Great journalistic investigations often beget more investigations, often through fresh leads and perspectives from readers. That’s essentially what happened here. Following publication of Snopes.com’s exposé of faux newspaper sites in key 2020 battleground states, a tipster alerted us to the fact that a response to that article had been shared on a coordinated network of Facebook pages. The result of that lead is this investigation from Alex Kasprak into a web of Facebook pages filled with anti-muslim, anti-immigrant vitriol. Those pages, which we link to an evangelical activist based in Columbus, Ohio, appear to be aimed in part at re-electing U.S. President Donald Trump. We hope you find this latest investigation informative. Keep the tips and feedback coming here.
—Doreen Marchionni, managing editor Snopes.com.
A coordinated network of evangelical Christian Facebook pages publishing overtly Islamophobic, conspiratorial content paints extreme, divisive right-wing rhetoric as having broad American support but is actually tied to one individual, a Snopes investigation reveals.
These pages claim that Islam is “not a religion,” that Muslims are violent and duplicitous, and that Islamic refugee resettlement is “cultural destruction and subjugation.” Just hours after the April 2019 Notre Dame spire collapse in a catastrophic fire, this network went into overdrive sowing doubt about the possible role Muslims had in its collapse. Multiple pages within this network have stated that their purpose is “message boosting & targeting.” Ten of the pages within the network explicitly support U.S. President Donald Trump in their titles and belong to an umbrella organization that “[speaks] up for a Trump-Pence agenda.” A post shared on several of those pages implorescolum readers to “like our page and let’s roll 2020!”
These pages, however, are steeped in fantastical notions of “globalist” conspiracies linking Islam, Socialism, and multi-billionaire philanthropist and Democratic Party supporter George Soros to the decline of Western civilization. Some of these pages also claim that survivors of the Parkland High School massacre in the U.S., for instance, are on a Soros-funded “Leftist-Islamist payroll.” In at least one case, these pages have either received financial support from, or been exploited by, a high-profile GOP donor who served as a fundraiser and campaign board member for 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Though the actual authorship of the posts within these pages is opaque, their titles imply diverse representation from a broad swath of American demographic groups, including “Jews & Christians for America” and “Blacks for Trump.” In reality, however, the pages in this network are all connected to evangelical activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg. But she is neither black nor Jewish, and her views appear to represent an extreme subset of the broader evangelical movement in America. Though we do not know for sure what individual or individuals created each of these pages, or if Kullberg, her family members, or various “interns” write their posts, all of them appear now to be tied financially to Kullberg or to organizations she has created. As far as we have been able to ascertain, Facebook has no problem with the existence of this coordinated network, which we will refer to here as the “Kullberg network.”
This network, and others that employ similar tactics, can affect online discourse in several ways. First, the network serves to influence public opinion by presenting the views of a small group of activists as representative of a much broader swath of the American populace. Second, such a strategy in this case amplifies and offers a veil of legitimacy to hatred and conspiracy theories. Third, in spite of these strategies awash in misinformation, the pages within the network have attracted the financial backing of well-heeled political donors who exploit these pages and groups to disguise the origin of political Facebook ads.
Despite Its Myriad Pages, The “Kullberg Network” Is Tied to One Person
Facebook defines violations of its terms of service or community standards in numerous ways. “Coordinated inauthentic behavior” is one such way, in theory. As explained by Facebook Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher in a 6 December 2018 video, the social network broadly defines this activity as “groups of pages or people work[ing] together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing.” The term is commonly associated with governmental or foreign intervention in elections, such as Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm found to have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. More recently, as another example, Facebook removed a network of pages run by the social media manager of the authoritarian president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
The Kullberg network is not a foreign entity. It is a collection of at least 24 Facebook pages apparently run by a small group of people based out of Columbus, Ohio, that purports to represent the views of a diverse cohort of Americans. In many other respects, the network is quite similar to these examples of foreign social media manipulation. In the view of Joshua Tucker, a professor of politics and data science at NYU, the fact that these activities stem from domestic, rather than foreign, actors complicates things. “I think if you came to Facebook and said, ‘Hey, the Russians are doing this,’ they would have taken the pages down,” he told us in a phone interview. So far, Facebook has not responded to our questions or multiple follow-ups about the Kullberg network’s practices, and the network remains online.
Tucker, who also is a co-founder and co-director of the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, has researched online hate speech and the manipulation efforts of the aforementioned IRA, a major player in the Russian government’s online-influence operation in support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Tucker told us he has long argued that while foreign social media efforts get much of the attention, “the people who are always going to have the most incentive to do this kind of thing are the domestic actors.”
The Kullberg network, though it appears to be operated entirely in the U.S., inauthentically presents itself as representing the views of Americans of diverse racial and religious backgrounds who range in age from students to seniors. Yet the content and messaging across these pages are largely, if not literally, identical, suggesting that the content across this “diverse” network is not written by members representative of those groups, but by Kullberg and/or her small number of associates.
In some cases, these pages even “interact” with each other:
Each of the pages in this network is connected directly to Kullberg, an evangelical author and activist whose views appear to have shifted away from more mainstream evangelism in the 1990s to a more conspiratorial brand of thought in the 2010s. American evangelism, in general terms, refers to a coalition of protestant Christian traditions united by a belief that salvation requires not only a transformation inspired by the experience of being “born again,” but also the active spreading of the gospel. Kullberg’s views are not necessarily representative of this broader movement.
Kullberg has described herself as president and co-founder of “Christians for a Sustainable Economy,” an organization that cites scripture to justify opposition to federal aid for the poor. In addition, she has been described as “a moving force behind,” and a spokeswoman for, an organization called “Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration,” which promotes a Biblical rationale for excluding some immigrants and refugees from America. Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration’s content has been promoted on white nationalist outlets such as VDARE. Kullberg also founded an organization called the “American Association of Evangelicals,” whose message is similar to Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, but that also argues “wealthy, anti-Christian foundations, following the lead of billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, fund and ‘rent’ Christian ministers as ‘mascots’ serving as surprising validators for their causes.”
These organizations, as well as a host of other Facebook pages, were once listed as “projects” or social media pages of an organization that appears to have taken shape in 2015 called “The America Conservancy,” which, in a recurring theme, listed Kullberg as its founder and president. The remaining pages in Kullberg’s network belong to “Christians for Trump.” This latter organization supports pages that include: Evangelicals for Trump, Women for Trump, Blacks for Trump, Veterans for Trump, Seniors for Trump, Teachers for Trump, Unions for Trump, Catholics for Trump, and Students for Trump-Pence.
Donations to “Christians for Trump” currently go to an entity described variously as “ACA Inc.” or “AC Action.” The mailing address used to send a physical check to “AC Action” is identical to the mailing address of the Kullberg-founded American Association of Evangelicals:
This financial link, along with their shared content, joins the 14 pages claimed by the “America Conservancy” and the 10 pages that are part of the “Christians for Trump” portfolio under one Kullberg roof. According to Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center, the “action” entities like “ACA Inc” and “AC Action” could represent the political action arm of America Conservancy. Though Kullberg’s America Conservancy is registered in Ohio as a 501(c)(3) organization that is legally precluded from most political activities, Fischer told us that many charitable organizations have a political arm operating under a similar name. In support of this notion, a post on the “about” section of the “Christians for Trump” Facebook page states that “ACA is a 501(c)(4)” group, which is legally allowed to conduct lobbying efforts.
In a further example of potentially deceptive practices, the America Conservancy appears to have once existed as a Political Action Committee (PAC) that supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. This PAC, named “The American Conservancy” (note the letter “n” in “American,” which distinguishes this group from the later “America Conservancy”) terminated operations in 2013. Both Kullberg’s organization and this former Romney PAC have listed the same Columbus, Ohio, P.O. Box as their mailing address. Many of the Facebook pages in the Kullberg network once had Romney-specific names that have been changed. “Moms for America,” for example, used to be “Moms for Mitt Romney”:
Unclear is what benefit America Conservancy received in taking over the operations of a defunct PAC while changing its name only slightly, outside of potentially acquiring control of old Romney Facebook pages. We reached out to Paul Kilgore, the FEC-registered treasurer for American Conservancy in 2012-2013, multiple times via email and voicemail to clarify these issues but received no response. These mysteries aside, the repurposing of Facebook pages whose original intent served to promote Mitt Romney in 2012 into a tool used to promulgate Islamophobia and conspiracy theories is inherently misleading. This rebranding serves, like other actions taken by Kullberg, to inflate the perceived support for her more extreme positions by implying Romney supporters who have not left those pages are also supporters of Kullberg’s specific form of activism.
The Kullberg network therefore potentially meets the Facebook-defined violation of “groups of pages or people working together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing” in multiple ways. It misleads others by presenting the views of one person and her close associates as the views of multiple different demographics, and it presents a collection of “informal” organizations as multiple, independent organizations and not a network that is linked financially to a small group of people, if not a single person, as is actually the case.
Indeed, the Kullberg network may not rise to the level of a violation of Facebook’s rules as they currently exist. “I don’t even know what it violates,” Tucker told us. But when viewed in its totality, “It [the network] really doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said. Either way, it is hard to imagine how the Kullberg network would be anything but deceptive both to potential donors and to Facebook users who come across these organizations on Facebook thinking they are unique entities that heartily agree with one another.
We attempted to reach Kullberg several times via multiple methods, including Facebook and webform messages to America Conservancy and American Association of Evangelicals; to Kullberg’s personal Facebook account; and to several of her personal email addresses. Following these unsuccessful efforts, we also called a phone number listed in public records as belonging to Kullberg that has also been listed publicly as the contact number for the America Conservancy, as well as a second Kulberg-associated group.
After this reporter identified himself, a woman who answered the phone claimed we had the wrong number. Follow-up calls from this reporter and another Snopes reporter went to voicemail. Neither voicemail message has been returned. The homepage of the America Conservancy website briefly disappeared and now displays a message that the site is being “upgraded.” On 28 May 2019, following the initial publication of this story, the Kullberg network was apparently removed from Facebook, and many of Kullberg’s various websites had been taken down, though we do not know for sure who facilitated these moves or why.
Islamophobia in the Kullberg Network
“Evangelical organizations are the primary funders of anti-Muslim animus,” Abbas Barzegar, the director of the Department of Research and Advocacy at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told us via email. CAIR, a frequent target of the Kullberg network, published a report in May 2019, “Hijacked by Hate: American Philanthropy and the Islamophobia Network,” that charted funding flows from anonymous donors to charities to anti-Muslim groups. “Evangelical groups consistently appear as leading funders,” he told us.
The views on Muslims expressed by the Kullberg network appear to fall into a “civilization jihad” brand of Islamophobia that is growing in strength in some far-right circles, according to Jonathon O’Donnell, who researches the politics of demonization as a postdoctoral fellow at the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies in Dublin, Ireland. His academic work has investigated the rhetoric of the Center for Security Policy, whose content is frequently promoted on the Kullberg network and that is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Civilization jihad essentially refers to the idea that Muslim migration is a … deliberate policy of civilizational replacement,” O’Donnell explained via a Skype call. Terrorist acts, he told us, are “not the real Jihad to these peoples. The real Jihad is this more subtle form of cultural infiltration and transformation.” Consistent with these themes, several Kullberg network pages shared a 21 March 2019 post describing refugee resettlement as “cultural destruction and subjugation,” while another widely shared post argued that “immigration destroys … communities.”
A consistent message in the Kullberg network is that Muslims are unable to assimilate into American culture. The pages frequently share content claiming that Muslims, including those holding elected positions in the U.S. government, are unable to accept the country’s Constitution because of their loyalty to Sharia law. These views were explicitly articulated in a 28 April 2019 post shared among several Kullberg pages that argued “a normal Muslim’s loyalty is to Sharia law and supremacy.” This loyalty is preordained, according to the network. “That is their lens. It must be. It is and shall be. But it’s not compatible with our U.S. oath of citizenship that our ancestors took.”
Muslims, the Kullberg network additionally claims, are violent and duplicitous. One post from May 2017, which used a mischaracterized picture of a Muslim boy with a toy gun, stated that “Muslims are commanded to imitate Mohammed. Mohammed stole from, raped and killed thousands. This is what Islam means by peace. Let’s stop Islamic supremacy. #ItsNotAReligion.” A 1 January 2018 post shared on at least eight pages within the Kullberg network proclaims “we will NOT submit to Islamist ideology of conquest forcing our submission.” This post promoted the hashtag “#ShariaKills.”
Muslims, the Kullberg network vigorously and ceaselessly asserts, work with progressives such as Soros to “exploit Christian teachings to empower those who seek to dismantle Christian civilization.” Soros, these Facebook pages claim, is behind a global, mass-migration movement that serves only to keep him in power while he tries “to demoralize and destroy” America. “Obviously, if you believe that Western civilization as a concept is civilizationally superior … then you need to account for how this ‘inferior’ civilization is managing to infiltrate it so successfully,” O’Donnell said. “One of the ways they get around that is by positing figures like George Soros as these traitorous insiders who are leveraging the superiority of the West in an effort to undermine and destroy it.”
The Kullberg network takes this conspiracy theory to an extreme. For example, posts shared in the network have suggested that the survivors of the Parkland school massacre are bankrolled by Soros and are therefore, evidently, fair targets for online harassment. A 20 August 2018 post accused these survivors of being “paid to lie and spin for Soros and comrades,” adding that “the Left & Islamists work together — against America.”
The rhetoric of the Kullberg network apparently succeeds at stirring a mob mentality of hatred untethered to reality. Responding to another post sowing doubt about the cause of the Notre Dame fire, commenters on the Christians for Trump page shifted their focus back toward the U.S., suggesting that American Muslims were trying to destroy this country in a similar way. “This is what Omar is doing against America,” one commenter said, referring to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslims currently serving in the U.S. Congress and who is a common target of the Kullberg network. “She’s going down, just you wait,” that individual said. “Can’t happen soon enough for me!” another responded. Omar has been the subject of an increasing number of death threats following attacks from President Trump and others.
This sort of rhetoric does not necessarily remain isolated on Facebook pages. “Like other elements of Islamophobia,” Barzegar told us, “these tropes and rhetoric are consistently rising across our public and political spaces.”
In a 9 June 2019 story published in the local Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch following the original publication of this story, Kullberg provided her first public comment on the matter. In an emailed statement to that paper, Kullberg said the goal of her work was to “discern truth”, adding that “any errors in posting were made with regret”:
“Public social media pages are often used to help experts on national security, faith and a host of other topics shine light on the persecution of both Christians and Muslims, such as the fact that 3 million Muslim Uyghurs are now in Chinese concentration camps, the horror of the Christchurch (New Zealand) massacre and that 500,000 girls in America are at risk for female genital mutilation,” Kullberg wrote. “Any errors in posting were made with regret,” she wrote. “The goal of this work is to discern truth and the nature of love in relation to the challenging issues of our times.”
GOP Donors Exploit the Kullberg Network for Political Ads
Despite its extremist content, the Kullberg network is aided by at least one notable GOP political figure. In 2016, according to a post on their Facebook page, “Christians for Trump was run by the LibertyT.us PAC.”
Based on the Facebook-required branded content tag on some posts within the Kullberg network, “Liberty T, LLC” appears to have been the corporate entity that, at least until the end of 2018, paid for “message boosting and targeting” within the network. At the same time, in what may be a mutually beneficial relationship, this PAC used Kullberg’s network of Facebook pages, which due to their names and profile details appear to represent key constituencies, to serve targeted political ads on the Facebook platform.
But figuring out the exact mechanics of these corporate arrangements is challenging. Nobody associated with America Conservancy responded to our questions, and only Anne Peterson, who described herself as “just the FEC compliance girl” for Liberty T, responded to any of our inquiries. But she was unable or unwilling to explain what Liberty T’s role was in relation to the “Christians for Trump” Facebook pages, its operations in general, or its connection to Kullberg.
But we do know that during the 2018 election cycle, a man named William Millis provided the lion’s share of the funding to Liberty T. Millis, a wealthy North Carolina sock scion and former Ben Carson fundraiser and campaign board member, contributed $50,000 to the PAC on 26 October 2018, according to FEC disclosures. This sum represented over 50% of the funds raised by that organization in the 2018 election cycle. The registered address of Liberty T is the same one used by a currently inactive charity named “Wounded Warrior Corporation,” which listed Millis as a director. Another person, listed as the treasurer for Liberty T, was injured in a bike accident and is medically unable to run the organization. As a result, Liberty T is shutting down operations completely, Peterson said.
Chatting with my dear friend Bill Millis before speaking to the masses gathered at the High Point Theater tonight. pic.twitter.com/Dre3SRPpLa
— Ben & Candy Carson (@RealBenCarson) May 9, 2014
But Liberty T’s past involvement in the Kullberg network is illustrative of how such coordinated Facebook networks can be exploited to disguise the source of political messaging. If Liberty T’s primary objective was to distribute political ads as representative of the views of various people that they do not authentically represent, the Kullberg network may have allowed them to achieve that goal.
As an example, Liberty T paid Facebook for a post purporting to come from the Facebook page “Blacks for Trump” in support of then-Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach to be “boosted” onto the timelines of up to 50,000 Kansans between 2 November and 5 November 2018. This post, however, never actually appeared on the Blacks for Trump timeline. Instead, based on these ads’ absences from their respective pages’ timelines, Liberty T appears to have paid for what Facebook calls an “Unpublished Page Post.” Such a post is capable, as this one was, of being shared on the timelines of individuals who are not members of the Blacks for Trump while seemingly being endorsed by that page:
On the flip side, Liberty T’s funding enabled the messages, interests, and donation pages of Kullberg’s various organizations and Facebook groups to see a wider audience, like those tens of thousands of Kansans targeted by Liberty T. Indeed, “American Conservancy Action, Inc.” (which listed in FEC filings the same P.O. Box once displayed on Kullberg’s America Conservancy website) donated $25,000 to Liberty T on 17 October 2018. Following those payments, many of the posts “boosted” by Liberty T were general announcements about various Kullberg organizations:
In at least one instance, Liberty T appears to have funded the promotion of products created by Kelly Kullberg’s family members. Between 5 November and 6 November 2018, the PAC paid for the promotion of an Amazon link to a work of fiction written by David Kullberg, Kelly’s husband, titled Breaking Babel. According to the American Association of Evangelicals, the book “accurately predicted George Soros funding fake ministers to split the faith vote to swing the U.S. presidency, crippling the church & nation”:
While the way that Liberty T promotes the interests of the Kullbergs as it uses pages under Kelly Kullberg’s control for political-messaging purposes may be apparent, the reason for the shifting money between multiple corporate entities is less obvious. “It seems hard to imagine why the American Conservancy would pay Liberty T and then disclaim that Liberty T was paying for the ads,” Fischer, from the Campaign Legal Center, said. “It’s entirely possible that this is just a handful of people who are wearing different hats at any given time.”
One benefit of the approach used by the Kullberg network and further enabled by Facebook’s ad products and policies is that it makes answering such questions with any certainty challenging.
Nobody Wants to Talk About the Kullberg Network
A striking pattern that emerged in Snopes’ reporting on the Kullberg network was that nobody — from the people or person creating these messages and the political operatives funding them to the digital platform that allows messages to be transmitted to millions of people — seemed to want anything to do with this story. Multiple inquiries to Kullberg and to the accounts of several of the organizations she runs went unanswered. Multiple inquiries to Liberty T’s Millis, including one passed on via registered agent Peterson, also received no response.
The same can be said of Facebook, whose press office we contacted three times by email (and which has been responsive to our inquiries in the past). None of those inquiries was returned, but following either our first or our second email to the company, two of the posts we specifically linked to as examples in our email to Facebook (and to no other parties) were deleted: a post targeting the Parkland school shooting survivors, as well as a post arguing the Muslims are violent and that Islam “isn’t a religion.” A third inquiry to Facebook, which reiterated our first two emails, also asked if Facebook had taken action on those posts. Facebook did not respond to that inquiry, either.
On the one hand, the Kullberg network is both literally and figuratively small change. In addition to being a modest-sized network of up to 1.4 million followers, the corporate entities behind it are not trafficking in huge amounts of money. CAIR’s Barzegar told us they had never heard of Kullberg or any of the organizations she is associated with. Similarly, a spokesperson for Soros told us he had never heard of Kullberg or her sites, despite the fact that all of these pages or organizations directly target Soros on a near-daily basis.
On the other hand, the Kullberg network is representative of the effects stemming from Facebook’s lack of clarity concerning the nature and enforcement of its own policies and terms of service. For several years, Kullberg has been able to build up a network of discarded political Facebook pages that may serve to add unfounded legitimacy to hateful Islamophobic views. Facebook, meanwhile, has apparently allowed these pages to benefit from the undisclosed or disguised interests of wealthy GOP donors.
The potential harm from something like the Kullberg network is hard to quantify, NYU’s Tucker said. While many of these pages state or imply by their titles to be efforts in support of Trump for president in 2020, it is unclear how effective online influence from a network like this would actually be. “In 2016, the election was super close,” he said, so targeted ads that boosted the turnout of evangelicals in certain areas could in theory be significant. But, he added, “We can’t randomly run an experiment during the election … you wouldn’t want to do this ethically.”
While proving harm on this level may be challenging, it does not take a significant number of radicalized Facebook members to cause harm. Asking if Facebook networks can influence the polls and if they could cause harm by radicalizing people toward violence “are two different questions,” Tucker said. “Unfortunately for these horrendous [hate] crimes that are taking place now, you don’t need a large number of people.”
Social media companies, Barzegar argued, need to be “more transparent and collaborative to help create social media spaces that are both robust and promote dialogue, but at the same time guard against the spread of dangerous and potentially violent ideas.” Though silence seems to have been their strategy leading to the publication of this story, Facebook’s determination to ignore requests for policy clarification could signify an increasingly dangerous approach. “Hate groups tend to mushroom in the social media and non-profit sector as they are easy to exploit due to lack of regulation,” Barzegar told us.
The Kullberg network appears to exist in a gray area. Its content is frequently inflammatory, conspiratorial, and dangerously misleading. But such attributes may not be enough to constitute a violation of the platform’s rules. The network may not be a significant player from an electoral standpoint, either — not that many people have been reached by the efforts of Liberty T.
Two things are clear, however: Social media platforms like Facebook have allowed hateful Islamaphobic, conspiratorial rhetoric to be amplified and boosted inauthentically on their platforms, and these platforms continue to benefit from the revenue and reach of political operatives who exploit the networks.