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The Fake News Pipeline: How A Small-Time Clickbait Farmer Is Spreading the Gospel of Big Oil

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The Fake News Pipeline: How A Small-Time Clickbait Farmer Is Spreading the Gospel of Big Oil

The Scam

In a video originally posted in the Facebook group “Louisiana First” in early August (the page has since been deleted), a man identifying himself as “Brent Williamson” claims to be reporting from a “courthouse” located “down in Baton Rouge.” He has just returned from the Secretary of State’s office, he says, and the two-minute screed that follows is delivered in a tone of sarcasm and anger. His target is Cherri Foytlin, a Louisiana-based activist who opposes the Bayou Bridge Pipeline—the latest project from Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Williamson” uses specious evidence to contradict the notion that Foytlin is poor, and returns again and again to the claim that she makes “six figures a year.” The idea is to paint her, and by extension the entire burgeoning protest movement in Louisiana—especially the L’eau Est La Vie camp—as a group of cynical profiteers.

“This woman is not a grassroots organizer,” he concludes. “She is being paid a shit-ton of money for her job to try to stop people here from getting new jobs. Our state needs energy infrastructure. This woman is Louisiana’s biggest enemy.”

Update, Sept. 11: The YouTube version of the video has been removed after a copyright complaint. Below, you can see a screenshot of the activist:

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As you might have guessed from my liberal use of scare quotes, almost all of the information in this video is fake. There is no outraged pro-oil activist named Brent Williamson—the man in the video is an actor named Roberto Bricchi (stage name: Robert Angelo), a 26-year-old registered Libertarian who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. The video itself was not shot at a courthouse in Baton Rouge—a nonsense location chosen to lend an air of authority—but at a nondescript one-story building somewhere in North Carolina. It’s a fair guess that Bricchi has never been to the Secretary of State’s office in Louisiana, has very little concern for the state’s energy infrastructure, and had never heard of Cherri Foytlin before reading the script presented to him that day. For an hour’s work, it’s likely that he made around $50, paid in cash.

At this point, you might expect a dramatic rundown of the events and characters that led to this bizarre scenario—a morally dubious clickbait farmer, his puppet actor, pseudonyms galore, a shadowy security service doing its best Blackwater impersonation, and a sprawling, jerry-rigged social media network built to spew propaganda in service of an American oil giant.

That’s all here, for what it’s worth. But to adorn this story in the language of intrigue would be to disguise the fundamental incompetence at the heart of the endeavor. From the jump, this was an ethically vulgar operation—designed to serve a cynical purpose, and to prey on the perceived gullibility of the American public—but also, at final reckoning, one with questionable impact. What began as an elaborate digital offensive will likely end in the humiliation of its author—an aspiring clickbait mogul, former journalist, and Silicon Valley exile named Nick Johnson who made it his mission to digitally handicap the next big pipeline protest.

The relevant term here is “astroturfing,” and Johnson is not the first to attempt it. His work is instructive not for its success, but for the audacity of his technique—this is how “fake news” in its most literal form can be used to bolster the darker elements of capitalism. And while Johnson’s amateurish efforts may be laughable, they also represent a distressing evolution in sheer deceit. His strange saga makes it possible to imagine a future where this type of guerrilla warfare is conducted in ways that are far more effective, in both concept and execution. For small communities around the country, Johnson is a grim harbinger of things to come.

The story begins—of course—on Facebook.

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The Recruitment

The closed Facebook group Triangle Auditions is a resource dedicated to the acting community in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina. There, a man named “Nate Johnson”—the first of the fake names used by Nick Johnson—posted a call for actors willing to take on the role of “Livestreamer”:

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One local actor, who prefers to remain anonymous, spoke with Nate on the phone after contacting him. He was told, without apparent reservation, that the project involved making inauthentic Facebook live videos meant to mimic works of real activism. There was just one major difference—the message would be in support of oil pipelines. They would invent a fake name and a fake location, Nate said, and use the video to discredit protesters. It would be posted on region-specific pages, targeting a small audience, so the actor wouldn’t have to worry about being identified. When my source replied that the agenda didn’t align with his political beliefs, Nate told him that he understood—he was having trouble finding anyone willing to participate. The actor asked to see a script, but Nate refused in a subsequent Facebook chat, citing political differences.

At least two other actors—also requesting anonymity—made it to the next step, and received a follow-up email from Nate. These two emails, nearly identical, came from “Nate Clay,” Johnson’s second pseudonym. (The entire text of one email, with personal information redacted, is available here.) Once again, “Nate” made very little effort to disguise his intentions. After providing examples of the real activist videos he planned to emulate, he outlined their mission:

These live video streams we want to do are a parody of live streamers on Facebook. But they aren’t funny – they are going to look authentic. We will provide a script and you would do your best to stick to it (it doesn’t have to be word for word – it’s the sentiment that counts the most).

Here’s how it would work: Once a week (whenever), I’d send you a few scripts to look through. Then, we’d meet up a day or two later somewhere close to where you’re at (in an area that can pass for ‘anywhere USA). I’d record you a few times going through the script (we might do more than one script each time).

We post it to the page. You can use a fake name, etc. We can have fun creating a ‘fake’ persona if you want. I’ll pay you in cash each time we meet – we can finalize the amount before we do the first one.

From there, Nate provided an example script in which the actor would impugn the motives of the protesters. An excerpt:

Hi I’m fake person, and right now, we’re in Lafayette Louisiana.

So we’ve been telling you about these pipeline protesters that are trying to fight against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline here in Louisiana. Now, we’re not claiming that the oil industry is 100% perfect, but we definitely wanted to talk to some people in the area to get a feel for if they agree with our argument that we need oil here in Louisiana.

Just about everyone here supports this pipeline, that we can tell. The protester group has said many times that the crawfish industry and fishermen and even native americans would be affected by this pipeline, and from what we can tell, that’s simply not the case. One crawfisherman told us he just nearly had a record year, and all three crawfisherman we talked to said these pipeline projects that go through the water do NOT impact the crawfish at all.

The pitch continued: Native Americans won’t be impacted! (“We hardly think the tribes down there drink swamp water…there are 3 or 4 casinos in the basin…it’s not like too many tribes down there are living off the land anymore.”) Gators won’t be impacted! Jobs will be created! Money will flow!

The two sources who received an email passed on the opportunity. But “Nate Clay” eventually found his man in Roberto Bricchi. I reached out to Bricchi in every way I knew how, but he studiously avoided me.

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Who is Nick Johnson, alias Nate Johnson, alias Nate Clay?

As one source pointed out, a look at Nate Johnson’s Facebook page includes multiple links to two separate sites—RoadSnacks.net and HomeSnacks.net. At the bottom of both pages is the parent company: Chasing Chains LLC. A Whois search of the sites shows they are registered to a man named Chris Kolmar of Durham, NC, and a search of the North Carolina Secretary of State website shows that Chasing Chains LLC was formed in April 2015 by Kolmar and Nikoloas Johnson (aka “Nick”) of Chapel Hill, NC. The creation filing comes with a statement of purpose:

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As it turns out, I was not the first journalist to show interest in Kolmar and Johnson—IndyWeek, the Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, ran a long, fascinating feature in April 2016 called, “These Guys Discovered One Weird Trick for Building a Clickbait Empire.”

Kolmar and Johnson came to the Triangle by way of Silicon Valley, where they worked in marketing for the real estate brokerage Movoto. One aspect of their jobs was to create viral content that would draw users to the Movoto website, and thereby increase sales. They succeeded at the former:

It soon occurred to Kolmar that posts about neighborhoods, cities, and states were a natural fit. So Movoto started cranking out titles like “These Are The 10 Best Places To Live In Alabama.” The methodology—tossing census information, crime rates, tax rates, weather conditions, and a few other factors into an algorithm and writing up whatever it spit out—wouldn’t pass muster at a research lab, but that wasn’t the point…Traffic to the Movoto blog skyrocketed, from two thousand visitors per month in 2011 to eighteen million in 2014.

Unfortunately for them, the traffic surge never translated to a substantial uptick in revenue. New ownership put the kibosh on the strategy, and Kolmar and Johnson moved separately to North Carolina, where they eventually started Chasing Chains. The basis for their new websites was the “Regional infotainment” they had perfected at Movoto, and they soon discovered an additional wrinkle: Negative stories—”worst places to live,” “most boring cities,” etc.—yielded more clicks than positive ones.

If you search for Johnson and Kolmar on Google, a preponderance of the results are from angry bloggers who have taken offense at seeing their towns insulted at RoadSnacks or HomeSnacks. The Press-Enterprise, a newspaper out of Riverside County, CA—where, incidentally, Johnson used to work as a reporter—ran a story about Chasing Chains in which Johnson lamented the hate mail he received:

Johnson says it’s all meant as a way to have some fun and get people talking. “It’s not the end of the world,” he says.

On the other hand, he adds, “I’ve had some really sappy letters sent to me that made me feel sad about doing this and we almost stopped. They said ‘You hurt everyone’s feelings,’ and we said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this.’”

But then he looks at the traffic on the website.

“People just eat this stuff up,” he says.

At the end of the IndyWeekly feature, Johnson and Kolmar admitted that they hadn’t made as much money as expected, and were afraid that their traffic might not be sustainable. They’d already begun to consider alternative strategies for the future, and one quote from Johnson stood out to me as particularly relevant, considering the pro-oil content I’d just come across:

Consulting is one possibility. “We’re very good at getting a lot of people in one region to see the same thing in one day,” Johnson says. “Which is a good skill to have, and I think there are companies that would pay us for that insight.”

I didn’t fail to notice the similarity between the name Nick Johnson and the Facebook pseudonym “Nate Johnson” (aka “Nate Clay”), of course—it was clear to me that they were the same person. Even so, Nate Johnson’s Facebook page contained no pictures, he wouldn’t accept my friend request, and proving the connection, I thought, would be arduous. How to show that Nick, formerly of Movoto, now of Chasing Chains, was also Nate?

Then I scrolled down on his Facebook feed, reached March 2014, and found this:

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Once again, I had wildly overestimated the extent to which Johnson was capable of disguising either himself or the true purpose of his new digital operation.

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What is the Bayou Bridge Pipeline?

The strangest aspect of the Roberto Bricchi video, and the emails Johnson sent to the actors, was the focus on Louisiana. Why was a clickbait farmer from North Carolina so fixated on a pipeline almost a thousand miles away? To answer that question, along with the obvious follow-up—who does he work for?—I had to learn about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Here’s the short description, per the Times-Picayune:

The pipeline is a joint project by subsidiaries of Phillips 66 Partners, Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistic Partners LP. It would move crude oil from a major hub at Nederland, Texas through the environmentally sensitive Atchafalaya Basin to NuStar Energy LP’s terminal in St. James.

You might recognize the name Energy Transfer Partners—that’s the same parent company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, which famously inspired a cultural and environmental protest at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and led to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denying an easement for pipeline construction under Lake Oahe. That triumph was quickly reversed by Trump this past February, protesters were cleared out by the end of the month, and pipeline construction was completed in April.

Nevertheless, the Standing Rock protests gained international attention, and a similar movement is already underway in Louisiana at the L’eau Est La Vie (“water is life”) camp. A state permit was granted for the construction of the 162.5-mile Bayou Bridge Pipeline in April, but lawsuits have been filed seeking to overturn the permit on environmental grounds, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to weigh in. The groups represented in the latest lawsuit have several concerns that echo the Standing Rock activists—how would the pipeline affect drinking water, flood risks, stormwater drainage systems, evacuation routes, and local industry in the 11 parishes it crosses, or the 77 acres of wetlands it will permanently alter? The lawsuit raises the specter of severe damage in the case of an oil spill, and claims the state’s Department of Natural Resources has not sufficiently investigated the potential environmental impact.

Advocates for the pipeline cite ETP’s safety standards, but, as the Times-Picayune noted, these promises are undercut by reports “showing Energy Transfer Partners…had reported accidents across the country in 2015 and 2016, including 35 pipeline incidents.” Additionally, oil and gas construction has been directly responsible for erosion leading to disappearing coastal lands along the Gulf of Mexico, and even a “safe” pipeline would exacerbate this problem.

Nevertheless, as is typical in these cases, the oil industry is supported by most of the state’s top politicians. Former Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is one of Louisiana’s top lobbyists for the oil industry, and she recently dismissed environmental concerns as a problem for a different time:

One of the industry’s lobbyists at the Jan. 12 hearing, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., acknowledged the global warming argument, saying the push to shift the world away from fossil fuel energy is laudable. “But that day is not today,” she said, adding that pipelines are the safest and best option for transporting crude oil through the state.

Active state representatives from both parties are almost universally in favor of the pipeline. In an emblematic case at the local level, the St. James parish council voted to approve the pipeline land use by a 4-3 vote, with the four white members voting in favor, and the three black members voting against—it’s thought that the negative effects of the pipeline will predominantly effect the parish’s black residents.

If there’s any chance to stop construction, it will have to come from outside groups like L’eau Est La Vie. Previously, those groups haven’t posed much of a threat to oil companies, but that dynamic has changed, perhaps permanently, with the Keystone Pipeline protests and Standing Rock. For Nick Johnson, and whoever he’s working for, that’s exactly the problem.

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Enter the TigerSwan

As I read more about the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, I came across a Feb. 8 op-ed in Lafayette, LA’s Daily Advertiser. Written by a man named James “Spider” Marks, the piece argued that the BBP would bring “safety and security” to Louisiana, and portrayed the Standing Rock protesters as dangerous—a cautionary tale for all Louisianans. He also leaned on a common refrain among pro-pipeline advocates across the country, which is that the protesters are outside agitators. Wrote Marks:

Many of the same groups who protested against Dakota Access – among them, 350.org, the Bold Alliance, and the Sierra Club – have now turned their sights on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline here in Louisiana. As in North Dakota, many of these protesters are not native Louisianans, and do not understand the important role that energy infrastructure plays in the economy of this state. Their aim is simple: to stop the use of fossil fuels wherever possible, as unrealistic as that goal may be….

First, no Louisianan wants to live under the conditions that those unsuspecting North Dakota residents were subject to – with protestors trespassing, interrupting the local flow of traffic, and generally injecting elements of fear and the unknown into their daily lives. A timely approval process of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, however, would prevent the possibility of such conditions arising in this state.

Marks was identified in the paper as a “retired U.S. Army major general and president of the Marks Collaborative, an advisory firm dedicated to the development and transformation of corporate leaders and their organizations.” He was not identified, however, as the Advisory Board Chair of a private security contractor called TigerSwan. The same TigerSwan, it would have been relevant to note, that works directly for Energy Transfer Partners, and that was later denied a working permit in Louisiana as it sought to fill the same function it served in North Dakota—overseeing the security operations of the pipeline construction.

Other outlets took Marks to task for concealing his affiliation (he has pulled the same act in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere), but nobody nailed TigerSwan to the wall quite like The Intercept.

In June, the site ran a six-part exposé on TigerSwan, a firm they describe as follows:

TigerSwan was created by retired Army Col. James Reese during the height of the war in Iraq. Reese, a former commander in the elite Army special operations unit known as Delta, entered into the exploding private security and intelligence industry hoping to compete with Blackwater, then the most successful of the private military companies supporting U.S. war efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. TigerSwan has an estimated 350 employees and maintains offices in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India, Latin America, and Japan.

It would be impossible to summarize the entire piece here—bolstered as it is by more than 100 leaked internal documents and 1,000 more obtained from public records requests—but suffice it to say that TigerSwan, on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners, “targeted the movement opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline with military-style counterterrorism measures, collaborating closely with police in at least five states.” They monitored protesters (who they compared to “jihadists”) with air and radio surveillance, infiltrated their camps in an attempt to sow discord, shared intelligence with law enforcement at all levels, and ran a social media counterinformation campaign in an attempt to discredit ETP’s opponents.

It’s a harrowing read—an egregious example of how capitalism’s military excesses, in conjunction with the corporate profit motive, dehumanize civilians and trample democracy underfoot. The exposé, along with a lawsuit against TigerSwan for operating without a license in North Dakota, also contributed to the denial of a similar license in Louisiana. But one excerpt in particular stood out to me, in reference to the counterinformation side of TigerSwan’s operations:

But TigerSwan personnel did not limit themselves to monitoring the narrative — they also tried to change it.

In a report dated September 7, TigerSwan agents discuss the need for a “Social Engagement Plan.” On September 22, they discuss the development of an information operations campaign run by the company’s North Carolina-based intel team and Robert Rice, who without disclosing his TigerSwan affiliation posed as “Allen Rice” in a series of amateurish videos in which he provided commentary critical of the protests. The videos, posted on the Facebook pages “Defend Iowa” and “Netizens for Progress and Justice,” were removed after The Intercept contacted TigerSwan, Rice, and the pages’ administrators for comment. None responded.

The Facebook groups on which Rice’s videos have appeared—Netizens for Progress and Justice and Defend Iowa been posting at a reduced pace since the Standing Rock protesters dispersed, but at their height, they look like the precursors to newer sites like Louisiana First. Almost universally, the page’s videos, links, and text posts were aimed at discrediting protesters.

Several of the TigerSwan’s leaked internal documents confirm their commitment to this approach. A representative example:

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Certain bits of jargon resonated with me as I reviewed the documents— “sponsor social media narratives,” for one. “Amateurish videos critical of the protests,” for another. And this descriptor in particular caught my eye: “North Carolina-based.”

TigerSwan, it turns out, has its headquarters in Apex, NC—less than a half-hour drive from the home base of Nick Johnson.

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The Evidence Hunt

Armed with my suspicions about Johnson’s connections to TigerSwan, I began to connect the social media dots in what became a byzantine, occasionally ridiculous, and ultimately illuminating process.

On the now-deleted Facebook page Louisiana First, where I initially encountered the fake news video by Roberto Bricchi, one post indicated that Louisiana First was part of a broader group called “Green Libertarian Unity,” which has its own, even newer Facebook page. Louisiana First’s mission statement even cited the GLU:

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You’ll recognize three of the locations in Green Libertarian Unity network—Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Nebraska—as state where TigerSwan’s James Marks wrote op-eds supportive of the oil industry. And in each of the five locations, Energy Transfer Partners has pipeline interests—in Ohio, for instance, the Rover Pipeline is in legal jeopardy.

Beyond Louisiana First, only one of those other groups is easily found on Facebook—PA Progress Now. Just like Louisiana First, it was started in mid-June. Among its posts is an article about Ruby Montoya, an activist who admitted to vandalizing the Dakota Access Pipeline, and who TigerSwan tracked across state lines in the aftermath.

More interesting still, PA Progress Now posted its own propaganda video on Aug. 8. (Update, Sept. 11: This video was also removed from YouTube on a copyright complaint.) See if the pro-oil activist calling himself “Josh Baker” looks familiar:

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Camp White Pine, the so-called “eco-terrorists” targeted in this video, are a group opposed to the Mariner East 2 Pipeline—another construction project facing legal trouble, and another pipeline owned and operated by a subsidiary of—all together now—Energy Transfer Partners. And, as The Intercept reported, another pipeline where TigerSwan has provided security.

One of the newer posts on PA Progress celebrates a “national article” that accuses environmental rights group of being funded by the Russians. That national article comes from a site called “Black Badger Report”—a name that would pop up again and again. On Louisiana First, prior to the page’s removal, there was another connection to the website “Black Badger Report”—a linked article smearing Cherri Foytlin yet again. It’s a standard right-wing hit piece, but it led me to the site’s “About” section, which was more instructive:

Welcome to the Black Badger Report. We are a worldwide group of writers, journalists, and regular people that are tired of fake news, over blown rhetoric, and general idiocy and lack of integrity in media, politics, and the world in general.

We have formed the Black Badger Report as a way of expressing our thoughts and getting the truth out there, without interference from the big media and news ventures we work for (well, some of us). Yes, we are all using pseudonyms, but that is to protect our names, reputations, and in some cases our safety.

I checked the pseudonyms in question, and one was “Nate Clay.” In the url for his author page, he is identified as “nikobadger.”

Nate Clay, you’ll remember, was the pseudonym Nick Johnson used in his emails. And Niko is the start of his full first name, Nikolaos. Bear with me on this next sentence: It appears that the Johnson-affiliated pro-oil Facebook groups posting the fake pro-oil news videos—which feature actors recruited by Johnson—are also linking to Johnson’s pro-oil articles written for a third site. The web expands.

Currently, there are only six articles on the entire Black Badger Report website, and five of them are anti-protester screeds, including the one that alleges Russian funding of the protesters. The sixth story?

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The anomalous piece, written by “Nate Clay,” is an attack on the The Intercept—the website that ran the exposé against TigerSwan (and, incidentally, outed its founder James Reese as having been arrested for “assault on a female”). This was the closest connection yet.

In a final attempt to find the smoking gun, I used my own account to like the PA Progress Now and Green Libertarian Unity pages (Louisiana First had already been deleted). Facebook suggested several other groups I might enjoy, and one immediately caught my eye: Cats 4 Truth. “God bless America,” read the page’s about section. “What’s the truth about liberals? These cats are curious to know.”

It seemed to be right up Nick Johnson’s alley, from the obnoxious meme-heavy content to the “Entertainment purposes only!” disclaimer. And when I began to scroll through the site’s posts, I found exactly what I expected—a start date in mid-June, anti-protester links, a post mocking Michigan’s Wolves’ Den activist group (Nick had mentioned them in his initial emails to actors), and two separate links to Black Badger Report. One account that shared several of the page’s videos boasts a background picture that is a literal TigerSwan.

Then, jackpot of all jackpots, I found an original video under the sarcastic text: “BREAKING NEWS: Footage of TigerSwan performing illegal actions in the state of North Dakota has just been located!!!”

Here’s that audio pitched up to normal levels:

To me, the voice sounds like Johnson’s (by that point, I had spent about 30 minutes on the phone with him), but I’m not a forensic voice analyst, and that’s a very unscientific guess. Additionally, the speaker seems to be using an artificially effeminate cadence—in order to embody a talking cat, I suppose—that makes it harder to assert a perfect match.

(The night before this article was published, long after these connections had been found and explored, I received a mysterious email directing me to Cats For Truth. “They’re the ones behind all this stuff,” the unnamed writer said.)

At this point, having discovered what I believed was the first explicit connection between Johnson and TigerSwan, a theory that had seemed far-fetched at the start of the process now seemed too obvious to refute. (Though I do stress that it remains no more than an unproven theory.) In short, it began to look exceedingly possible that Nick Johnson had been tasked with building a fake, expansive pro-oil (and specifically pro-ETP pipeline) network on social media to counteract the increased effectiveness of the anti-pipeline protesters. Further, he and any partners seemed to be operating at the behest of somebody, and all signs pointed to TigerSwan—a company headquartered 20 miles away that may have appreciated Johnson’s talent for, in his own words, “getting a lot of people in one region to see the same thing in one day.”

Of course, there are other explanations. Johnson could be working for a company like TigerSwan. He could be doing the work on spec, hoping to prove to a place like TigerSwan that he’s worth their money. Or he might just really hate anti-oil activists.

In any case, he wasn’t telling me.

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Three Phone Calls With Nick Johnson

Despite some very strong circumstantial evidence, what I had amassed was exactly that: circumstantial. And, to spoil the conclusion, circumstantial is exactly how it remained.

I reached Nick Johnson by text on Sunday, and when he called me back, we had a strange four-minute conversation in which he denied being…well, Nick Johnson. I told him that I’d received his number from two places—first, from a source who had received the number from “Nate Johnson” on Facebook, and second, from Chris Kolmar, who had texted me moments earlier to say that all questions about Chasing Chains should be directed to Nick Johnson, media liaison, at the same number.

Unimpressed, he became hostile when I wouldn’t identify the first source: “I’m not going to play games with you,” he said, “and have you fucking tell me, like, I got your number from a random person.” Soon after, he claimed I had the wrong number.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re talking about,” he said. “What’s HomeSnacks?”

I had not, to that point, mentioned HomeSnacks.

“That’s the website you and Chris run, is that right?” I said.

“No, actually.”

“Is this Nick Johnson?”

“No.”

He continued to insist I had the wrong number, and then hung up on me.

After a subsequent text and email exchange in which I presented my evidence, he warmed up to the idea of a chat. We spoke again that night, this time for 25 minutes. Before long, he admitted he was both Nick and Nate Johnson, as well as the Nate Clay who had sent the emails to potential actors. (“Obviously,” he said.)

But at various times in our conversation, he seemed to contradict himself on other points. For example, he continued to claim that he wasn’t the “Nate Clay” who had written the article bashing The Intercept at Black Badger Report. When I told him that the repeated pseudonym was a frankly unbelievable coincidence, he remained steadfast. Then, later, he seemed to be speaking as though he had authored the post: “Part of the whole thing is that you have to paint with broad strokes,” he told me. “If you have a social media presence, you kinda have to go after everybody, including the media, including the protesters…so it makes sense to go after some of the media that said a lot of bad things about those who have been very pro-pipeline.”

He then held forth on Intercept editor Jeremy Scahill’s conflicts of interest as a journalist—the exact subject of the story he allegedly had not written, under the same pseudonym he admitted using on Facebook.

He also insisted that he had not started the “Louisiana First” Facebook group. But later, when he tried to convince me to go off the record and meet up with him so he could give me the real scoop, he spoke of the “true story about why some random guy created some Facebook group.”

(Shortly after our call ended, I checked the “Louisiana First” website—it had been deleted. The PA Progress Now and Green Libertarian Unity pages, which I had not mentioned on our call, were still extant, though Bricchi’s video on PA Progress was removed the next day.)

As far as TigerSwan, Johnson insisted that they had not been involved, though he had heard of them. He was also adamant that Chris Kolmar and Chasing Chains were not a part of his current work.

Kolmar phoned me next, and in a seven-minute conversation where he threatened to involve lawyers no less than four times, he made it quite clear that Johnson’s current work was separate from both Chasing Chains—which was winding down operations and publishing at a reduced schedule—and Kolmar himself. Kolmar said he was working at a new start-up, and had no involvement with Johnson’s other project. In every respect, I believed him.

“He’s been working as an independent contractor for some other company for the last six to nine months or so,” Kolmar said of his former partner. “I didn’t even know what was going on until I got your text, and I was very confused…as I understood it, he had some third party company come in and ask him to make content go viral for them…I don’t know what the hell he’s doing now, I don’t know what kind of trouble he’s in, but I’m no way, shape, or form a part of it.”

When I followed up with Johnson, he alluded to a falling-out between the two, and said that there was no such firm—that Kolmar’s information was wrong. But why, I asked, if there was no hiring body like TigerSwan, would he take such an interest in a Louisiana crude oil pipeline? On that topic, he had nothing compelling to offer.

“The backstory is probably not something I want to tell you,” he said. “I mean, if you and I were friends and we were having beers and I knew that I could talk to you, I would love to tell you, but I don’t feel like I should. Obviously you have made some connections and done some research, but I don’t think it’s in my best interest to give you more than you already have.”

(On this final call, he also emphasized that he knew where I lived—Carrboro, NC. I live in Durham.)

A day later, he sent me an email alleging that his interest in oil pipelines stemmed from his disillusionment after a “vet buddy” who protested at Standing Rock felt taken advantage of by his fellow protesters. He would not give me the friend’s name, and he refused to speak on the phone that day. Subsequent calls, emails, and texts also went unanswered.

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The Unsatisfying Conclusion

The rest of the story is predictable. Energy Transfer Partners, through a spokesperson named Alexis Daniel, told me they didn’t know anything about Nick Johnson and had no affiliation with him. She further asserted that promoting social media narratives has never been a part of ETP’s engagement with TigerSwan. When I pointed out that The Intercept’s reporting had shown conclusively that TigerSwan engaged in exactly that behavior, and leaked internal reports prepared for ETP proved it, she replied, “I cannot speak for The Intercept or what they reported, you would need to contact them for that.”

When I reached out to TigerSwan, I received an swift response asking for my questions and my deadline. I sent both immediately, via email, but 48 hours later—more than a day past my stated deadline—I had yet to hear back. When I phoned the company, I was directed to a man named Wesley Fricks, former staffer in the Bush White House and current TigerSwan external affairs director, but several calls and voicemails, up to and including the day of publication, went unreturned. At one point, three straight calls to the main company line went to voicemail, but when I phoned using a different number, the receptionist picked up on the second ring. It didn’t matter—there was no getting Fricks or anybody who mattered on the phone.

Finally, I contacted Eric David, a Raleigh-based media and First Amendment lawyer, wondering whether Johnson’s tactics violated the law in any way.

“Hiring actors to portray ‘regular people’ delivering a political message on the Internet may be unseemly, but it is probably not illegal,” he wrote. “In fact, it is kind of a time-honored American tradition going back to Ben Franklin and ‘Silence Dogood.’”

In the face of total silence from the main players, and in the absence of other sources, there is no way to connect Johnson and TigerSwan definitively. And yet, if their shared history of leaks and failed cover-ups is any indication, the end of one story may be the start of another.

As for Johnson’s specific brand of online propaganda, he is surely just the beginning—the clumsy vanguard of a tactical movement that will evolve into something more sophisticated as its practitioners learn to wage effective war against activism of all stripes. Johnson’s successors will be better, and therefore more dangerous. They will be the digital mercenaries of corporate capitalism, and they will always have money—if not decency, if not principle—on their side.

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Shane Ryan (@ShaneRyanHere) can be reached at shane@pastemagazine.com.

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