The Washington Post

From corporate America to conspiracy theory promotion: How a Minnesota man made a career out of anonymously amplifying dark plots

(Washington Post illustration by José L. Soto based on iStock images and federal court records)

STILLWATER, Minn. — Sean G. Turnbull displays many of the hallmarks of a successful upper-middle-class family man, a former film producer and marketing manager for one of the country’s largest retail corporations who lives in a well-appointed home in this Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb. Former colleagues describe him as smart, affable and family-oriented.

But for more than a decade, the 53-year-old has also pursued a less conventional path: anonymously promoting conspiracy theories about dark forces in American politics on websites and social media accounts in a business he runs out of his home. His audience numbers are respectable and his ad base is resilient, according to corporate records and interviews.

Turnbull has identified himself online for 11 years only as “Sean from SGT Reports.” He has amassed a substantial following while producing videos and podcasts claiming that the 9/11 attacks were a “false flag” event, that a “Zionist banker international cabal” is plotting to destroy Western nations, that coronavirus vaccines are an “experimental, biological kill shot” and that the 2020 election was “rigged” against President Donald Trump, according to a Washington Post review.

His online venture became profitable enough that Turnbull acknowledges he left his film production job in 2015 to run it full time. He continues to do so, despite being barred from major platforms by social media companies in recent years.

An examination of Turnbull’s activities — based on an interview with Turnbull and interviews with former colleagues, as well as court and corporation records — offers a view of how online conspiracy promoters have flourished in the past decade.

Turnbull’s accounts have been terminated by seven tech companies, including Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo, but he has managed to keep his business going by repeatedly jumping to new outlets. He is challenging the YouTube ban — which he contends is politically motivated — in federal court.

For years, Turnbull’s operation has generated revenue through subscriptions and donations and by advertising survival products and precious metals, which Turnbull has recommended as a hedge against an impending U.S. economic collapse, the Post review found. He reported that his business was generating between $50,000 and $250,000 annually in 2019, according to a voluntary business survey he answered and submitted to the Minnesota secretary of state that year.

In a 2½-hour interview with The Post, Turnbull acknowledged he was the founder of the SGT site and said he was motivated not by profit but by a drive to explore issues largely ignored by the mainstream media.

“I believe that conspiracies are real and they happen all the time,” he said. When asked specifically about his views on 9/11, the coronavirus and the 2020 election, which he forcefully describes in videos respectively as “a false-flag operation,” a “bioweapon” and “a coup,” he offered more-measured responses, saying there were unanswered questions surrounding each of them.

He declined to go into detail about the finances of his operation but said a crackdown by social media companies on what they call misinformation has made it more difficult for him to make a living.

“I’m surviving, but I’m a fighter and I’m going to stay,” said Turnbull, who has athletic features, tousled hair and horn-rimmed glasses.

He said he has striven to remain anonymous to keep the focus on his message and ideas.

“I never wanted to appear in my videos, because I wanted the message to be the star,” he said.

The Post identified Turnbull by reviewing state incorporation records from 2012 for a company in Minnesota that has the same name as his website and lists him as founder.

After a Post reporter recently visited him at his home, Turnbull agreed to an extensive on-the-record interview on the condition that he could record it. Two days after the interview, he then requested that his full name not be included in this article. The Post is publishing Turnbull’s name because his identity as SGT’s founder already appears in public records and he voluntarily sat for an on-the-record interview without the condition of anonymity.

In a video he published on his website in late June, he said he expected this article to be “a hit piece because I was honest with [a Post reporter] about my views about this election, which I believe was rigged.”

Turnbull has kept his identity private even as his website has been named in two recent court cases.

Identifying himself as the founder of SGT Report but calling himself “Michael Doe,” Turnbull joined others who were banned from YouTube in filing a federal lawsuit in October in California. At the time, SGT Report’s two YouTube channels had more than 630,000 and 107,000 subscribers, respectively, and their videos had been viewed a total of more than 146 million times, according to the claims in the lawsuit and an archive of the channel available through the website AltCensored.

Turnbull’s website was also cited in evidence presented against an Alabama man arrested Jan. 6 after he drove to Washington ahead of the Capitol riot with an arsenal of weapons and molotov cocktails in his truck, police said. Included in court documents was a handwritten note police said they seized from Lonnie Coffman’s vehicle that quoted Abraham Lincoln about overthrowing “the men who pervert the Constitution” and listing SGT Report as “good guys.”

Turnbull, who in the days before the Jan. 6 event published a video titled “the countdown to the second American Revolution,” told The Post that he was not aware of Coffman or the note and that he did not condone violence. “A lot of dumb people got carried away that day,” he said of Jan. 6. Coffman pleaded not guilty. Coffman’s attorney did not respond to messages.

Through much of the past 10 years, Turnbull’s anonymity has enabled him to navigate two separate worlds, sharing details about his online business only with family and close friends, he and five former co-workers said.

A former colleague who worked with him at the small Minneapolis-based film production firm Turnbull left in 2015 knew he had a website but was surprised to learn details about its content. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss company personnel, said, “He seemed like a typical Minnesota family guy.”

An ‘awakening’

Turnbull, who calls himself a “conspiracy researcher,” once considered becoming a reporter. He earned a degree in journalism from University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1992, commencement records show. During college, he said, he interned at a local news station but became disheartened by the low starting pay.

After college, he went to work for a few years at a Minnesota film production company called Hodder, before moving in 2002 to a marketing job for Target, the retail giant headquartered in Minneapolis. He rose to become a creative manager in charge of a team that produced commercials and marketing videos for the company, he and former colleagues said.

In his early years at Target, Turnbull rarely talked about politics and was part of a close-knit group of friends that socialized outside the office, two former colleagues who worked closely with him said. But sometime around 2008, Turnbull became intensely focused on questions about Sept. 11, 2001, and about the creation of the Federal Reserve, the central bank that carries out U.S. monetary policy, the colleagues said.

In his videos and podcast, Turnbull often refers to that period as his “awakening.”

Turnbull left printouts of Internet stories questioning the government’s findings about 9/11 on co-workers’ desks and made comments that left some co-workers, including his subordinates, feeling uncomfortable, said two former colleagues who witnessed the interactions.

“He needed to convince people,” one of the former colleagues said.

“People tried to tell him to stop, but he just couldn’t help himself,” the other former colleague said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company personnel matters.

A spokeswoman for Target confirmed Turnbull’s years of employment but did not respond to other questions about his time there.

Turnbull said his outspokenness led to his departure from Target in 2009.

“I probably started to speak a little bit too much quote-unquote truth in the workplace,” he said in his interview with The Post. “And I think that probably tainted — tainted my name with the folks at Target.”

“It became clear that it was time for me to go,” he said.

Turnbull returned to Hodder, the film production company, and began producing television movies for major networks, he and former colleagues said. In the coming years, he co-produced television movie specials about popular shows, including one about ABC’s hit TV series called “Lost: The Final Season — Beginning of the End,” another called “Gossip Girl XO XO” and “Army Wives: A Final Salute,” according to IMDb, an online movie database.

In 2010, while he was working as a television producer, he began creating videos for his fledgling YouTube channel in his free time, predicting a collapse of the U.S. economy and hyperinflation due to corruption by bankers and large corporations.

Turnbull told The Post that his videos at that time were “a labor of love” and “a hobby on the side.” He said he worked on them late at night and when he otherwise could have been at his children’s weekend soccer matches. He published video interviews with far-right commentators, conspiracy theorists, and gold and silver dealers, broadcasting from his house with only his voice and his website’s logo in place of his image.

From that home office, in a 3,500-square-foot house that he said he built in 2003 and is valued at more than $700,000, according to government appraisal records, Turnbull broadcast accounts of impending apocalypse.

One video in October 2010, called “Red Alert: Total Collapse Near,” featured Turnbull warning of economic disaster and positing that deceptions from powerful people in government and the banking industry flowed from a coverup of the true cause of 9/11. It received 42,000 views, according to AltCensored.

“We’re talking about a doomsday scenario for our republic,” Turnbull said in the video. “This is a epic, epic meltdown problem that we are seeing, and it’s all going to happen in November.”

“It’s not too late to buy silver or gold,” he said in another part of the video.

By August 2011, his website, SGT Report, was displaying banner advertisements for multiple gold and silver dealers, according to archived images of the site on the Internet Archive.

Turnbull said his “first precious-metal sponsor” was a gold and silver dealer called Miles Franklin, which paid him for a banner ad as well as a “very, very small” commission on gold and silver purchases that originated from his site. He declined to say how much revenue that and other gold and silver advertising have generated. Miles Franklin, a Minnesota-based company, did not respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment.

Turnbull also said he learned about a YouTube program that allowed him to bring in advertising revenue for commercials that aired with his videos. “I was shocked that there could be any earnings potential,” he said.

On May 25, 2012, he incorporated LLC in Minnesota. Turnbull said that within two years, he began to realize his operation could become a sustaining full-time job.

“I was probably making somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 grand a year pretty consistently with YouTube,” just one of the venture’s revenue streams, he said.

Co-workers at Hodder said Turnbull did not share much about his outside venture.

“He and I rarely ever talked about his personal political beliefs, or mine for that matter,” said Tim Herbstrith, who described himself as a friend and colleague. “I found him very affable. He did not live his life like the person that you would imagine if you saw the website.”

David Fried, the former operations director at Hodder, said: “Sean was professional and good at what he did. I knew that he had this interest in things a little more conspiratorial, but he never proselytized, so in that respect there wasn’t a lot of crossover, or any at all, with work.”

Kent Hodder, the owner of the company, declined to comment through an email.

Dual worlds

In 2014, the same year Turnbull produced a Disney TV special called the “ABC’s of Schoolhouse Rock,” he was making videos for his YouTube channel that referred to the Rockefeller and Rothschild families — early titans of industry and banking — as a “cartel” and calling the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting a “hoax.”

In a video interview on his YouTube channel dated Aug. 30, 2014, he spoke about his dual worlds.

“So many of us feel isolated in this truther community,” he said. “We feel isolated from family, from friends, from colleagues because most of the people in our daily lives are not able to articulate these issues, and therefore many of us are not able to talk about these issues very darn often with very many darn people.”

While his wife called him a “truth teller” in an exchange on their porch as Turnbull weighed a Post interview, Turnbull has said other family members have not listened to his warnings. “You know, my mom, I don’t think she’s ever watched a video I did on YouTube,” he said in the interview.

His mother, mother-in-law and neighbors, he has said in his videos, have not heeded his warnings about coronavirus vaccinations, which he has called “death stabs” under headlines such as: “Vaxxed people will die in two years. The republic even sooner.”

Turnbull left Hodder in 2015. In the interview with The Post, Turnbull said he told his employer: “Look, I’m making a bit of money here on YouTube. I think I can survive.”

His departure coincided with the onset of the Trump era, a time when elaborate conspiracy theories and anti-government rhetoric began emanating from the White House. The extremist movement QAnon — a collection of groundless allegations built around the notion that Democratic politicians, abetted by celebrities, are Satan-worshiping pedophiles who traffic children for sexual purposes — also began to take flight.

At the same time, Turnbull began to diversify his business’s revenue streams.

In May 2017, Turnbull launched a fundraising account on Patreon, a site that allows fans to pay fees to become “patrons” of their favorite content creators. On his Patreon page, he referred to the account as “an emergency backup plan” due to an effort by Google that year to change its search algorithm to not feature misinformation as prominently in its results.

“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing regardless of Google’s strategy to strangle us,” Turnbull wrote on his Patreon page under the name SGT.

By November 2019, more than 1,300 people were paying $5 a month to qualify as SGT patrons, according to an archived version of the now-shuttered Patreon page. That is equivalent to $6,500 per month, before Patreon’s fees, which range between 5 and 12 percent.

Turnbull said his website traffic and revenue were peaking in 2018 and 2019 but declined to provide details. He often posted videos promoting QAnon ideology but insisted in the interview with The Post that he was hopeful, but not certain, the theory was true.

A gold and silver dealer called SD Bullion that advertises on his site also offered an ounce of silver coin emblazoned with the website’s name along with the QAnon motto: “WHERE WE GO ONE WE GO ALL.”

“SGT Report is a daily source for truth in a time of ‘universal deceit,’” SD Bullion’s webpage says on an undated promotional page for the coin, which indicates it is sold out.

Turnbull did not respond to an emailed question about the coin.

Tyler Wall, the CEO of SD Bullion, whom Turnbull regularly interviewed on SGT Report, did not respond to multiple messages left at his office seeking an interview. Turnbull said that the company, which he called “a supporter” of his website, pays a monthly fee to advertise on SGT Report and that it does not pay him commissions.

His YouTube videos regularly garnered more than 100,000 views and some received more than 1 million during Trump’s presidency, according to archived copies on AltCensored.

Last fall, with the presidential election nearing, tech giants came under increased pressure to address the use of their platforms to spread false information. Turnbull’s accounts were soon caught up in a broader crackdown.

On Oct. 15, YouTube took down SGT’s two channels, part of its purge of websites it said promoted spurious accusations and had the potential to incite real-world violence. A week later, Patreon shut down his page.

“We removed the creator from Patreon as he violated our guidelines on disinformation by propagating the QAnon conspiracy theory,” Patreon said in a statement.

Twitter and Vimeo also terminated SGT Report’s accounts for violating their guidelines, according to spokespeople for both companies.

Turnbull and 14 other content creators — seven using pseudonyms to shield their identity — filed a federal lawsuit against YouTube and its parent company, Google, in the Northern District of California the same month of their removal, alleging the company did not abide by its contractual agreements with content creators.

YouTube responded in court documents that the channels “were rife with content espousing harmful conspiracy theories” and “included horrifying and unsubstantiated accusations of violent and criminal conduct supposedly committed by specific individuals.” YouTube did not challenge the plaintiffs’ request for anonymity and a judge allowed it, court records show.

Turnbull, identifying himself as “Michael Doe,” wrote in a court filing that he assumed his channels were terminated because “they have a widespread audience reach, I am not a member of the mainstream media, and my content has at times focused on or questioned mainstream media or government.”

Turnbull acknowledged in the interview with The Post that he is Michael Doe.

“I am proceeding under a pseudonym in this case because I have maintained my anonymity with respect to the work that I do and the speech that I offer to the public,” he wrote in a court filing, offering few details about his background except that he had earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1992.

His attorney offered an additional reason he and others wanted to remain anonymous.

“If the speech of the Plaintiffs is actually threatening or connected to ‘real-world violence’ as YouTube seems to suggest in its blog post, then the Plaintiffs could be subject to criminal liability,” the attorney for the plaintiffs wrote in court files.

The lawsuit is in its preliminary stages.

In the meantime, Turnbull has shifted yet again to new platforms.

He has a fundraising page on the website SubscribeStar, which allows his followers to choose between $3 and $40 monthly subscriptions that offer services ranging from access to his videos and interviews to personal handwritten letters or calls thanking subscribers. He is also providing a streaming channel through an Internet platform called Secure Server TV that allows his videos to be streamed for a $3.99 monthly subscription.

Turnbull did not respond to an emailed question about the number of subscribers on the sites.

During the interview, he said he has no plans to halt his venture.

“I'm not going to just cower and go away because this apparatus has been turned and weaponized against me and my speech,” he said.


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