The far right is floating conspiracy theories about a CNN reporter who profiled a pro-Trump Reddit user
The far right is escalating its war on the CNN reporter whose profile of a pro-Trump Reddit user sparked swift backlash.
Numerous false stories about Andrew Kaczynski, who has been accused of blackmailing the Reddit user who created the WWE meme retweeted by President Donald Trump last Sunday, have surfaced on far-right blogs and social media in the past week.
Kaczynski's article last Tuesday about Reddit user "HanAssholeSolo" described the user's history, including his sharing of anti-Semitic memes. The story said that CNN would withhold publishing his name and that the user was "not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again."
"In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same," Kaczynski's story said. "CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change."
Nonetheless, Kaczynski has become a prime target of vitriol. Activists have threatened to protest outside his house and have revealed some of his family members' personal information.
Last Wednesday, far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos published a story claiming that Kaczynski "once drove a man to suicide," saying that a Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, killed himself because he was mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, in part because of Kaczynski's social media activity.
In the days after the bombing, Reddit users mistakenly identified Tripathi — who was missing at the time — as a suspect in the bombing. This led to a cascading series of events: Following a post on Reddit identifying Tripathi, a Twitter user said a Boston Police Department scanner identified Tripathi as a suspect.
This was shared by a local television reporter, which Kaczynski picked up, tweeting: "Wow Reddit was right about the missing Brown student per the police scanner. Suspect identified as Sunil Tripathi."
Timelines of the incident consider Kaczynski's tweet, which went out to his then-over 80,000 followers, to be one of the first of a series that momentarily seemed to legitimize the theory, which was disproved by the FBI shortly thereafter.
But Yiannopoulos' story makes no mention of the fact that Tripathi, who suffered from depression, had died a month before the bombing. Thus while Kaczynski was one of the higher-profile journalists who ran with false information, his error didn't lead to Tripathi's death. (Kaczynski deleted the tweets shortly after the incident.)
That story wasn't the only misinformation proliferated by the far right that gained traction last week.
On Friday, Media Equalizer, a blog that aspires to be a conservative response to Media Matters, accused Kaczynski of using "a phishing tactic to gather private information" of people who received his emails.
The blog claimed that because Kaczynski used MailTrack, a Google Chrome extension that informs users whether an email has been opened and read, he was attempting to "plant foreign web bugs into personal emails, a common phishing tactic used to determine IP address, location, and other identifying information."
"At one point, he attempts to sneak a web bug into the conversation, with the apparent goal of luring the recipient into clicking the link," author Jeff Reynolds wrote. "Doing so would give Kaczynski the IP address, location, and other metadata included in the email recipient's account."
Far-right provocateurs Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec picked up the thread.
Though email tracking is a common tool used by email sales and marketing services, some critics feel that the practice raises email privacy questions. Politico's media columnist, Jack Shafer, ruminated on Twitter on Friday about whether it was ethical for people to track emails.
But according to MailTrack's support page, since the end of 2013, "MailTrack does not disclose the information of device and geographical localization for Gmail's recipients."
"MailTrack's user interface does not show the location or IP address of the recipient," MailTrack cofounder Eduardo Manchon said in an email. "There is no way you can use MailTrack for phishing attacks or to find out the identity of the recipient of an email, or the recipient's IP address."
Further, the "web bug" Reynolds refers to is a MailTrack feature that is a simple alert as to whether the user has clicked a hyperlink that Kaczynski included in his email. According to MailTrack's support page, this does not actually track the IP address, location, and other metadata Media Equalizer claimed the service collected.
The post provoked broad condemnation from CNN.
CNN's vice president of communications, Matt Dornic, threatened possible legal action against the site and criticized Posobiec, who then argued without evidence that the website's support page did not contain "unbiased facts."
Media Equalizer cofounder Brian Maloney defended the article, saying that some Twitter users claimed they could in fact reveal users IP addresses but that the argument was "beside the point now" and the interpretation of the article was "left up to the reader to decide if he's up to no good or not."
"He has enough tools at his disposal to get this information, and he's a pro at this," Maloney said. "But to us, it's about CNN's response to a story that would've faded into the weekend. It's about their heavy-handedness."
In a series of emails posted by the site, Kaczynski asked Media Equalizer to correct the story, saying that MailTrack did not share identifying information.
"What you wrote is not true and is inflaming people who are threatening me and my family," Kaczynski said. "Mailtrack.io does not tell ip address or location. You need to correct this as soon as possible."
But this just bred more conspiracy theories about Kaczynski.
When a user on Medium said the service had not recorded any location services since 2013, Media Equalizer cofounder Melanie Morgan, a right-wing radio host who claims she is a close friend of Fox News' Sean Hannity, proposed a broader conspiracy.
Confronted with facts in the Medium post, Morgan proposed that the post wasn't written by author Ali Fleih but was instead was written by Kaczynski himself.
But in a phone call and email with Business Insider, Fleih confirmed that he is a 19-year-old student at Wayne State University — the online school directory lists him as a biology student — and had never met Kaczynski, but was a fan of his investigative work, and was determined to point out the flaws he saw in the Media Equalizer article.
"I am not Andrew Kaczynski. I have never met the guy," Fleih said, noting in a phone call that he had "never met anyone from cable news."
"There is so much theory put out without a single shred of evidence. The evidence against [the Media Equalizer story] is overwhelming and coming from the mouths of MailTrack themselves! And they still keep the story."
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