Conservative politicians, energy industry groups, Fox News, and think tanks funded by oil and gas donors have answered recent critical coverage of Texas’ power failures with full-throated condemnations of renewable energy. They inaccurately blame rising consumer prices and reduced reliability on green power sources. Beneath that loud braying, though, is a more insidious, less obviously conservative network of websites that has been bolstering the same narrative. Who’s blasting the talking points out? Several indicators strongly suggest it’s Donald Trump’s disgraced, tech-savvy ex-campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
In snow and shine, the strained Texas power grid has made national news continuously for the last two years. In February 2021, Winter Storm Uri and the resultant freeze caused massive blackouts across the state and killed as many as 700 people (official death toll: 246). This summer, a record-breaking heat wave strained the grid, bringing on scattered outages. These crises spurred significant criticism as horrified people nationwide learned for the first time that the state of Texas maintains its own power grid so as to skirt regulation from the federal government. Companies that operate within that independent grid made massive profits during these crises when megawatt per hour prices spiked up as high as $US900 ($1,249) during summer heatwaves in 2022 and $US9,000 ($12,494) during Winter Storm Uri in 2021, a more than four hundredfold increase from the average price in 2020.
In July 2022, an email address associated with Campaign Nucleus, Parscale’s political consultancy, sent out a newsletter with the subject line “U.S. power grids could fail, green energy idiocy is to blame” exactly one week after the state of Texas was issued an energy conservation warning as a record breaking heatwave strained the state’s power grid. The message was a part of a broader set distributed under aliases like “National Alerts” and “Freedom Alerts.” Four articles about energy were featured in the email, its only content, including the headlines “The radical anti-fossil fuel crowd loves to over-exaggerate negativity” on newmexicosun.com and “Expert questions wind energy: ‘Wind turbines don’t generate power when we need it most’” on houstondaily.com. The four articles were published on three different websites that cover two states, Texas and New Mexico, and all three are managed by Metric Media, a company tied to conservative businessman Brian Timpone, who has built a network of dubious local news sites that traffic in “pink-slime journalism.” Campaign Nucleus and Brad Parscale did not respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.
Threat intelligence researcher Kyle Ehmke noted the creation of a domain, mail.lonestaralert.com, which was used to send the emails analysed by Gizmodo in June 2022. On May 6, 2022, an email from that domain was sent under the alias “Campaign Nucleus.” Ehmke described the domain as “highly likely” belonging to Brad Parscale. Ehmke has been tracking domains likely related to Parscale and Campaign Nucleus since the 2016 campaign. He initially tagged these domains as potentially linked to the campaign manager due to a specific combination of CloudFlare nameservers used for website domain registration. Ehmke first found that domain registered for donaldjtrump.com uses the “Jo” and “Toby” name server combination. Individually, these two name servers cover more than 100,000 domains, but the specific combination of “Jo” and “Toby” is much less prevalent (currently about 400 domains). Emhke notes that not all of the domains with that combo are Parscale/Nucleus domains, but it is a small enough subset against which we can look for strings, themes, or other domain registration information to turn up those likely administered by the same account.
Campaign Nucleus isn’t only spreading the energy industry’s pink slime, though. The same email address that’s been distributing fossil fuel articles has also sent out “Official Trump Alerts” linking to Truth Social statements from the former president.
The first email from the domain created in June, an “Official Trump Alert,” was sent on July 5. After identifying various Campaign Nucleus’ domains, Ehmke noticed another domain they believe is associated with the company that included their own name: kyle-ehmke-we-know.com. The domain redirected to the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” — a classic trolling tactic known as the “Rick Roll.”
Ehmke also identified “mail.freedomdefense.net” as another “likely Parscale/Nucleus administered-domain,” which has since been used to send out emails on behalf of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker, far-right Pennsylvania state senator Doug Mastriano, and Rep. Ted Budd.
A researcher at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University told Gizmodo they received emails identical to those sent from mail.lonestaralert.com but originating from a different domain, mail.conservativesunited.co — yet another domain Emhke noted with the same CloudFlare nameserver combination. These domains are used to distribute campaign messaging and “pink slime” that feature “unsubscribe” buttons that redirect to nucleusemail.com. Though directly visiting nucleusmail.com yields only a loading screen, preview cards for the URL typed into messages redirect to campaignnucleus.com, the main website of Parscale’s company.
Named for the byproduct filler in processed meats and coined by journalist Ryan Smith in 2012, “pink-slime journalism” refers to news websites that misleadingly frame themselves as non-partisan local outlets and publish low-quality reports that often carry a strong right-wing bent. More than 1,200 websites have been traced back to conservative businessman Brian Timpone by researchers at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. In recent months, domains associated with Parscale have pushed these “pink slime” articles to Trump supporters via email blasts.
An investigation by the Tow Centre revealed that this network has “received funding from multiple dark money groups as well as collaborated with advocacy groups on topics to cover prior to the 2020 Election.” According to a follow up investigation in The New York Times, these “pink slime” outlets have accepted payments from clients, primarily with conservative politics, in exchange for “tailor-made” content. After the 2021 freeze, Politifact noted a number of Metric Media articles based on comments from groups opposed to renewable energy subsidies, including Energy Alliance, that all ran the same day with the headline: “Texas was once again at the mercy of wind generation — and it did not come through.”
In response to a request for comment, Timpone denied that Metric Media has accepted payment for content. “Agenda-driven writers asserted this slur without a shred of evidence because our existence makes them feel insecure,” he wrote in an email to Gizmodo.
He continued, “Are you asking because some other group is paying you to write this article on us? Also, we don’t monitor who distributes our content, it is free to take.”
Three of the four articles from the July 2022 email likewise prominently featured talking points from Energy Alliance. Energy Alliance is led by Bill Peacock, former Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank funded in part by Tim Dunn, a Texas energy billionaire and current board member. The organisation has a track record of attacking renewable energy. The message was clear: renewable energy is the problem in Texas. (Experts agree it is not.)
In another email from August 5 sent under the subject line “Dems push for ‘green’ investments despite negative consequences,” a similar pattern played out. Two of the three articles featured talking points from Energy Alliance. Energy Alliance did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
On July 13, the same day that conservation notices were sent out in Texas, Campaign Nucleus had sent out a “National Alert” with the subject line “Misery at the Pumps.” It featured five articles from five different websites covering five different states, all run by a company which research by the Tow Centre has connected to Timpone.
Another email from September 1 was sent under the subject line “Record high natural gas prices tied to Biden’s war on American energy.” It featured three articles from three different websites in three different states linked to Timpone’s pink slime network, all penned by the same writer, Caleb Lombardo. It is not uncommon for writers to contribute to multiple pink slime outlets that purportedly serve the interests of cities where they do not live, sometimes under entirely fake bylines, Tow Centre researchers found.
The number of “pink slime” sites in the Timpone-linked network has more than tripled since the Columbia Journalism Review first reported on it in 2019. By leveraging an extensive distribution list seemingly built through multiple Trump campaigns and events — this writer started receiving the emails from Campaign Nucleus-linked addresses after signing up for emails at a Trump rally in January — the reach of pink slime appears to be expanding. Now, articles from those websites are being served up en masse to unwitting Americans.
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