Sneaky Clean

Inside the Online Campaign to Whitewash the History of Donald Trump’s Russian Business Associates

Who is paying bloggers on the other side of the globe to scrub the Internet of Trump’s Russian business ties?

Mark Von Holden/Getty

A mystery client has been paying bloggers in India and Indonesia to write articles distancing President Donald Trump from the legal travails of a mob-linked former business associate.

Spokespeople for online reputation management companies in the two countries confirmed that they had been paid to write articles attempting to whitewash Trump’s ties to Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who, with former Russian trade minister Tevfik Arif, collaborated with the Trump Organization on numerous real estate deals from New York to the former Soviet Union.

The campaign appears designed to influence Google search results pertaining to Trump’s relationship with Sater, Arif, and the Bayrock Group, a New York real estate firm that collaborated with Trump on a series of real estate deals, and recruited Russian investors for potential Trump deals in Moscow.

Sater—who once had an office at New York’s Trump Tower, Trump Organization business cards, and claims to have worked as a senior adviser to Trump—has recently emerged as a key figure in the federal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

In the lead-up to the election, Sater worked extensively with Trump attorney Michael Cohen in a failed effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow with the aid of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which Sater said would help Trump win the presidency. According to statements made by Cohen last year, Trump personally signed-off on the project.

Sater and Cohen also collaborated on a proposal early in the Trump administration to resolve the years-long conflict in Ukraine’s Crimea region, and to lift sanctions imposed against Russia for their military intervention in and annexation of the region. According to a recent BBC report, Sater even helped Cohen facilitate a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko, for which Cohen was secretly paid $400,000. Sater and Cohen both denied that report.

Sater’s relationship with Trump and his family goes back much further. The Russian emigre has explored real estate deals in Moscow since the late '80s. When the Trump Organization took interest, Sater was directly involved in their business efforts in the country, even accompanying Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. on a 2006 visit to Moscow at the request of the elder Trump. The elder Trump now says he doesn’t even remember Sater.

In 2010, a one-time executive at Bayrock brought a lawsuit against the firm. “For most of its existence, [Bayrock] was substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated," the suit alleged. Bayrock and Sater denied the allegations, and the lawsuit—which at one point listed Trump and Ivanka as co-defendants—was settled in February.

In the meantime, an attorney for the plaintiff in that suit had brought another lawsuit alleging tax fraud by Bayrock. That second suit, which was based on evidence suppressed by the judge during the first, was dismissed last year.

That’s when someone began paying for blog posts about the case.

The Daily Beast previously reported that a Pakistani blogger had been paid to write an article for the Huffington Post’s now-defunct contributor platform hailing the dismissal of the tax fraud case. That blogger, who went by the handle Waqas KH, said his client, whom he declined to name, had provided the text of the piece in full.

HuffPost is a prominent U.S. news source, but on more obscure platforms, used explicitly for search-engine optimization, over 50 other stories have popped up hyping the lawsuit’s dismissal and attempting to insulate Trump from controversy involving Sater and Bayrock. The articles were published over an eight-month period, from September 2017 through June 2018.

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“Certainly now that Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” declared a November article at a since-deleted website billing itself as a forum for a “business development specialist.” The article was written by Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns an Indian SEO business that offers to place articles on a network of 900 websites for $20 apiece.

Chatterjee said he’d received an order to publish the article “via a random email,” and that he doesn't know who placed the order. “We get orders from various clients small companies or big companies across the world,” Chatterjee wrote in an email. “Most of the times we don’t even know why [we are] writing about [our clients] or who asked us to do that.”

A day before Chatterjee’s article posted, another piece popped up on a similarly suspicious website hailing the dismissal of tax fraud charges against Sater, whom it dubbed a “former Trump crony.” That piece was authored by Mahruz Aly, an Indonesian SEO marketer who charges up to $225 to publish stories on a network of more than 2,000 websites.

Aly declined to say who paid him for the Sater piece. Instead, he pitched his business: “If you have article for publishing, I can publish it. But for paid sir.”

GodsSEO, an Indonesian-based company that charges up to $600 to place dummy articles for SEO purposes, was even less informative in its response. “Wazup, kid?” said a contact for the company, who responded to inquiries from the email address [email protected]

Another Indonesian SEO vendor, Ongky Firmansyah, said in an email that he had been paid to randomly insert the names “Tevfik Arif” and “Tevfik Arif Doyen” into articles on his website.

Sater denied any knowledge of the paid SEO campaigns. Arif did not return attempts for comment.

The use of “private blog networks” (PBNs), or dummy websites set up to game search engine results, is a common, if often frowned-upon, internet marketing tactic, according to Brendon McAlpine, a business development manager for Australian online reputation management service Internet Removals.

McAlpine said link schemes like PBNs are frequently used to spread disinformation. “The problem with PBNs is that...anyone can create a website, build content and authority, then take paid promotional content without vetting the accuracy of it,” he explained. “We frequently see PBNs used for the destruction of businesses, individuals, government and celebrity reputations. PBNs are like the economy of influencers, where you can find a blog relevant to your target’s industry/interests and spread damaging content or counter intelligence for a small fee.”

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines explicitly prohibit of use of “large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns” like the one used to publicize Sater. To prevent the use of PBNs and to protect the integrity of its search results, Google has even developed an algorithm to automatically detect and penalize attempts to fraudulently manipulate its search ranking system.

The tactics aren’t limited to websites either. A host of dummy social media accounts—including Twitter and Facebook pages bearing the names Tevfik Arif, Tevfik Arif Doyen, TevfikArif Bayrock, and Тевфик Ариф (Serbian for Tevfik Arif)—have been used since last year to plug the dismissal of the lawsuit against Sater and Bayrock.

“Another victory for our great president Trump reputation,” declared one such account in December. “Fake news loses again.”