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How Trump coins became an internet sensation

There’s a style for every taste, each
featuring a portrait of Trump. Sometimes he’s rendered in gold, staring
thoughtfully into the distance. In others he’s smirking in silver, raising a
thumbs-up, or even riding a missile while a bald eagle soars behind him.

Among all the options, one version
stands out. Known online as simply the “Trump coin,” it has become a favourite
of right-wing social media and fringe news sites. It’s advertised between
claims of stolen elections or conspiracy theories about global cabals. Some ads
even describe the coin as a kind of cryptocurrency, suggesting it would soon be
worth thousands.

The coin itself features Trump’s face
embossed in gold on a base of shining silver. His slogan, “Keep America Great,”
is written in an arc atop his head.

It could be yours, too, for just $0. (Plus
$9.99 shipping and handling.)

This
particular version has become something of an internet mystery. It’s not
obvious who’s promoting it or profiting from it. It’s sold by a mysterious news
website about which little is disclosed. Trump has nothing to do with the coin.
No identifiable company is taking credit.

Some internet sleuths have followed
digital breadcrumbs to suss out the organisations behind the coin’s popularity.
The New York Times took a similar path, tracking a network of advertisers and
following their activity from public storefronts to private marketing portals.
Using guidance from insiders and marketing veterans, the search crisscrossed
the globe, implicating a handful of companies and a legion of anonymous
marketers operating in parts unknown.

What became clear was not just the
coin’s unusual origins, but an entire disinformation supply chain that relied
on falsehoods and misinformation at nearly every step. Fuelling the coin’s
success were fake social media accounts that pushed false ads and a fleet of
misleading news websites that preyed on partisan discontent.

Seen in full, the coin illustrates what
watchdogs have long understood: Many untruths that Americans encounter online
aren’t created by foreign actors trying to sow division. They simply exist to
help someone, somewhere, make a quick buck.

The Trump coin shows how the strategy
has evolved since Trump’s election in 2016. As right-wing interest in
cryptocurrencies increased, marketers started claiming the physical Trump coin
was cryptocurrency, too. The idea gained traction among buyers who already
believed Trump was working on his own cryptocurrency.

The collectible novelty item might seem
harmless, but that is part of the danger, experts say, because it’s easy to
underestimate how the drive for profit can create new incentives to spread
disinformation online.

“You make it small enough and harmless
enough that no one can object to the individual grift,” said Danny Rogers, a
co-founder and executive director of the Global Disinformation Index. “But
taken together, you’ve built a movement.”

To understand how it all works, start
with Denzel Washington.

From Fake Celebrity Accounts …

Chat app Telegram has become a hotbed of
right-wing activity, with a stream of politicos and conspiracy theorists
posting misleading updates about everything from vaccinations to deep state
plots.

Joining the fray recently was an account
posing as Washington, an Oscar-winning actor.

“Democrats are only causing panic and
insecurity, and the American people are not safe with them on the wheel,” the
account, RealDenzelWashington, posted on a page featuring his name next to a
handsome profile photo.

Then the account announced that “real
money” would disappear. The “Trump coin” would reign in its place.

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That phony account is one of many on
Telegram that use celebrity names and photos to push the Trump coin. There’s
Ivanka Trump (more than 100,000 followers at one point), Mel Gibson (more than
140,000 followers), Trump-era special prosecutor John Durham (more than 210,000
followers), along with Keanu Reeves, Sen. Ted Cruz and even John F Kennedy Jr
(who died in 1999). Each account pushes its own mix of patriotism, anti-vaccine
content and claims that President Joe Biden is illegitimate. Many posts falsely
claimed that the coin’s value was about to surge, invoking the soaring price of
cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Conservatives turned to Telegram as
Facebook and Twitter cracked down on conspiratorial and violent content after
the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol. Watchdogs have warned that Telegram exercises
far less moderation than rival social media. Many of the fake accounts have
remained online for months, and new ones keep popping up. Others have been
disabled, like the fake account with Washington, or labelled “scam” or “fake”
by Telegram. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

In one post, a fake account for Rep
Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga, who is closely aligned with Trump, shared a fake
story on a fake Fox News website about a fake tweet by a fake Elon Musk,
falsely claiming that Tesla’s CEO would soon accept Trump coins as payment.

A spokesperson for Washington said he
was not available for comment but confirmed that the account was fake. Greene
did not respond to requests for comment.

The idea that the physical trinkets
could rise in value like Bitcoin seemed to connect with some Trump supporters,
swayed by tales of crypto-millionaires or the promise that Trump could one day
deem it legal tender. There is a real Trumpcoin cryptocurrency, but it has no
connection to the physical coins. (In the last week, Trump’s son Eric
threatened to sue the people behind the Trumpcoin cryptocurrency.)

One buyer apparently misled about the
Trump coin was a Telegram user, TheBlueOx, who said he had bought more than
$500 worth of physical Trump coins in hopes that they would one day be
exchanged for Trump’s official cryptocurrency.

“Seems somewhat risky to me, but $500
against a potentially large upside seemed like a reasonable risk,” the user
wrote.

… to Sites With Misinformation …

Whether the coin was pitched as a kind
of cryptocurrency or as a mere collectible, most ads on Telegram linked to the
same place: the Raw Conservative Opinions Store.

The storefront claims that the coin has
the “highest quality craftsmanship” and is “America’s favourite souvenir.”

The shop itself is hosted by right-wing
news purveyor Raw Conservative Opinions, which features an American flag logo
and a colour scheme in red, white and blue. One article detailed “6 Factors
Which Point To A Rigged Election,” including misleading claims that votes were
swapped from Trump to Biden and that vote surges were evidence of manipulation.
It was copied word for word from right-wing conspiracy site OffGuardian.

No owner is listed for Raw Conservative
Opinions. The website was registered in 2016 using a business park address in
Louisville, Kentucky. A representative from the office building said the suite
number did not exist. A phone number was also provided, but a woman who answered
said she didn’t speak English and hung up, then didn’t answer repeated phone
calls and text messages.

… With Marketers Making a Buck

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In the sprawling world of online
advertising, one niche plays an outsize role in the sale of the Trump coin:
affiliate marketers.

When someone buys the coin, most of the
money goes to the seller. But a cut is shared with the affiliate marketer — an
independent worker who advertises products online for a cut of the profits.

Affiliate marketing is a
multibillion-dollar business, with websites and YouTube channels earning hefty
commissions by posting quality endorsements. But some affiliate marketers work
at the margins. If a seller has some diet pills or conspiratorial e-books, they
can offer the products to affiliate marketers, who will post ads and create
websites, or use less ethical methods like creating fake social media accounts
that can generate traffic to the seller’s sales page.

ClickBank, a large affiliate network
based in Idaho, listed the coin last year when sales were surging. The company
wrote in a blog post that the Trump coin was its most popular product for
October, and No. 2 in November.

ClickBank did not respond to requests
for comment.

Feeding the Base

Merchandise has long been a part of the
political culture surrounding presidential elections. But Trump’s victory in
2016 created a new and more ravenous appetite for the goods. That’s where the
Trump coin first took shape, according to Maxwell Finn, an affiliate marketing
expert and president of Unicorn Innovations.

Finn was on the ground floor in 2016,
advising on one of the first Trump coins of the modern political era.

That early coin “did really well, and
whenever something does well, you have hundreds of people trying to copy it,”
said Finn, who was not involved with the current Trump coin.

Other marketers jumped in, buying
millions of cheaply made coins at wholesale prices from Chinese manufacturers
and storing them in American warehouses before selling them online, he said.

By the 2020 election, the pandemic,
vaccines and lies about a stolen election each offered new ways to excite Trump
supporters and generate interest in the merchandise.

“It was just a perfect storm,” Finn
said.

The Centre of the Mystery

Affiliate marketers who decide to advertise
the coin can turn to the seller for help. The company behind the coin linked to
another website, Conservative Affiliates, which provides marketing material
like photos and fake news stories that can be used to advertise the coins
online.

One set of marketing material detailed
how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to ban the Trump coin. The claim became
so widespread that fact-checkers worked to debunk it.

Aneela Mirchandani, a software engineer
and writer in San Francisco, mapped out an even larger network of products
leading back to Conservative Affiliates for her blog The Odd Post. She
investigated the coin after seeing it advertised on conservative social network
Parler, where it was pushed by fake celebrity accounts. (Sound familiar?)

Her investigation uncovered digital
identifiers on the Raw Conservative Opinions storefront that matched an array
of other products, like the apocalyptic e-book “Alive After the Fall.” That
book was also mentioned on Conservative Affiliates.

“They all led to this one door,”
Mirchandani said.

The Times conducted a similar search,
reviewing an archived version of the Conservative Affiliates site from February
2020. That page offered a vital clue: an email for Romanian marketing company
Stone Force Media. The same name appeared on an obscure part of an affiliate
marketing portal, which was visible only after signing up to advertise the
Trump coin.

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Mirchandani had also spotted the
archived page along with a mention of Stone Force Media on an affiliate portal
for “Tactical Home Defense,” an e-book about defending against home intrusion.

Those details placed Stone Force firmly
in the middle of the mystery, with connections to Raw Conservative Opinions,
Conservative Affiliates, the ClickBank listing and many other political and
conspiracy-tinged products pushed online, including the coin itself.

Stone Force is an internet marketing
company specialising in “audience acquisition and monetisation,” according to
its Facebook page and online job postings. The company’s co-founders include
Vlad Bolovan, who lists on his Instagram profile that he lives in Bucharest,
and Brandon Kelly, who lists on his Facebook profile that he is from California
and lives in Romania.

Operating from Bucharest since 2016 with
a staff of eight, Stone Force posted revenue of $1.07 million 2019, according
to business analysis company Dun & Bradstreet. The listing on D&B,
which also showed revenue for 2020, was taken offline after the Times contacted
Stone Force for this article.

When reached about the coin, a
spokesperson for Stone Force confirmed that the company was the coin’s vendor
but declined to comment further. He later forwarded an email from late 2021
showing that Stone Force had warned affiliates against marketing the coins as a
kind of cryptocurrency. As of January, many ads on Telegram were still
promoting the coin that way.

Bolovan and Kelly also declined to
comment.

At an affiliate marketing conference in
2021, Bolovan said the US presidential election had prompted technology companies
to crack down on unethical and misleading advertising, known in the business as
“black hat” marketing.

“For black hat people, I have bad news,
because the AI is only going to get better and better at this,” he warned,
adding that in the past, Stone Force “didn’t care a lot about compliance”
because its ads were usually approved. Now it was considering hiring a
dedicated compliance person to keep up with advertising rules, he said.

Then, the Delivery

Rachel Edwards can’t remember where she
first spotted the coin, but she thinks it was an ad on Facebook. Edwards, a
mother of three from Alabama, said the coins immediately caught her eye — and
so did the price, with a single coin costing nothing but shipping and handling.

“So I ordered five,” she said.

They arrived in about a week, packaged
inside a simple padded envelope. The coins looked good, each in a protective
plastic case, and she said they had enough heft to suggest they were real
silver.

But there was something amiss.

“The bag they came in individually just
had a sticker that said, ‘Made in China,’” she said.

Neil Segal, a dealer at Colonial Stamp
and Coin in Kingston, New York, tested another Trump coin bought from the Raw
Conservative Opinions Store. He used a device that detects precious metals.

He found no gold or silver. The coin was
also magnetic, suggesting it was mostly made of iron.

Jack Batelic, a gold appraiser at PRS
Gold Buyers in Newburgh, New York, tested the coin using a nitric acid
solution. After he applied a blob to Trump’s gold-coloured image, the area
darkened, bubbled and then turned green.

“It’s paint,” he concluded.

What was it worth?

“Nothing,” he said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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