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Why A Gamer Started A Web Of Disinformation Sites Aimed At Latino Americans

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This article was written in collaboration with First Draft, a nonprofit organization that provides investigative research to newsrooms tracking and reporting on mis- and disinformation.

When we picture the entity behind a network of disinformation websites, a few archetypes spring to mind: shadowy figures intent on interfering with democracy, Russian agents, Macedonian teens. Not usually included: a gamer from a suburb of New York City who sells coffee beans with his wife at the local farmers market on weekends. But that’s precisely who was behind three sites that, until last week, were pumping out misleading, hyperpartisan Spanish-language content on both the left and right. They were just a few sites in a broader ecosystem of misinformation — and disinformation — that spreads such narratives to millions of Americans. But their story has something to tell us about the misinformation industrial complex overall.

Sean Reynolds, a YouTuber, gamer and entrepreneur, was the owner and operator of three websites and affiliated Facebook pages that peddled in misinformation, predominantly in Spanish. The existence of the network was first reported by Politico last week,1 but an exclusive interview with Reynolds revealed why he started the sites.

Namely, he said, he saw an opportunity.

“These websites and the content on them do not reflect my personal political leanings,” Reynolds wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “I am non-discriminating towards opportunities where there is demand and no supply, which in this case, there was no political opinion pieces written in Spanish on Facebook, so I found writers (ghostwriters) interested to fill that demand.” Reynolds did not respond when FiveThirtyEight asked whether he speaks Spanish but did say he does not personally write the content on the sites. In a video he posted on his gaming channel, he identified as half Jamaican and half German.

Since 2017, Reynolds has operated the three websites and their affiliated Facebook pages: PoliticaVeraz.com, which published right-leaning content, AlertaPolitica.org, which published left-leaning content, and LeftOverRights.com, a left-leaning site which initially ran English-language stories but switched to publishing in Spanish this August. When all three sites were active, they would each regularly publish 5-10 stories per day and then spread those stories through Facebook, where they would typically attract thousands of shares. After FiveThirtyEight contacted him, Reynolds took all three sites and their Facebook pages offline.

A FiveThirtyEight investigation found multiple links that tied Reynolds to the sites, including a common server and IP address among his personal website and his other confirmed businesses, the same Google AdSense and Analytics code for his personal sites and these pages and corporate records listing Reynolds as a process agent for both Left Over Rights LLC and Alerta Politica LLC (there was no record of an LLC for Politica Veraz). Reynolds also confirmed to FiveThirtyEight that he ran the sites.

Much of the content these sites published was misleading and hyperpartisan. A recent story on Politica Veraz, for example, claimed that Joe Biden had “forgotten the words to the Pledge of Allegiance,” when in actuality he quoted part of the pledge for emphasis in a speech. Meanwhile, recent stories published on Left Over Rights deployed spin from a left-leaning perspective, such as a story about the vice presidential debate declaring Sen. Kamala Harris had “destroyed” Vice President Mike Pence by asking him not to interrupt her.

The disinformation on Politica Veraz, in particular, often echoed messaging that was already circulating in far-right communities online and among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, pushing it towards a more mainstream audience. One article claimed that President Trump’s life was in mortal danger after he gave a speech at a Whirlpool Corporation Manufacturing Plant in Clyde, Ohio, where he said he had many enemies and that “this may be the last time you see me for a while” when discussing lower prices for pharmaceuticals. And while Reynolds said the sites’ content had minimal reach, that story was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook, according to social media data tool BuzzSumo, and received nearly 40,000 interactions (reactions, shares, and comments combined). Similar messaging had been amplified by right-leaning users on Twitter before the Politica Veraz piece was published, including a tweet from an account that regularly shares theories associated with QAnon that was retweeted or quote tweeted more than 12,000 times.

Reynolds’s sites are far from the only source of misinformation targeting the Latino community. There are sites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that operate on the margins, attracting little mainstream notice while garnering audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Their stories — rife with misleading spins on the news and outright falsehoods — are shared across social media and privately in messaging apps. They target communities that have fewer trusted sources that cater directly to them, according to media experts we spoke to, and amplify misinformation originating from extremist communities. And experts say this kind of misinformation can lead to voters not only being misinformed, but also feeling disillusioned by the political process.

Nevertheless, Reynolds said his goals weren’t necessarily to inform, misinform or disinform, but to make a little bit of money. So little money that he didn’t think twice about taking the sites down as soon as he was contacted by a reporter.

“I will say, though, that these websites (all three) were scheduled to be fully closed after the months of not posting and not generating any income to keep them running,” Reynolds wrote. (Two of the sites stopped uploading new posts in August and September, respectively.) “But now I’m getting contacted about them, and I just don’t have time for anything else, so I will have their closings sped up.”

Reynolds’s sites represent a brand of misinformation fueled by the ease and profitability of building an audience on social media, according to Joan Donovan, a researcher of disinformation at Harvard University.

“Social media companies have incentivized disinformation by rewarding it with financial dollars,” Donovan explained. “The fact that he was targeting Latinos with Spanish-language disinformation or misinformation from either side of the aisle shows a kind of willingness to create chaos so long as it makes money.”

It’s not as if the content was simply a translated version of English-language misinformation, either. It clearly targeted the Latino community, playing into existing fears such as worries about socialism, given its history in authoritarian Central and South American governments.

“Some of the key narratives are around the perceived threat of socialism coming into the United States, and connecting that to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher for Equis Labs, a Latinx voter research group. “Another one we often see is trying to discredit Black Lives Matter and paint them as violent. Since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen an increased effort by these bad actors in Latinx spaces to fuel racial tension in Black and brown communities.”

Politica Veraz regularly posted stories that played into these threads, like one that called the Obamas “Marxists” or another that inaccurately reported two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies shot in Compton were “ambushed by Black Lives Matter.”

This misinformation is being seeded in the midst of an election where Latino voters represent a powerful voting bloc. While Trump is trailing Biden among Latino voters in national polls, the margin is narrower in the key battleground state Florida. In a Univision poll released on Sept. 28, 52 percent of Latino voters nationally said they planned to cast a ballot for Biden, compared to 19 percent who were committed to Trump. But in Florida, 36 percent of Latino voters said they favored Trump.

Reynolds said his content was not effective and that the sites were not profitable or popular, and that he had been planning to shut them down before he was contacted by FiveThirtyEight. But data tells a different story. Combined, the three site’s Facebook pages had nearly 1 million likes and followers, and Politica Veraz alone attracted more than 500,000 interactions on its Facebook posts since July, according to data from Crowdtangle.

The allure of sensational, emotionally provocative misinformation is well documented. But this content was also able to appeal to an audience facing a dearth of targeted media, according to Randy Pestana, the assistant director of research at Florida International University’s Institute for Public Policy.

“The media outlets that appeal to Hispanics are limited. There are not a lot of them out there, and the ones that are out there more recently have been called fake news,” Pestana said. “There’s this movement where everything is ‘fake news’ if it doesn’t align with your opinion.”

He also noted that many Latino Americans consume news through social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, making it easier for this kind of content to spread. The share of Latino Americans who get their news from the internet is higher than that of the U.S. population overall, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. In a 2016 survey, Pew found that 74 percent of Latino respondents got their news online on a typical weekday, whereas a 2017 Pew survey found that 43 percent of the total population “often” got their news online. And while social media platforms have been cracking down on English-language misinformation to a certain degree, Spanish-language disinformation doesn’t always receive the same treatment, Pestana said.

Reynolds’s sites are now shut down, but there are plenty of other misinformation sources targeting Latino Americans. As we head into the final weeks of an election, many members of one of the most influential voting blocs continue to be bombarded with false information.

“The worst examples of the potential consequences of this is what we saw in 2016: People felt so disenfranchised by the political process that they opted not to participate in it,” said Steven Renderos, the executive director of MediaJustice, a nonprofit that focuses on racial inequality in communications. “That’s the risk we’re facing here today, that people will just opt out of engaging.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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