For a time, it seemed like a great gig. Jacinda Chan’s job working for the website Peace Data was everything she’d been looking for. It was paid work writing about her favorite subject—human rights and Latin America—and her editors paid on time.
Chan, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and is a quadriplegic, hadn’t been able to get many good jobs in journalism. “I have difficulty finding employment in the USA because people look at me and wonder how I can work if I'm on a respirator,” she wrote to an editor at the site in July. “That is why I like this job. Nobody questioned my ability because I'm disabled. I just got the money.”
But this week it all came crashing down when Facebook revealed that Peace Data was fake. After a tip-off from the FBI and an internal investigation, the company discovered that the site was linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the troll farm responsible for much of the meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The site used a mixture of fake personas and real, unwitting journalists tricked into believing the site was a legitimate outlet for human rights journalism. A number of the contributors have since come forward to share their stories about being exploited. But of all the people who’ve written for the site, Chan appears to have suffered the most from the troll farm’s ruse.
The site has since shut its doors, leaving a cartoon of social media executives on a guillotine and a few embarrassed contributors in its wake. But the IRA’s ruse almost cost Chan much more—a lifeline to home caregivers.
Chan hadn’t just written for Peace Data. She took a job running its English-language Facebook page. She says she tried to register with Facebook’s ad platform in order to run ads on behalf of Peace Data after following a request from one of the personas at the site, who she thought was a legitimate journalist. The effort was unsuccessful, but just attempting to run ads on behalf of someone else is a violation of Facebook’s policy.
The attempt led Facebook to suspend her personal account, which she used to find and hire home caregivers to assist her with daily tasks. Once it was suspended, she told The Daily Beast, “I can't find anyone. Nobody applies on Craigslist or Nextdoor or Care.com. They're not big enough.”
A Facebook spokesperson said that it’s against company policy for users to either attempt to or successfully sell, buy or exchange site privileges or Facebook product features, including attempting to complete the U.S. authorizations process on behalf of another individual.
But after The Daily Beast reached out to Facebook with information about Chan’s case, a Facebook spokesperson said the company planned to reinstate her account.
The incident highlights the increasingly tricky nature of enforcement actions for social media companies as Russian-linked disinformation campaigns have tried to step up their operational security in the wake of crackdowns following the 2016 election.
Russia’s troll factory has tried to hide its tracks online by using a series of cutouts to launder their propaganda operations. In Africa, they’ve recruited locals to pump out fake news on WhatsApp and hide the origin of their made-in-Moscow talking points. In the U.S. and elsewhere, as the Peace Data suspensions show, Russia has taken to using a mixture of fake personas and real people tricked into working.
While many emerge from being duped by trolls with not much more than a bruised ego, Chan almost lost something altogether more vital.
Ionatan would like to connect on Linkedin
It all started with a LinkedIn message.
He called himself Ionatan Lupul, and he claimed he was the managing editor of Peace Data.
WhatsApp chat logs shared by Chan with The Daily Beast show that “Ionatan,” who Facebook says is a fake persona linked to the IRA, noticed her profile on the résumé site because she was a contributor to a left-wing news site he admired.
“You've had an article in Truthout, it's one of the publications we're aspiring to be in the future,” Ionatan explained.
He pitched Chan on writing for Peace Data at a rate of $100 an article. The site was a “heavily liberal left” publication that was previously focused on the Middle East and was expanding its focus to broad international coverage. “We try to be independent of any government and speak against their misdeeds around the world,” he wrote.
“Ionatan” claimed that the site was founded by “Syrian-born Romanian citizen Omar Latif,” who supposedly funded the site through donations by unspecified “connections” with the goal of eventually being able to support itself through “profit from our readers.”
When it came to stories, Ionatan had ideas for one of Chan’s first pieces. He pitched her on a story that centered on “criticism of military spending in the US, with commentary how none of the spending is benefiting people especially minorities.”
After she pitched a story about the importance of late congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis, “Ionatan” tried to nudge her towards a different kind of “civil liberties” subject altogether. He raised the issue of mask mandates in the United States.
“There shouldn't be a mandate to wear a mask, people themselves should do it after realising themselves that they're responsible,” he wrote. “It is using your own freedom to chose [sic] to limit yourself. Right now I see the result of system where elites are exploiting the populace for their own benefit.”
Chan didn’t take the bait.
By and large, the trolls behind Peace Data were relatively hands-off when it came to the topics in Chan’s copy. “They let me write whatever I wanted, and they were really nice to me,” Chan said.
Throughout her experience writing for the site, she says she only published three articles on international affairs—one on Turkey and two on Latin America. The articles, drafts of which she shared with The Daily Beast, criticize Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for “environmental impunity” to “support the elitist, capitalist policies of the U.S.,” restrictions on abortion rights in Mexico, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on social media. Peace Data also ran an additional two stories by Chan on American politics—one on “#votequadrant,” a political platform to end police violence and another on defense spending as Ionatan had suggested.
Chan, a graduate of Berkeley who’s finishing up a master’s degree in international criminal justice at the University of Portsmouth, first became interested in Latin American studies in college while writing about Operation Condor, a U.S.-backed effort to help Cold War dictatorships in Latin America hunt down and persecute dissidents.
“I thought that it was the most horrifying thing not to be safe in any part of the world. Plus, I don't like American politics. I think that we complain too much when there are people who have it worse,” she says.
She says she’s wanted to work in human rights and journalism but it’s been hard because of the way people react to her disability. Her soft voice can be difficult to hear sometimes. “I've editors hang up on me when they hear it, ghost me, and ask me how I intend to do interviews with it. I do interviews like I do with you, or I even bring a personal assistant if I have to.”
That wasn’t an issue when the Russian-linked personas behind Peace Data began working with her. “Ionatan never wanted a voice interview because he said his English was not good enough. So, I did not tell them until they added me on Facebook.”
At times, Ionatan seemed to be interested less in Chan’s articles themselves than in using them and Chan to legitimize Peace Data as a brand. That included attempts to get her to contribute articles to other, legitimate outlets that mentioned her affiliation and linked to Peace Data in her biography.
Chan said she never really grew suspicious of her Peace Data colleagues but there were odd things about them they couldn’t necessarily explain.
“The only thing that was weird was that they didn't have complete Facebook profiles. I asked Ionatan if he wanted me to explain to Alex [another Peace Data persona] that Facebook works by having your friends and family follow you. He said that Alex wanted to separate his professional and personal life.”
Ionatan easily dismissed the quirks as the product of a different attitude towards social media in Romania, where the site was purportedly based. And for Chan, that seemed to suffice.
Even when Facebook shut down Peace Data’s accounts, the crew behind it still tried to keep the site running. “Ionatan” was unavailable but Bernadette, who held herself out as a Peace Data associate editor, began responding to emails and trying to explain the swelling controversy.
“These accusations are false, and the whole situation is nothing but a direct attack on free speech and independent journalism,” she wrote in one email to Chan. Later on, she admitted defeat, said the site was going underground, advised Chan to delete any reference to the site from her social media, and warned that the FBI was probably monitoring their email exchange. “Perhaps this measure is only temporary and we’ll be able to continue our work anytime soon.”
To this day, Chan says she still doesn’t believe Facebook and the FBI’s investigations that show Peace Data was a front for Russia’s troll factory.
“I never helped their cause, and they were really nice to me. Ionatan said that my articles were too neutral about the US, which I was taught to do in journalism. They never edited it, but always published it,” she told The Daily Beast. “I wish I knew the actual truth because I'm getting two opposite stories—one from the media and one from them. It's weird that the FBI hasn't contacted me.”
The idea that she could’ve been targeted by Russian intelligence-linked trolls is scary, she said. “I want nothing to do with spies and stuff.”