anything like that about the content they’re posting: like spam risk or fake accounts or community violations or anything like that.”

Faked news, real consequences

In March this year, a 55-year-old Donald Trump supporter from upstate New York, Patrick Carlineo, placed a call to the office of Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar.

After getting through to a staff member, he accused Omar of being a terrorist before saying: “Why are you working for her, she’s a [expletive] terrorist. Somebody ought to put a bullet in her skull. Back in the day, our forefathers would have put a bullet in her [expletive].”

Carlineo, who pleaded guilty to placing the call last month, had for years been allowed to post violent and racist content to Facebook. In April, the Guardian revealed how he had frequently used the platform to taunt Muslims, attacking them with racist slurs and saying he wished he could confront a group of Muslim politicians with “a bucket of pig blood”.

The call was not an isolated attack. A Somali American, Omar, 37, is one of the first Muslim women in Congress and the first to wear a hijab in the House chamber. Since her election, she has been a lightning rod for attacks from the right.

Political opponents have pushed conspiracy theories and shared violent content about her on social media. In April the congresswoman said she faced an increase in death threats after Donald Trump accused her of downplaying the September 11 attacks.

She is also the most frequent target of the network. In the past two years, the Israeli group has pushed out more than 1,400 posts targeting Omar across the 21-page network which in turn have been “shared” more than 30,000 times.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Facebook’s complacency is a threat to our democracy,” Omar told the Guardian. “It has become clear that they do not take seriously the degree to which they provide a platform for white nationalist hate and dangerous misinformation in this country and around the world. And there is a clear reason for this: they profit off it. I believe their inaction is a grave threat to people’s lives, to our democracy and to democracy around the world.”

In November, a major study into Islamophobia from Charles Sturt University in Australia found a significant jump in the number of violent attacks against Muslim people, particularly women wearing head coverings.

Faruqi, a frequent target of abuse on and offline, said the far-right was relying on social media to “legitimise their hate and recruit”.

“Muslim women politicians tick both of their misogyny and racism boxes, so I end up as a target of a lot of their racist content,” she said.

“I’ve experienced a huge increase in racist and abusive social media comments, emails, phone calls and even handwritten letters since I’ve been in the public eye. There’s no doubt in my mind that many of the people behind these vile messages are emboldened by others on social media and Facebook pages like this.”

With David Smith in Washington

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