Earlier this month, Snopes unmasked longtime religious right activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg as the mastermind of one of the most insidious social media influence campaigns that has come to light since Russia’s effort to hack the election. For at least seven years–long before “disinformation” was anywhere near the lexicon–Kullberg operated a network of Facebook pages that trafficked in all manner of hard-right, pro-Donald Trump propaganda. They threw in a heavy dose of conspiracy theory and Islamophobia.
These sites, with names like “Blacks for Trump,” “Catholics for Trump,” and “Teachers for Trump,” were tied financially to Kullberg projects, while presenting themselves as representing a broad spectrum of the American people. According to Aysha Khan of Religion News Service, these pages operated in a manner almost identical to the Russian botnets who figured so prominently in the Kremlin’s 2016 influence campaign.
Sometime before Sunday night, all 24 Kullberg-associated Facebook pages vanished. It initially appeared that Facebook nuked them for an egregious violation of its policy against “coordinated inauthentic behavior”–a fancy term for astroturfing. But it turns out that almost all of Kullberg’s Web presence seems to have vanished. At least three Websites associated with Kullberg are down for “maintenance,” and their associated YouTube pages have disappeared. Kullberg’s personal Twitter feed has gone private.
Moreover, in the absence of something we haven’t heard or seen, there has been nary a peep of protest from the religious right. In the past, when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram boot prominent conservatives for egregious violations of their rules, we’ve seen right-wingers bleat and screet about those evil libruls trying to silence conservatives.
The exhaustive work done by Alex Kapchak and his Snopes colleagues had the effect of putting big, fat asterisks by virtually every article and blog post Kullberg has written over the last seven years. Some of them were showcased at The Stream, a religious right-aligned blog/newsmagazine fronted by veteran culture warriors James Robison and Michael Brown.
Kullberg is, or has been, a contributor at The Stream since 2016. Among them were an article railing about George Soros’ influence in the effort to keep Jeff Sessions from becoming attorney general, and another arguing for a tougher line on immigration. All of this must now be seen in light of the fact that its author was waging a massive influence campaign.
Granted, it’s impossible to fault Robison, Brown or The Stream’s managing editor, Al Perrotta, for not detecting any funny business on Kullberg’s part sooner. Remember, “influence campaign” and “disinformation” weren’t even on the radar screen before the fallout of the 2016 campaign.
However, Kullberg’s last Stream article went live on May 16–less than 24 hours after she was fisked on Snopes. It’s hard to believe that Perrotta didn’t see the pounding that Kullberg was taking on Twitter in the time between the Snopes exposé and Kullberg going into Internet radio silence.
But in the event that Perrotta hadn’t seen it, I tried to contact him earlier this week in hopes of getting a word from him about this matter. As I write this on Wednesday night, Perrotta has yet to respond.
This contrasts sharply with how another conservative blog dealt with journalistic deceit of this magnitude. In the spring of 2017, Jason Kessler, who would later go on to infamy as one of the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, signed on with The Daily Caller as a freelance contributor. One of the articles he wrote depicted a demonstration in front of the Robert E. Lee monument led by Richard Spencer and others who would later figure prominently in the rally later that summer.
However, a few weeks later, ProPublica revealed that Kessler hadn’t just reported on the rally, but spoke at it. Within hours of being contacted by ProPublica, The Daily Caller tore up its contract with Kessler. Executive editor Paul Conner said that while no one disputed the accuracy of Kessler’s work, “we pay writers for their journalism, not their opinions.” Months later, in the midst of massive fallout from the rally, editor-in-chief Geoffrey Ingersoll “nuked” all of Kessler’s articles.
Kullberg’s situation at The Stream is no different. Just like Kessler rooked The Daily Caller into publishing what amounted to ad copy for the Unite the Right rally, Kullberg made The Stream a vehicle for her astroturfing. In the face of irrefutable evidence that Kullberg masterminded an influence campaign that would do the Kremlin proud, every day that The Stream doesn’t at least address this issue makes it harder for it to claim that it was merely an innocent victim.
Any responsible blog or news organization, regardless of political lean, would have long since spoken up on the matter. Perhaps we should ask The Stream why it hasn’t done so–politely, of course. Let them have it on Facebook and on Twitter. And ask Perrotta personally on his Twitter.
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