About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Leaked files from alt-right host Epik raise some hard questions

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In a data leak first reported last week by independent journalist Steven Monacelli on Twitter, a group of unnamed hackers claiming to be associated with the collective known as Anonymous released more than 180 gigabytes of data from Epik, a web-hosting company that has become notorious for having a number of alt-right groups and services as clients, including right-wing Twitter alternatives Gab and Parler, as well as pro-gun and pro-Trump sites. “This dataset is all that’s needed to trace actual ownership and management of the fascist side of the internet,” the group said in its news release. “Time to find out who in your family secretly ran an Ivermectin horse porn fetish site, disinfo publishing outfit or yet another QAnon hellhole.” The data dump is said to contain account information for all of Epik’s clients, including the registered owner’s email address, mailing address, and other information (although some right-wing sites use anonymization services to conceal this data).

The importance of the information in the Epik hack — if it proves to be accurate — seems obvious, especially for researchers trying to track QAnon groups or other disinformation sources, as well as hate-speech advocates and domestic terrorists. “The company played such a major role in keeping far-right terrorist cesspools alive,” Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which studies online extremism, told the Washington Post. “Without Epik, many extremist communities—from QAnon and white nationalists to accelerationist neo-Nazis—would have had far less oxygen to spread harm, whether that be building toward the January 6 Capitol riots or sowing the misinformation and conspiracy theories chipping away at democracy.”

Emma Best, co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a journalism non-profit that specializes in leaked data, told the Post that some researchers have called the Epik hack “the Panama Papers of hate groups,” a comparison to the leak of more than 11 million documents that exposed the offshore finance industry. Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism, told the Post “It’s massive. It may be the biggest domain-style leak I’ve seen and, as an extremism researcher, it’s certainly the most interesting. It’s an embarrassment of riches.” Like the Panama Papers, getting information out of the huge database and making sense of it is time-consuming, which could explain why it took several days for mainstream sites like CNN and the Post to report on the Epik hack.

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Facebook goes on the offensive against critical reporting

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and widespread criticism that Facebook had helped to destabilize the process by enabling Russian trolls and spreading disinformation, the company seemed to strike mostly an apologetic tone. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, occasionally seemed defensive in his subsequent testimony before Congress, but the general sense was that he and the company were sorry for playing a role in those events, and were trying to do better. However, more recently Facebook appears to be taking a much more aggressive approach to criticism, if the company’s response to recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times is any indication. The social network also seems to be trying to shift public opinion by inserting positive stories about Facebook into users’ news feeds, while Zuckerberg is doing his best to stay out of the fray.

After a series of Journal articles detailing how Facebook has a special program that allows celebrities to get around the platform’s rules of behavior, and has ignored the advice of its own researchers in its drive for growth at both Facebook and Instagram, the company responded with a lengthy blog post written by Nicholas Clegg, vice-president of global affairs and a former deputy prime minister in the UK. In it, the Facebook executive said the stories “contained deliberate mischaracterizations of what we are trying to do,” and that the reporting from the Journal “conferred egregiously false motives to Facebook’s leadership and employees.” The central allegation in the series, he said — that the company conducts research, and then systematically and willfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient — is “just plain false.”

In the past, given such accusations, Zuckerberg might have penned his own blog post explaining the company’s behavior, as he did when Facebook said it was moving discussions on the platform toward private groups and encrypted messaging, or when he was describing his commitment to free speech, or when he discussed the decision to permanently block Donald Trump from the platform. In this case, Facebook decided to expand on Clegg’s argument in a separate post, but the post was not signed by anyone. In it, the company tried to highlight some of the positive work it has done on disinformation and abuse, including the fact that it has 40,000 people working on safety and security, and has invested more than $13 billion to protect users (which a former Facebook executive pointed out is about four percent of the company’s revenue).

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