Unmasking the culprits of the misinformation machine
How a sudden spike in harassing accounts traced back to a conservative media "consultant" working for the Republican party
I was granted an emergency order of protection against the coordinator of the smear campaign described below. I also reported her activity (and the activity of others as described below) to the police, who have started an investigation into a multitude of crimes.
I’ve been asked often: what is it like to be the subject of an alt-right conspiracy and misinformation campaign?
Coordinated disinformation campaigns typically target political opposition leaders or potential candidates of an opposing party.
As I’m no longer in Florida and thus not running for any public office there this year (or in the place I’ve moved to), it seems odd that I would become the focus of such a malicious, Republican-led smear campaign.
But as someone put to me the other day - DeSantis’ handling of Coronavirus will destroy his once-hopeful campaign for president, and for a candidate now closely aligned with Trump (and his pocketbook), that means he needs to appear to be a victim through this ordeal to survive it.
MAGA people love nothing more than when the “mainstream media” unfairly maligns one of their own, and the smear campaign against me is trying to rewrite history while painting DeSantis as a victim of overzealous liberal reporters who put all of their faith into a “psycho slut bitch.”
Of course I’m hardly the only problem DeSantis will have to deal with once confronted with his mishandling of COVID-19; corruption with his pay-for-play and failed vaccine roll-out may very well land him in a jail cell.
Still, I’m an easy target. And a good distraction. After all, I’m not a politician. I do not have the power of institutions behind me the way traditional opponents do. I’m just ‘a girl with a laptop,’ scientist, and activist for data access and transparency.
Before I was even out of COVID-19 isolation in Tallahassee this past January, one of the most far-right / alt-right conservative media outlets, “Human Events,” began working to poison the reputation I had built on being honest and committed to the science and data.
After all, both my relative political positions and my level of popularity shifted after the Governor sent state police to raid my home and point guns at my children. They had to. I was no longer just trying to get through the pandemic like everyone else while reporting on it along the way. I was a symbol now, “a stand-in for oppressed scientific voices everywhere,” said Jason Salemi, epidemiologist in Florida (he also had to quit twitter after the alt-right would not stop harassing him online about me).
That shift opened up the opportunity to paint me as a political figure, rather than a scientist just trying to do her job in the face of political intimidation. As much as the Governor tried to convince people I wasn’t a scientist (because of my advanced science degrees, no less), no one bought it. But political figure was more feasible, so they jumped on that.
I wasn’t even home for a full two-weeks when someone told me an alt-right blog resuscitated by a leading Brietbart editor published an attempted hit piece on me. The site was called “Human Events.” I brushed it off, assuming no one would put much stock in a Brietbart spinoff as ridiculously named as “Human Events.”
From a Washington Post interview with Kassam, the new editor of the site:
“‘Feisty MAGA types,’ he says, should prepare their applications for the new Human Events.”
The author of the referenced post about me and the rewriting of Florida’s COVID-19 history was Christina Pushaw, who seemingly had deep connections to Russia, and advertised herself as a “conservative communications specialist.” So here was someone not even trying to pretend to be a reporter, with ties to Russia, on a blog called “human events,” run by a Brietbart alum.
I read maybe the first two graphs, realized it was junk, and forgot about it.
Apparently not everyone else did.
Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez almost immediately blasted the fake story on her Twitter, attacking me as “not a whistleblower” (though I filed a whistleblower complaint-the literal definition of a whistleblower) and trying to intimidate me through her official government Twitter account. It’s pretty risky to publicly attack a witness against the state (in multiple, ongoing investigations by several state and federal agencies), but that’s her gamble to make.
Pushaw’s smut piece in early February (which only “sourced” other alt-right blogs and a UK tabloid smear piece from nearly a year ago) attempted to defame me and disparage those who support science and truth, and also coincided with the creation of several new Twitter accounts using my name, photos, and location popping up on Twitter.
Some of those accounts were: @Insubordinates8 (suspended), @GrifterJones (suspended), @GrifterGeo, @GeoGrifter, @GeoJones…..
You get the idea.
The accounts began posting defamatory tweets on any tweet, post or article I was mentioned in, seemingly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They only really ever retweeted each other, creating a small, but active circle of what they saw as damning correspondence.
They linked to Pushaw’s article on loop (shameless self-promotion), and a website she created that served as a gut-punch to anyone who wanted to know more about me, twisting a blog post I wrote for a women survivors of dating violence group about how I was sexually, physically and emotionally abused during a relationship I was in back in college — all to create the image of “psycho slut bitch.”
I paid no mind because things were going well for me. And who the hell really cares what some alt-right blog poster who self-advertises as a conservatize trash-writer thinks?
I was moving forward with several projects at the time; the COVID-19 Data Hero Awards, profile pieces with several media outlets, my book, juggling multiple event invitations, and a very big project I can’t say too much about just yet.
But then Pushaw began directing her very small group of diligent harassers to the organizers of an event I was invited to speak at in February (the IRE NICAR annual event for members of the media to learn about data reporting by governments), instigating so much controversy that the event organizers backed away, claiming they were worried about uncontrollable attendees. I said enough.
I worked with a friend on a plan to try to find out who was behind the accounts. I was offered assistance from several professionals who had experience in tracing down the sources of misinformation campaigns from Trump-era Russian propaganda mills.
We started with a list of potential psychopaths who would willingly partake in such an organized harassment campaign.
At first, my best guess as to who was behind it was serial sexual harasser Rebel Cole, whom I filed a police report against last fall for continued and unabated cyber harassment, including posting sexual content about me and my relationships. I was told by the campus police at FAU that “FAU legal” was going to “handle it” at the university level, though I only heard from the University once about it. His multiple accounts have been suspended because he shares election conspiracy theories, anti-science COVID-19 propaganda, and, well, he harasses women.
My abusive ex-boyfriend from college who is now synonymous with gaslighting and emotional manipulation came to mind, though he seems to want to hide from any press that might shine a light on how he treated me.
Any of the various corrupt officials at the Department of Health (their actions laid out in my whistleblower complaint and investigated by every news outlet on the planet).
And maybe Marc Caputo, who’s lied in the past about statements I’ve made, attempted to undermine my friendships by degrading me during interviews he’s supposed to be doing for his job, and in general seems to have a stick up his ass after I called out his sexism on Twitter (checks calendar) four-and-a-half months ago.
My friends rightfully pointed out that I had no shortage of enemies with an incentive to lie and try to hurt me. That’s a sad and strange reality. To have made enemies by existing, through your job of reporting information to the public, and trying to help people navigate the worst pandemic in 100 years.
The state was the most obvious culprit in the minds of my newly-formed investigative team, but I thought it would be far too stupid of Ron DeSantis to have any direct role in a coordinated smear campaign against a whistleblower. They disagreed.
While part of my team worked on tracing registrations of Twitter accounts, email addresses, and website domains, I worked with a friend on developing insight into the psyche of whoever was behind the accounts. We reached out to the owner of the harassing and defamatory wordpress account claiming to have “info,” and received an email from one Tina287@protonmail.ch.
My team confirmed that “Tina’s” email was the same email registered to the @Insubordinates8 account that had led the stalking and harassment campaigns online for nearly two months. And “Tina” herself claimed ownership of the website and the Twitter account, though she claimed “several of us” ran the Twitter page.
In her first set of emails, “Tina” said she was “committed to taking down RJ,” referring to me by my initials. She also said “we need to find a way to get the AAG to cancel her event.” So the account holder’s public façade of just (obsessively, psychotically) trying to “report the truth” was in fact a vendetta set on taking me down (in her words) and destroying my career.
My friend claimed to “Tina” that he had information on me, but after several emails of not providing anything of substance, and a few weird questions about rumors I had never heard before, we decided to throw out some bait - see who would end up with the information and when.
I had been harassed online for months by people claiming they knew of an affair I allegedly had with Governor DeSantis. I was asked about the rumors by journalists in February. It was one of the most ridiculous things ever suggested, and I have no idea where it originated.
Knowing Pushaw’s group would likely go for the sensationalism of such a story but never run with it (since they are, after all, paid by Trump associates and have a vested interest in promoting (not harming) DeSantis), we threw a bone. Our intel was about that story, but we didn’t provide any details right away, wanting to see how she would respond.
Before revealing any information, Pushaw was already teeing up her followers for mass hysteria. She immediately posted this, getting all of two “likes.”
So we now had confirmation, both through the email-to-tweet chain of events about the intel and through “Tina’s” own admission, that the person we were speaking to was behind the harassment and smear campaign.
The day after our fake account provided no real intel, Pushaw seemed to get antsy and instead decided to start another governor affair rumor instead (we continued to string her along, using every message to analyze language style, grammar, tone, run analytics when she emailed from a desktop vs. mobile, etc).
Using a photograph taken at a joint Syracuse University - State of New York conference on bolstering upstate New York’s economy taken in 2011, Pushaw implied that I had connections and personal relations with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. She even circled my face in the crowd, where I was seated several rows behind the Governor, as proof, and placed next to the picture a quote from one of the women who has now come forward about sexual aggression she experienced while working for Cuomo.
She got 13 likes, two retweets, and even a comment from @session_sue, who thought it was “good.”
I shook Andrew Cuomo’s hand for five seconds and made an awkward comment about how I expected green infrastructure to be funded in the economic stimulus plan. That was the extent of our interaction.
But being masters of disinformation, they knew the mere suggestion of an affair with Cuomo would send tin-foil hats spinning about what must have been a conspiracy from the start - after all, the first interview I did was with the Governor’s brother, Chris Cuomo. Proof, in their minds, of a decades-long plan against Governor DeSantis. Crazy and desperate, right?
On the very same day, increasingly frustrated that my reputation wasn’t torn into shatters after their *very* committed efforts, the editor of the The Washington Examiner, Jay Caruso, began tweeting flagrantly false statements that were identical to the language and style of the fake accounts online:
One could argue that calling someone a fraud, liar or grifter is covered under the First Amendment.
But defamatory statements of fact - facts like a person’s criminal record that an industry professional such as Jay Caruso would know how to verify - are not protected by the First Amendment. I have never been convicted of any crime at any time in any state ever. Period. Fact. He has been corrected by others, as well, but has yet to retract his statement or delete his comment and apologize.
So the frustration over not getting real intel was boiling over for an ever-increasingly connected network of alt-right bloggers and media types.
The continued exploitation of both my story about being assaulted in college and their suggestion that I had sexual relationships with multiple governors only sought to reinforce their “psycho slut bitch” narrative. Because, God forbid, any woman speaks out against a male, Republican politician. It can’t be the truth - it must mean she’s a psycho slut bitch.
After we got the information we needed to tie Pushaw to the accounts (including who registered the Twitter, email and website accounts), we shut down the sting operation. We gave her a few details that would help us trace the specific round of rumors related to the Desantis affair saga if they ever surfaced, giving us an idea of how close each agent was to the source.
Forgetting about the ordeal and handing everything over to better authorities to deal with, I moved on.
And I had a really great week after that.
I was even named Whistleblower of the Year on March 9, and a feature/profile about the Governor’s attacks on my home and family in Cosmopolitan came out two days later, which really set the right ablaze. They had failed at every turn.
Pushaw must not have appreciated that, because she then created the fake email account “firstname.lastname@example.org” and emailed me on March 17 in an attempt to get my IP address and connect it with the sting account we used to connect her to the fake websites and stalker accounts online. (Yes, it’s starting to get complicated)
Now, knowing a bit about those particular awards, and how they had already been awarded for 2021 the previous week and were hosted by the U.S. State Department, and that I’m nowhere near the caliber of person that is or should be included in that group, I immediately forwarded it to my lawyers and a few members of the press as we continued to build the case against her and her associates.
Sure enough, the links to the award name and the “click here” link in the email text went to a page created on the stalker’s fake website that stated only, “Hello Rebekah.”
So the person sending it had to be one of the people with editing control of the fake website to create this custom page that only those with the link could access, who, per “Tina,” was also in charge of the stalker Twitter account. I sent over the email and all its meta for investigation to my tech-savvy friends.
She was fishing for my IP address, trying to connect me to the account that had set them up a few weeks prior, leading them on for days with nothing to show for it. But what I got from her in this exchange was much more important.
Once @Insubordinates8 was permanently banned from Twitter March 18-19, Pushaw decided to make her own Twitter account (@CMCPushaw) public so that she herself could harass, stalk and defame me on Twitter. She even went through the trouble of attending one of my events, tweeting live (out of context, of course) throughout the show.
Still frustrated that all of her efforts were failing, she still wasn’t picking up followers or getting any real response, and she had failed to harm my reputation and career, and so on, she decided to risk emailing me herself.
I received three emails from her on March 21, each more sensational and crazy than the last. I didn’t bother replying, or even really reading them in full until writing this, which must have pissed her off.
In it, she claimed to have received “forwarded emails” from the sting account we set up, claiming the account received “fabricated evidence.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that part.
Some of her ridiculous questions included:
“You have said on the record that you’ve never met Governor DeSantis. Do you still maintain that you’ve never met him?”
“What did you report Rebel Cole and Jon Taylor to FAUPD for? Can you send me the police report you made? Did FAUPD ever follow up with you? What is the evidence that either of them sexually harassed you?”
“Are you “InsubordinateLady” on Reddit?”
“Why do you have some Tweets on your official account that refer to yourself in the third person as “Bekka”?”
The obsession with Rebel Cole, and his graduate student who also harassed me for a time (Jon Taylor), still makes me believe that he is involved with this harassment campaign somehow. I also posted the University’s response, the interactions with FAU police, and all of the tweets Cole targeted me with when all of that happened last year. He is a delusional, conspiracy-prone racist, sexist, transphobic, old white man, which makes him prime pickins for Pushaw and her cause.
My Reddit username is DataJustice, and I’ve only ever used it twice, I think. Not a big Redditor. And, as I have stated a million times, I never really used Twitter before everything happened, and turned my account over to someone who really wanted to fight back against disinformation while I was still trying to hide from the press.
A real reporter would have been able to figure all this out. Later that day, with the definitive evidence from the email she sent, I called her out on all this on Twitter, using the evidence from all of these accounts and interactions. She had the nerve to email me and ask why I was “directing targeted harassment” at her.
Although “Tina” (aka Pushaw) claimed the accounts were run by “a few people in addition to me who help with it BTW,” only one account holder was responsible for the majority of the harassment and stalking, and it was directly connected to her.
Before the account was suspended, @Insubordinates8 was registered to “Tina’s” email address, who we discovered to be Pushaw, and a phone number ending in ##72, as was one of the other fake Geo/whatever accounts.
Unlike these assholes, I don’t want to ruin their lives. I just feel I’m entitled to be free of psychotic, obsessive online stalkers who harass me, my followers and anyone who mentions me, on behalf of a Governor whom I’m currently a witness against in several state and federal investigations. So I won’t release their full phone numbers here.
It’s easy to convince people of lies they already want to believe in, or to capitalize on the conspiracy-prone tendencies of anonymous, alt-right trolls on Twitter. So Pushaw has a handful of “helper accounts” that we haven’t fully investigated yet, meaning some of them may even belong to her.
@MaxNordau is an older account, but his recently-created @Truthbirb account are both registered to the same email address and phone number (ending in ##11). Geogrifter was registered to a phone number ending in ##74, also the same as one of the other fake accounts.
It’s been unrelenting harassment for two months. A sketchy blog with an outlandish and completely invented version of events, followed by targeted harassment on Twitter that Twitter itself has been shockingly slow to address, even as those posts and messages became more aggressive and threatening in nature. Finding out who’s behind it feels almost like a relief.
So what is like to be the subject of an alt-right conspiracy and misinformation campaign?
It’s not fun. Sometimes you feel powerless, other times you want to just reach out and ask them why they’re doing it. Why attack someone like this? Why spend all of your time and energy on trying to tear someone down just for trying to do what’s right and save lives? How much do you actually get paid to do it? Is that amount of money worth your soul? Does it ease your conscience when you go to bed each night? What happens to you and your job now that you’ve failed to achieve their objective?
But then you realize that you don’t have to just take it. You can fight back, “unmask” your attackers, and track down who’s behind it and expose them.
A new acquaintance of mine recently published an article about why he regrets not going after the alt-right media disinformation campaigns who defamed and threatened him, all while he risked everything to tell the truth. It hit home. I asked him if it was too late for me to act. And I was reminded of my own words… It’s never too late to do the right thing.