The publishing platform Medium has tried to position itself as a destination for high-quality writing, selling memberships and hiring journalists.
But pro-Trump grifters poked a huge hole in that self-image on Monday, when they allegedly impersonated a Michigan man and published a fabricated sexual assault allegation against 2020 Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg.
Medium has become a go-to outlet for journalists, politicians, and other public figures to share their ideas. After various strategic pivots, it has recently pushed a $50-a-year membership program and a slate of premium publications staffed by journalists. Those professionally produced articles sit behind a paywall, but they bear close resemblance to unvetted posts by users.
The publication and takedown of the Buttigieg hoax renews questions around platforms that allow users to publish information without verification. They could be particularly fertile ground for hit pieces and opposition research dumps as 2020 looms.
“Medium is a behemoth that has lots of traffic and engagement, so you're going to see people leverage it as a way to rapidly spread stories and get attention,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “It won't last—Medium suspended this account quickly. But in this case, it unfortunately worked, because they got the headlines about the false attack. It's out there.”
Posted under the user name Hunter Kelly on Monday, the short piece lobbed a vague claim of abuse against the South Bend mayor and welcomed further media coverage. Pro-Trump conspiracy outlets including Infowars and The Gateway Pundit were among the few to pick it up.
In an email Monday afternoon, Medium Head of Communications Sandee Roston said the article had been referred to the company’s trust and safety team.
“This post has been under review; we’ve been going through our protocol,” Roston said. She did not elaborate on what that protocol entails.
Hours later, The Daily Beast outed the Medium post as part of an anti-Buttigieg smear campaign by pro-Trump con artists Jacob Wohl and Jake Berkman. And the real Hunter Kelly said in a message to reporters that Wohl had recruited him for a supposed role in President Donald Trump’s 2020 effort and then published the Medium post without his consent.
“So, that means, without my permission a disgusting article pretending to be me was lambasted across the internet,” Kelly wrote. “Reading the story made me sick to my stomach and I expressed my thoughts with my family who were incredibly opposed to this and would alert media outlets that this was a lie.”
Medium took down the post soon after. The platform’s Terms of Service alert users that “we can remove any content you post for any reason,” and Medium specifically bars deceptive content in its rules. But Roston has not responded to VICE News’ subsequent questions about how and when Medium decided that the post about Buttigieg met the bar for removal—or what’s to stop something similar from happening again.
Medium has previously run into similar questions. In February, a political consultant named Luke Thompson published a piece alleging that Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff used political action committee funds to pay Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend. No mainstream media outlet picked up the story, which racked up about 2,700 “claps”—Medium’s metric for audience approval.
Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff posted a series of rebuttals in the comments, repeatedly calling the article false. The congresswoman herself tweeted that the Medium post was part of a “conspiracy machine” working against her.
The story remains live on Medium.
Cover: South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at the West Side Democratic Club during a Dyngus Day celebration event on Monday, April 22, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)