The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This beauty queen was the face of a fake news website. She says she had no idea.

The Conservative Daily Post has a simple business model, according to court documents: use blood-boiling stories to channel hyperpartisan outrage into wads of advertising cash.

At the top of the funnel was the popular Facebook profile of pundit Laura Hunter, a Barack Obama-hating, Donald Trump-trumpeting activist blogger with a beauty queen’s face and close to a million followers.

She churned out posts at a dizzying clip, sometimes twice an hour — bogus stories about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, or Bill Clinton’s involvement in an illicit sex ring. She frequently pointed out just how distrustful the American mainstream media was.

The stories — all of which happened to be articles from the Conservative Daily Post — were mostly untrue, a lawsuit says. But they apparently seemed plausible to their target audience of conservative readers, who widely shared many of the stories Hunter posted.

Snopes and PolitiFact, the rumor-busting websites, have debunked a few of the site’s claims that have attracted a massive number of readers.

One phony story claimed that a university forced students to wear hijabs. PolitiFact said the evidence for another story, about an underground Clinton sex network, was “thin.”

Hunter, it turns out, is a real person — though not the person her Facebook avatar led thousands to believe she was, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the real Laura Hunter.

The suit, filed in district court in Nevada’s Clark County, claims that the news site misappropriated Hunter’s name to transform her into “a spokesperson for a radical right-wing website that peddles fake news.”

She’s seeking compensatory damages and an injunction against the Conservative Daily Post and an affiliated Facebook page using the name Conservative Daily Review.

“Defendants know that they have turned Ms. Hunter into a Conservative online muck slinger of fake news,” said the lawsuit. “And they must answer for it.”

The viewpoints expressed on the fake news website “are diametrically opposed to what [Hunter] believes,” her attorney, Marc Randazza, told The Washington Post.

“They’re not just cranking out problematic content,” he said, “but then they’re taking somebody and making them the face of it. … She just wants to clear her name.”

The real Laura Hunter is a Washington state resident who won the Ms. World pageant in 2016. The television actress and model has owned a photography business for 20 years, according to the site.

She’s also politically left of center, her attorney says — not the conservative Tennessee pundit that the Conservative Daily Post claimed.

She came face-to-face with her Internet alter ego in October after an email from a man named Michael Powell, according to the lawsuit. Powell said he ran an advertising agency in Las Vegas and had a client who wanted to use Hunter’s head shot “from a few years ago.”

But he dodged Hunter’s efforts to talk by phone, according to court documents. In another email, he asked her to send more head shots, ostensibly so he could persuade his “client” to use them.

Worried by the confusing conversations, Hunter Googled herself.

This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money

The top return linked to the conservative activist’s page on Facebook.

That’s when Hunter says she realized Powell had “turned her persona into a highly rated spokesperson for a right wing political website called the Conservative Daily Review.”

As she sleuthed around online, Hunter noticed that the website contained the same photo Powell said he wanted to use in his original email.

Beneath it was a bogus autobiography, which has since been deleted:

Laura Hunter is a well-known blogger and political activist known for her constant stream on Facebook. She has been in the reporting and journalism world for almost two decades and has witnessed countless elections and large propositions come and go. Currently, her passion lies with grass-roots (movements) within America that look to put the Bill of Rights back on its rightly throne.
Laura Hunter is single and enjoys living with her dog in Eastern Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or looking to spread the word about true Patriotism, she enjoys hiking and camping with friends and family.

Powell and the others named in the lawsuit — Stanly Shilov, Chris Khachaturian and Meng Yang — didn’t return calls or messages seeking comment. Powell is the president of Gravitas, which owns the site, according to court documents. The other men are listed as executive officers.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Hunter’s picture has disappeared from the Facebook page. In its place: a cartoon image of a brunette woman with hazel eyes.

Many of the old clips written in her name have been documented in Hunter’s lawsuit, which claims Powell and others had a sophisticated fake news operation with “a sizable staff,” Randazza said.

The proliferation of fake news hit its apex during the 2016 presidential election, mixed in with a steady churn of political news and stories about the candidates.

For some, it serves obvious political aims. But others have made thousands hawking bogus stories to people seen as both gullible and hyperpartisan.

As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser wrote last year: “There are a lot of variables that factor into exactly how much a viral hoax story can make for its creator. But if you take Facebook shares as an indirect indicator of how widely viewed some of these sites might be, you start to understand why, if optimized properly, fake-news sites targeting hyperpartisan audiences can be lucrative.”

One prolific fake news writer told The Washington Post that he makes $10,000 a month from Google’s Adsense. A 23-year-old recent graduate from Davidson College told the New York Times that he churned out fake news from his home office in Maryland — and made about $1,000 an hour.

Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter are a big part of the fake news business model, according to Alexios Mantzarlis, who heads Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network.

Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors

A person with a viewpoint and a personality — even a fake one — is “a better driver of traffic to a page than the publication’s brand account,” Mantzarlis said. “No one really knows these websites as their own things. This is stuff that primarily shows up on news feeds.”

Mantzarlis said fake news website are often built to churn out stories as quickly as possible, which can lead to troubling mistakes.

“I’m not surprised. I’ve seen the stock pictures used and taken all the time. … This isn’t rocket science,” Mantzarlis told The Washington Post. Fake news sites create content “as fast as they can to get as much money as they can.  They don’t do as much research or any research for their stories so they wouldn’t do a lot of research when creating these Facebook personalities.”

The ethics of fake news aside, Randazza said he’s amazed that no one at the company thought using Hunter’s name and face could end in legal trouble.

“At least in a lot of the cases that I get involved in, you can at least look at it and understand the logic behind some of the poor decisions,” he said. “Here, I just don’t know.”

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