Robert Willis, the hacker who helped build a massive, US-based disinformation network and was profiled in a recent Ars Technica feature, has decided to name names. In a blog post today, Willis confirmed he worked for Mike Adams, who goes by “the Health Ranger” at the site NaturalNews.com. This matches the documentation previously seen by Ars Technica in the course of reporting the piece.
Willis had joined NaturalNews.com in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election and helped the site build out a network of anonymized websites that looked independent but secretly promoted the “health” information and pro-Trump political writings of Mike Adams and NaturalNews.com.
NaturalNews has long been linked to disinformation. In 2019, The Atlantic named it one of the top producers of anti-vax content on the Internet. The site has touted homeopathy, urged “natural” remedies for things like cancer, and warned about “chemtrails.” NaturalNews content has been banned from Facebook, and the site has been called a “powerful conspiracy empire.”
In his initial conversations with Ars, Willis made it a condition of publication that we not publish the real name of the site to avoid possible legal problems for Willis. (In the article, the site was referred to as Koala Media.) But after the article appeared, he changed his mind.
“After reading many comments on the Ars article, I realize that many people feel that I am protecting the organization by not naming them,” Willis wrote today on his personal site. “I understand that some feel that this is seen as a ‘half-assed whistleblow’, and that was not my intention. I believe naming them is the right thing to do, and I hope that the community supports me on this.”
In the lengthy post, Willis defended himself against a host of charges, saying that he was not “boasting” about his work, that he had actually made “very little money,” and that he did in fact “have remorse for a few reasons.”
Perhaps the most interesting—and controversial—claim Willis makes is that he truly did not know what Adams was all about when he first joined his site. NaturalNews articles “were being pushed through Yahoo News not too far before,” Willis wrote. “I saw lots of natural health articles. My takeaway was that he was an internet natural health guru looking to use his current viewership to explore other topics outside of natural health—which included stopping Hillary Clinton. There were already random things like ‘chemtrails’ but like I said, I thought it was entertainment.”
As for all the pro-Trump, anti-Clinton “fake news” that Willis eventually helped to propagate, he claimed that the reason he “didn’t know it was fake news at the beginning is because the machine needed to be built before it could be used, so I didn’t spend time inside stories outside of overseeing social media and numbers, at which point I did not factor in the aspect of whether the articles were true or not. I was strictly breaking down stories by headlines and breaking it down into numbers. With an occasional crazy headline that seemed harmless.”
Willis admitted that he can’t prove what was happening inside his head, and judging from reader comments to the initial piece, this claim of total naïveté will be hard to swallow.
But Willis is sticking to it—and to the claim that his network did play a role in helping Donald Trump win the election in 2016. Despite the torrent of “fake news” that swirled around Trump, watching the Trump presidency in action did not push Willis toward Biden. (Willis nurtures a deep dislike of liberal Democrats, whom he blames for things he hates—such as high taxes—about his home state of Connecticut.)
Instead, the whole experience made him apolitical. “I didn’t deal with politics afterwards,” he wrote. “I didn’t vote in the 2020 election.”