AUSTIN, Tex. — For much of the last three months, the most popular Joseph R. Biden Jr. website has been a slick little piece of disinformation that is designed to look like the former vice president’s official campaign page, yet is most definitely not pro-Biden.
From top to bottom, the website, JoeBiden.info, breezily mocks the candidate in terms that would warm the heart of any Bernie Sanders supporter: There are GIFs of Mr. Biden touching women and girls, and blurbs about his less-than-liberal policy positions, including his opposition to court-ordered busing in the 1970s and his support for the Iraq war. Pull quotes highlight some of his more famous verbal gaffes, like his description of his future boss, Barack Obama, as “articulate and bright and clean.” The introductory text declares, “Uncle Joe is back and ready to take a hands-on approach to America’s problems!”
All the site says about its creator is buried in the fine print at the bottom of the page. The site, it says, is a political parody built and paid for “BY AN American citizen FOR American citizens,” and not the work of any campaign or political action committee.
There is indeed an American behind the website — that much is unambiguously true. But he is very much a political player, and a Republican one at that. His name is Patrick Mauldin, and he makes videos and other digital content for President’s Trump’s re-election campaign. Together with his brother Ryan, Mr. Mauldin also runs Vici Media Group, a Republican political consulting firm in Austin whose website opens with the line “We Kick” followed by the image of a donkey — the Democratic Party symbol often known by another, three-letter, name.
The Biden website was intended to help Democrats “face facts,” Mr. Mauldin said in an interview. He kept his name off it because “people tend to dismiss things that they don’t like, especially if it comes from the opposite side,” he said.
Yet in anonymously trying to exploit the fissures within the Democratic ranks — fissures that ran through this past week’s debates — Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy.
Mr. Mauldin, who has not been previously identified as the creator of the website, said he had built and paid for it on his own, and not for the Trump campaign. But the campaign knows about the websites, raising the prospect that the president’s re-election effort condoned what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, did not directly address that issue, though he said it was “great that talented supporters of President Trump use their time to help his re-election.”
“We appreciate their efforts in their own time with parodies like this that help the cause,” he added.
Inside the campaign, Mr. Mauldin, 30, is seen as a rising star, prized for his mischievous sense of humor and digital know-how, according to two people familiar with the operation. He also appears to be very much on point in his choice of targets: Mr. Biden is the Democrat polling strongest against Mr. Trump and has been repeatedly singled out on Twitter by the president.
Mr. Biden’s campaign knew about the fake website for months, but had not been of aware of who was behind it, said T.J. Ducklo, a campaign spokesman. “Imagine our surprise that a site full of obvious disinformation,” he said, “is the handiwork of an operative tied to the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Ducklo sought to place the website firmly in the context of Mr. Trump’s own social media habits — such as tweeting doctored videos — and what he said was the president’s lack of interest in measures to ensure the integrity of American elections.
In addition to Mr. Biden, Mr. Mauldin has anonymously set up faux campaign websites for at least three other Democratic front-runners. “Millionaire Bernie” seeks to tar Mr. Sanders as a greedy socialist; “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” mocks her claim of Native American ancestry; and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People” highlights her work as a prosecutor who, the site says, “put parents in jail for children skipping school — and laughed about it.”
None, though, has proved as successful as the Biden website. Mr. Mauldin boasted in the interview that he had fooled people into thinking his Biden website was the real campaign page. Some offered to donate money, he said, and others wanted to volunteer.
Mr. Mauldin insisted there was nothing duplicitous about it. “I don’t make any claims on the site to lean one way or the other,” he said, adding, “Facts are not partisan.”
It is buyer beware, and not just for unwitting Democrats. In 2017, a group of Democrats took a page out of the Russian playbook and posed as conservatives to try to divide Republicans in Alabama’s special Senate election, a race narrowly won by a Democrat. And as the 2020 campaign gets underway, election experts say they see signs that Americans from both sides of the political divide are getting ready to do the same. National security officials are also warning that Russia will again try to disrupt the election by spreading disinformation.
Meddling by foreigners is illegal. But trolling or disinformation spread by American citizens is protected by the First Amendment, and if Mr. Mauldin’s work is any guide, Americans may well do a far better job deceiving one another than any Russian troll could hope for.
A Viral Hit
Unlike much of the Russian disinformation, which often has been crude and off-key — remember the Facebook ad promoting Mr. Sanders as a gay-rights superhero? — the faux Biden site has been a viral hit. Mr. Mauldin even started selling mock Biden 2020 T-shirts through the website to capitalize on its success.
From mid-March, when Mr. Mauldin first began promoting the website on Reddit, through the end of May, it had more than 390,000 unique visitors, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb, a firm that analyzes web traffic. Mr. Biden’s official campaign website had about 310,000.
Of the people who found the websites through search engines, 83 percent landed on Mr. Mauldin’s page, according to SimilarWeb. None of it was paid traffic.
The website’s success was not accidental. Mr. Mauldin put it up well before Mr. Biden’s official website and aggressively pushed it out on Reddit, getting clicks and links and exposure. It had a big boost in May when a handful of media outlets — CNBC, The Daily Caller, CNET, among others — wrote stories about the fake page beating Mr. Biden’s, and all linked to it. Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines. The New York Times is not linking to Mr. Mauldin’s websites to avoid further boosting them in search rankings.
In recent weeks, as search companies became aware that Mr. Mauldin’s website was fake, it has fallen below the real Biden page. But it remains among the top results, and it already appears to have fooled people.
“I know a lot of Biden supporters were furious when they saw that website,” said David Goldstein, the chief executive of Tovo Labs, a Democratic digital consulting firm in New York. “They suspected other Dem candidates were behind it.”
Then there were the less politically astute. In late April, Mr. Mauldin anonymously took to Reddit to boast that people were confusing his website for the real one. He posted in r/The_Donald, a popular spot for right-wing trolls to trade tips and show off, using the handle NPC_12345.
“How many Democrats can we red pill with my fake Joe Biden site?” Mr. Mauldin wrote in one post.
Another post included messages from duped Democrats. One person wanted Mr. Biden to speak at her son’s school. Another suggested the former vice president look to an old soul group, the Fifth Dimension, for his campaign song.
There were even messages asking Mr. Biden not to criticize other Democrats, Mr. Mauldin said in the interview. “They want it to be all ‘Kumbaya’ with the Democrats.”
He was not having it. “It’s important for everyone to realize aspects of their own side or candidate that maybe they don’t know about or don’t want to look at,” he said.
By “their own side,” Mr. Mauldin meant Democrats. He is not trolling any Republicans.
For decades, conventional wisdom in politics held that trying to undermine your opponent’s base would only motivate that group to vote against you. But in 2016, Russian disinformation and the Trump team’s own targeting of disenchanted Democrats led many campaign veterans on the left and the right to conclude that sowing dissent inside an opponent’s ranks could work. It worked especially well if the criticism appeared to come from their own side.
With websites like the faux Biden page, “essentially you’re trying to sow chaos and you’re trying to basically do voter suppression,” said Mr. Goldstein, the Democratic consultant.
“You want their supporters to get sad, to get angry, to get turned off from their chosen candidate,” he continued. “The way voters tend to work: They don’t turn off from a candidate and pick up someone else; they turn off from a candidate and turn off politics.”
Mr. Goldstein’s firm, Tovo, tried to prove as much during Alabama’s special Senate election in 2017. With targeted ads, Tovo led conservative Republicans to a website featuring articles by conservatives who opposed the far-right candidate, Roy Moore. Moderate Republicans were directed to a site that suggested they write in a different candidate. The effort relied only on genuine content from conservatives, and it was entirely separate from the Democrats who used Facebook to pose as conservatives.
Tovo later published its findings. It claimed to have driven down moderate Republican turnout by 2.5 percent, and conservative Republican turnout by 4.4 percent.
Unlike Tovo, Mr. Mauldin makes no claims of trying to prove any concepts, and he had no intention of outing himself. When approached by The Times, he argued that he should not be identified because he had not sought the spotlight, and because he feared threats and harassment. He preferred “to work behind the scenes,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Maulden registered the Biden site privately so that his name and contact details would not appear in any public searches. But The Times was able to confirm Mr. Mauldin’s identity because the Biden page shared the same Google analytics tags with a number of other active and defunct websites, including the ones he has made for the three other Democratic candidates. Some of those sites that shared the Google tags were registered under Mr. Mauldin’s name.
Sipping a Crown Royal and Coke at a bar in downtown Austin, Mr. Mauldin bore little resemblance to the boasting troll he played on Reddit. He is slight, and has boyish features. He wore his shirt neatly tucked into jeans, and paused to consider questions before answering. When he did not want to answer, he quietly said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” — even when asked about things it was hard to imagine he had forgotten, like what he told the Trump campaign about his websites.
Mr. Mauldin grew up in eastern Texas, and described his political views as “closest to libertarian.” He studied marketing at Texas A&M, and taught himself digital design skills, building on a childhood love of drawing.
He and his brother founded Vici after helping a family friend win a state representative race. Their big break came in June 2016, when the Trump campaign’s digital operation, short of manpower and scrambling, hired Vici.
Mr. Mauldin quickly impressed. His specialty was making the kind of viral videos that riffed on pop culture and were relentlessly pumped out on social media by the Trump campaign. One came after Hillary Clinton dropped a reference to the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go into a speech, urging voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls.” Mr. Mauldin responded with a video that featured Mrs. Clinton as a Pokemon creature players had to catch, providing the kind of tit for tat needed to feed a day of news stories.
In a testimonial on Vici’s website, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2016 digital director and now his campaign manager, called Mr. Mauldin “an indispensable part of our digital operation” in the president’s first campaign.
People with ties to the re-election campaign, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements, said that Mr. Mauldin was brought back on retainer for the 2020 race.
Mr. Mauldin would not discuss specifics of his role with the campaign, citing his own nondisclosure agreement. He was only slightly more talkative about his websites.
Pressed on whether he thought they were deceptive, Mr. Mauldin complained that people put too much emphasis on identity “instead of examining the facts themselves.” He brushed off a question about whether GIFs of Mr. Biden touching women, devoid of any context, represented facts.
The point, Mr. Mauldin said, was to help Democrats see their candidates for who they were — warts and all — and not try to pretend that they all agreed and were in lock step on every issue.
As he sees it now, “there’s a party line and you either toe it or you’re a traitor,” he said, adding that this applied to both Democrats and Republicans.
But weren’t his sites encouraging Democrats to look for traitors?
“I mean, they could do it themselves,” Mr. Mauldin said with a laugh. “But they’re not. That’s the problem.”
Follow Matthew Rosenberg on Twitter: @AllMattNYT.
Get politics and Washington news updates via Facebook, Twitter and the Morning Briefing newsletter.
Source: Read Full Article