Over the weekend, a new facet of fascination emerged. A small conservative website announced an event July 4 in which the group Bikers for Trump, joined by other tough-guy organizations, would descend upon the CHAZ (as it is known) and “free the people in the zone.” It immediately conjures images of guys in leather jackets and punks in black hoodies rumbling under the Space Needle.
Soon after other conservative outlets began picking up news of the event, though, several organizations identified as participating announced they weren’t actually affiliated with it. Bikers for Trump denied being formally involved, as did the Oathkeepers. The site hosting the event subtly shifted its descriptions of what to expect, pressing forward with a slew of new attention if a reduced list of formal participants.
This should not have been a surprising turn of events for anyone familiar with the site supporting the purported event. Its initiator was Prntly, a site that, more than four years ago, The Washington Post exposed as trafficking in invented news stories to garner attention and, more importantly, advertising revenue. Four years later, with another presidential election looming, Prntly is back and propagating false information once again.
What’s more, it’s doing so on Facebook, a site that since the 2016 election took specific steps aimed at curtailing the sort of misinformation on which Prntly relies. How that’s possible is a function both of Facebook’s careful rules and of Prntly’s ability to fly under the radar.
Prntly didn’t start as a fake-news-sharing, violent-confrontation-stoking political outlet. It began as a broker for printing services. Founded by Alexander M. Portelli, a native of Albany, it was simply another entrepreneurial endeavor in a long line of similar efforts. After dropping out of high school and serving time for selling ecstasy, Portelli opened a small cafe in New York’s capital. Frustrated with the metered parking spaces outside, he decided to run for mayor despite being prevented from doing so because of his criminal record. He expanded into owning ATMs under the name AMP Calypso and, eventually, into printing.
He soon discovered, though, that running a blog with invented and exaggerated stories was a better use for Prntly.com than trying to convince people to use his service to get business cards made. Twice during the 2016 Republican primary, stories from Prntly came to then-candidate Donald Trump’s attention and earned retweets.
This tweet, for example, links to an article that purports to use Gallup polling to make its false claim about support for Trump.
Its author is identified as Dmitri Voltova, a U.S. resident born in the former Soviet Union who is “a proud contributor to Prntly with a voice from the former communist empires.” Voltova was one of several purported authors on the site, though our 2016 report suggested that it was most likely that Portelli and his Web designer probably wrote most of the content.
After the 2016 election, there was a new focus on how fake news was allowed to propagate on social media websites. That led to new rules, including an effort by Facebook announced in late 2016 to introduce third-party fact-checking of claims on the site.
In a podcast interview, Portelli blamed shifts in how his site was treated on Facebook for its closure in 2017.
“What happened after he won, ironically, our website showed up at the top of Google News for when people Googled ‘election results’ under ‘news,’ ” Portelli claimed. “We had an article about Trump winning came up first, and then we had something about, I don’t know, like — we wrote — somebody wrote something about — because we had some writers and somebody wrote something about he would have won the electoral vote or something with — if illegals didn’t vote or something. And that was the first thing that people would see. And so the media wrote about that, they’re like, ‘Why is this showing up? Google is — has fake news showing up on their news section.’
“So suddenly, I guess, Facebook kind of — must have done something because then our articles would just totally, we’re not getting viewed,” he continued. “They pretty much shadowbanned us. And that really kind of killed it.”
For obvious reasons, Portelli’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt (as when he claimed on Twitter this month to be a veteran to criticize T-Mobile pulling ads from Carlson’s show). But this makes sense as an order of events: Prntly faces repercussions from its untrue articles and loses its ability to generate attention and revenue through Facebook. Attempts to reach Portelli for comment were not immediately successful.
For a few years, Prntly was dark. The Internet Archive’s index of its pages shows that the site was blank, save for some configuration files. But within the past few months, it reemerged. In January, it posted an article criticizing Facebook — “We Need A Replacement To Facebook” — for policing misinformation. The article raised now-familiar arguments about whether Facebook has the legal right to block or downplay content. (It does.)
There’s no question that there still exists a link between Portelli and Prntly. On his personal Facebook page, Portelli boasted about getting 12,000 “patriots” to join his anti-CHAZ event July 4.
What’s more, the site still includes the sorts of obviously false information that Prntly used in 2016. One recent article, for example, claimed that Prntly’s “new bureau” had a source within the FBI who alleged that the bureau “is putting together a RICO case against the Antifa involved in the occupation of the CHAZ.” The article is surrounded by ads, including, at the time of writing, one paid for by Trump’s reelection campaign. (This doesn’t mean that the campaign is intentionally advertising on the site, just that the advertising broker Prntly uses correctly matched the Trump ad with a receptive audience.)
Prntly’s Facebook page shows the evolution of the anti-CHAZ event itself. On June 13, it promoted the event with the headline “Join And Share: Bikers For Trump Will Retake Seattle From Antifa.” The next day, the site changed the featured image and title, noting that the event wasn’t a function of “Bikers for Trump.” Prntly’s own stories about the event show how the event was quietly changed — presumably because Prntly didn’t have authorization to claim the group’s involvement in the first place.
How Prntly was able to resuscitate its presence on Facebook (including its relatively large follower base) is unclear. Facebook has several hundred fact-checking organizations that flag misinformation, flags that could prevent Prntly from being able to create events. Despite its track record and, according to Portelli, despite having been the target of censorship in 2017, Prntly is able both to continue to share false information and to create an event purporting to involve groups who later publicly denied involvement.
Prntly’s advantage might be a simple one: It may be big enough to be a worthwhile use of Portelli’s time for the ad revenue — but small enough not to have come to Facebook’s attention. It’s possible, too, that the gears of catching misinformation simply grind slowly enough that Prntly could reestablish itself and present false or dubious information for weeks or months on end. Facebook declined to comment on Prntly’s situation.
Meanwhile, Prntly appears to have done something rare in the fake-news world: turned fake news into real news. It now seems quite possible that, should the CHAZ remain in existence until July 4, there will actually be interested parties who show up to “liberate” its residents. What began as Portelli’s apparent brainchild may, through the power of Facebook and the ability of the social networking giant to build engagement, become an actual conflict on the streets of Seattle.
As always, Prntly isn’t Portelli’s only iron in the fire. His Twitter biography also promotes an apparently related site, Prntpage. It claims to be “an online marketplace and app that streamlines everything the world’s consumers need access to in one place” and a “transparent, non-censoring social media platform.”
That’s from its help page, which is in the form of an FAQ. Three other questions in that FAQ are interesting, too.
One asks if Facebook isn’t a social media platform, with Prntpage insisting that since Facebook “controls the content it’s users publish” it “would not fall into the category of a TRULY FREE social media platform.”
Another question asks how Prntpage combats fake news.
“Prntpage is a platform,” the answer reads, again incorrectly representing rules around content on social media platforms. “[W]e do not attempt to be the arbitrators of what is truth, and what isn’t.”
And then there’s the last question in the FAQ on the page.
“Are there scammers on Prntpage?” it asks.
“Like all websites,” the answer reads, “scammers most likely will try to operate on Prntpage.”