Dan Snyder, Accused Of Wielding Twitter Bot Army, Has A Pathetic History Of Astroturfing
9:23 AM EDT on March 15, 2021
Dan Snyder stands accused of using Twitter bots and planted news stories to prop up his cruddy public image and weakening grip on NFL franchise ownership. Snyder, owner of the Washington Football Team and also the most consistent man on the planet, denies all astroturfing allegations. His past, alas, is full of similarly phony public relations campaigns and incidents of Snyder fabricating good press when he can’t earn it. The legend of Andyman looms large…
A fascinating March 5 story by Michael Phillips in the Richmond Times-Dispatch pointed out that an odd binge of social media posts favorable to Snyder appeared just as his hold on the Washington Football Team had reportedly become tenuous. Phillips’s piece came out the same week that hosts of a D.C.-market sports talk show, The Sports Junkies, announced they’d been leaked portions of a preliminary report of the NFL’s investigation into years of allegations that Snyder has fomented a misogynistic and abusive workplace. The sportalkers said the excerpts they’d received included recommendations that Snyder either be forced to sell the team or be suspended until the wrongs are righted.
Phillips wrote that the suspiciously similar pro-Snyder tweets came from a gaggle of Twitter accounts that “appear to be ‘bots.’” The Twitter accounts were all created in October 2020 and have women's photos for avatars. The tweets pump up Snyder’s non-heinous moves, such as WFT’s hiring of Jennifer King as the NFL’s first black female full-time assistant coach, and the team’s producing a seminar called an “Empowered Women Panel.”
Phillips also reported that recent ads that appeared on Facebook promoted an odd, four-month old story about Snyder’s philanthropy on a website called NYC Talk. That publication's mission statement says it aspires to be “a news site catering to many different aspects of life in New York City” and “to become an indispensable source of the important information every New Yorker needs to know in order to make the most of their personal and professional endeavors.” A puff piece on an owner who neither lives nor has a team in New York wouldn't seem to fit the bill. Among the good deeds listed in the NYC Talk piece are Snyder’s foundation making “$1 million in donations to victims of the 9/11 attacks” and helping out "following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”
But since this is PR and not journalism, the NYC Talk piece does not mention that Snyder also profiteered off those exact same catastrophes. In 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, for example, he ran commercials on sports radio stations and also made a pitch on his NFL team’s online store for fans to “commemorate 9/11” by paying $23.99 plus shipping for a “Flag Hat,” which was a cheesy black ball cap with a team logo alongside a red, white, and blue Pentagon patch. These sales were not earmarked for any charity, just Snyder's already deep pockets.
As for Hurricane Katrina, Snyder was chairman of the board of Six Flags at the time and running the theme park chain into the ground at rollercoaster speed. His company got blasted for exploiting the natural disaster for business purposes; New Orleans's then-mayor Ray Nagin said Six Flags was trying to use the devastation as an excuse to implement a pre-existing business plan to break a 75-year lease with the city and shutter the park. “If any company is trying to figure out an exit strategy, they are," Nagin told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Snyder not only went ahead with the abandonment scheme but on the way out of town actually got federal contracts to lease the parking lots at the Six Flags outpost to FEMA for use storing trailers for folks left homeless by the devastating flooding. So, sorry NYC Talk, Gandhi he ain’t.
Snyder’s attorney, Jordan Siev, is quoted in Phillips’s story saying Snyder had nothing to do with the positive PR blitz. "Dan Snyder unequivocally denies ever using bots or fake accounts to put out favorable news stories,” Siev said.
Siev’s denial would carry more weight if only Snyder hadn’t already been caught employing sham media campaigns so often in the past. As bad as Snyder is as a team owner or boss, he’s worse at handling his own PR.
Take the case of the organization called “[Racist former team name] Facts.” In 2014, that group entered the very contentious debate over the team name while claiming on its website that it was a grassroots effort formed by “a growing online community of passionate fans” and alums of the team who were opposed to any name change. The group bought ads in publications such as Sports Illustrated to drum up support for keeping the name. But Slate’s Josh Levin reported that this keep-the-name undertaking was the opposite of grassroots. Levin learned that the group was actually connected to D.C. PR powerhouse Burson-Marsteller. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post reported that “all” the early followers of the group’s Twitter account were Burson-Marsteller employees. Another internet sleuth, Jamie Zoch, learned that Burson-Marsteller’s parent company, Young and Rubicam, had registered several similar-sounding domain names, including TheReal[Racist former team name]Facts.com, Disputed[Racist former team name]Facts.com, and Fake[Racist former team name]Facts.com.
Snyder’s spokesman at the time, Tony Wyllie, nevertheless asserted that Snyder had nothing to do with the anti-change group other than providing “moral support” and some travel money so supporters could attend keep-the-name rallies. That laissez-faire claim was exposed as fraudulent in 2015 when Steinberg noticed that a game-day tweet obviously meant to be posted on WFT’s official Twitter account was accidentally sent out on the Facts.com account, meaning the very same person was almost certainly handling both the team’s and the allegedly independent group’s Twitter accounts.
Then there’s the Andyman saga, the most hideous and hilarious astroturfing debacle of the Snyder regime. In 2005, a poster going by “Andyman” became something of a superhero on message boards dedicated to WFT; in the pre-Twitter days, message boards were the top clearinghouses for superfan banter. By far the most popular message board for WFT fans was called Extremeskins. The board had been started by fans but was acquired by Snyder in 2005, thereby becoming the first team-owned message board in pro football. The acquisition was part of Snyder’s aggressive anti-media campaign, which he dubbed Unfiltered. Snyder's scheme to control the message and bash all other messengers also entailed starting up a "news" channel on the team-owned website and buying time on television stations in the D.C. market to air Snyder-produced infomercials.
Andyman’s original popularity on Extremeskins came from his ability to forecast the team’s personnel moves with a level of accuracy only somebody deep inside Snyder’s circle could attain. But Andyman began using his clout to rally message board devotees to join him in attacking any journalist who reported anything not nice about the team or its owner.
Andyman’s prime target was Nunyo Demasio, then the lead writer on the WFT beat for the Washington Post. At the same time, WFT management also took to using all the Unfiltered resources to publicly bash Demasio and his employer.
Karl Swanson, the team’s senior vice president for communications who described himself to the Post as Snyder’s “henchman” in charge of handling the media, took the odd step of going on Extremeskins in May 2005, as the team was finalizing its board takeover, to specifically direct posters to “The Nunyo Files,” a thread created on that board exclusively for Demasio attacks. Swanson bragged in the same chat that he was one of only three employees that reported directly to the owner.
The dumbass hordes answered Swanson’s call to show Demasio their hate: One particularly disturbed Extremeskins member who posted as “BD” tagged his posts with the sign-off, “I would not pee on Nunyo Demasio if he was on FIRE.”
The personal attacks caught Demasio’s attention, and his bosses’. “It was crazy,” Demasio told me recently. “They were trying to make an example of me because [Snyder] had lost control of how the beat was covered. But the higher-ups at the Post, they really, really stepped up. This is one of the most important beats on the paper, and they made sure I knew they had my back, and it really said a lot about their mindset. I’ll never forget that. This is the paper that took down Nixon, and they weren’t going to let a team owner force a beat writer off the beat, which was what Snyder was out to do. They gave me a raise. Dan Snyder got me a raise.”
Andyman’s future wasn’t so rosy. His demise began when Demasio left the Post for Sports Illustrated in late 2005. News of his hiring popped up on a message board for sports media, sportsjournalists.com. Andyman crashed that going-away party to get in some final insults. But then it was leaked by sportsjournalists.com insiders that Swanson himself had registered at the site using a traceable email that belonged to him. The Henchman cometh.
When I called Swanson in October 2005 about the sportsjournalists.com fiasco, he denied he was the pseudonymous burgundy and gold cult hero.
“I know of Andyman, but I do not know who that is,” Swanson told me. “I am not Andyman.”
Swanson admitted registering at sportsjournalists.com, but said it was just to read the posts. Registration was not necessary for read-only access, however. Swanson then conjectured that Andyman was “somebody who works at a copy desk” of a newspaper, but couldn’t explain why he thought a copy editor would harbor such obvious hate for the media in general and specifically Demasio. Nobody bought Swanson’s denial, and Andyman lost all his message board gravitas after the outing. The episode painted Snyder’s organization as petty and stupid. Swanson left WFT in 2010.
Demasio went on to co-write a bestselling book with Bill Parcells and host a podcast that in 2019 lured the NBA’s David Stern on for a blockbuster interview. Demasio told me he never encountered another operation like Snyder’s before or since his days at the Post.
“I’d covered other teams before [WFT]. I came to the beat from Seattle covering the Sonics. And out there the owner, Howard Schultz, definitely wouldn’t like everything you wrote," he said. "And when that happened, they would make a complaint to the paper, and try to make things better. They didn’t try to go to war with you and smear you and use their fake accounts online. Andyman, that really took it to the next level.”
When he read reports of WFT’s latest fake media forays, Demasio said, recollections of Snyder’s unique sleaziness flooded back. "It’s still the same craziness. He’s had practice at this stuff for years!"
Andyman’s bizarre Extremeskins acolyte, BD, was also eventually unmasked. Demasio learned the meanie poster’s actual identity in 2006, when the Washington Post created a political blog called Red America in an effort to pander to right-wing readers, and hired a writer named Ben Domenech to run it. The project was a disaster. Domenech was fired after just three days, when it came out he had a long history of plagiarizing work that had previously appeared in, among other places, the Washington Post.
After Domenech’s firing, Demasio figured out that the poor sap who flamed out in shame at his former employer and the dumbass who attacked him obsessively on the Snyder-owned message board were one and the same. There's no evidence that Domenech was ever on Snyder’s payroll; he followed Andyman's orders to attack on his own and pro bono. BD/Domenech’s member page at Extremeskins is still up, though it says he hasn’t visited the site since January 2011.
Red America and BD went away, but Domenech didn’t. He now serves as the publisher of the Federalist and is a regular contributor to Fox News, but is best known as the husband of Meghan McCain. Domenech did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Demasio has watched Domenech’s rise in conservative media with equal parts disbelief and amusement. “I’m going, ‘That’s the guy from Extremeskins?'" he said. “This rock star in the conservative movement who goes on to marry Meghan McCain is a serial plagiarist who posted on message boards that he wouldn’t pee on Nunyo Demasio if he was on fire? That’s the guy?”
Yup. What a guy.
On March 17, Snyder's attorney, Jordan Siev, emailed the author of this piece. Siev wanted to know if Defector has counsel, so that he could speak to them "about your March 15 article."
Siev was referred to Defector's legal counsel, who had a phone conversation with Siev in which he requested that a statement be added to this story indicating that Dan Snyder has never met or spoken to Ben Domenech.
So, here we go: "Dan Snyder has never met or spoken to Ben Domenech," said Jordan Siev.
Disclosure: Dan Snyder once sued the author for writing mean things about him.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story said Demasio "got a call" outing Ben Domenech as a message board antagonist. Demasio says his own research first led him to Domenech's identity.