"I Felt Dirty": Former Employees Of The Veteran Crowdfunding Trump's Wall Say He Pushed Fake News To Get Rich
"He never wanted the truth. It was all just for clicks, and the more inflammatory, the better," a former employee said. "I felt dirty writing the stuff.”
Brian Kolfage, the decorated Iraq War veteran spearheading the massive, viral fundraising campaign to build President Trump’s border wall, who has a history of peddling right-wing misinformation on Facebook, pushed the limits of misleading content in pursuit of online traffic and profits until he was ultimately banned from the platform, according to multiple former employees and a review of internal communications.
The 37-year-old has spent more than a decade carefully crafting his public persona as an altruistic, conservative public figure, but people who have worked with the veteran told BuzzFeed News he can be vengeful and malicious, and that the pursuit of profits above all else fueled his behavior.
The veteran has also spearheaded other crowdfunding ventures over the years, raising thousands of dollars on GoFundMe with the promise of helping mentor fellow vets at military hospitals, but spokespersons for the medical centers said they have no record of Kolfage working at their facilities or donating any money.
Lindsay Lowery, who goes by the alias Prissy Holly, worked for Kolfage’s main conservative news website, Freedom Daily, for about a year in 2017 as Trump’s presidency began to take shape and the world of fake news on Facebook remained largely unabated.
“After I started challenging some of his business decisions that I felt were reckless for the company and for my career, the real Brian emerged,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Everything is only about his ‘war hero’ persona and money. If there’s a perceived slight on his part, he viciously attacks people...and, in my case, tries to destroy their life and livelihood.”
BuzzFeed News reviewed a cache of internal emails and text messages from several of Kolfage’s former employees and acquaintances that show how he pushed to sensationalize and fabricate right-wing content on Facebook to amass clicks, manipulate users, and in the process, make hundreds of thousands of dollars a month in advertising revenue. In one text, he claimed to run a “multi-million business.”
In addition to Lowery, three sources corroborated the documents and their experience with Kolfage, but were afraid to go on the record, citing his past behavior of lashing out and threatening legal action against those who have spoken against him.
Former employees told BuzzFeed News that Kolfage instructed his crew to produce Facebook content to more flagrantly convey a false narrative, in one instance photoshopping former president Obama’s head onto another body to make it appear as though he was having an affair, with the caption, “BREAKING!! OBAMA BUSTED!!! VIDEO LEAKED!!”
“You’ll love this one ;),” he texted employees during a conversation about manipulating images.
In one message to Lowery, Kolfage sent a screenshot of an article making it appear as though the FBI was arresting Hillary Clinton with the bold headline: “BREAKING!!! TRUMP’S DOJ JUST DID IT!!! It’s FINALLY Happening!” The example, she said, was meant to show how to persuade more people to click on the site’s stories.
In another text exchange before she quit in January 2018, Kolfage chastised Lowery for not being provocative with story content and prodded her to “get creative with images” on a false report claiming former FBI director James Comey “just Committed Treason.”
“So get creative like using fake photoshopped images?” she responded. “I was kind of taken back at this...”
“Yup it’s just a graphic. Best story of [the] day,” he said.
“It’s fake,” she replied. "I don't see how this [is] making us a legit website"
“That’s not for u to worry about,” Kolfage texted back. “And it’s only on Facebook. Not the website.”
“Adds mystery to the entire story... he was part of FBI at same time," he added. "Use that exact image of comey or the cia director in some shady looking pic."
On several occasions, Kolfage discussed purchasing Facebook pages, which he acknowledged in one message is a violation of the social network’s policy and urged employees to remain quiet about. In a group text dated Sept. 22, 2017, he informed employees that “we purchased the Facebook pages belonging to Patriot Nation,” collecting its 2 million fans to “significantly increase our traffic” and generate more revenue.
About a year later, in March 2018, Kolfage texted an acquaintance, who shared their conversations with BuzzFeed News, bragging about how rapidly he had grown the Facebook page Right Wing News, which he had recently purchased.
“One day of big daddy running the show,” Kolfage wrote, referencing an attached chart showing a significant spike in user traffic. “Those fuckers had no clue...The page reach is actually 14 million this week. When I got it [it] was 1 mil.”
The veteran purchased the page, which frequently posted outlandish conservative "clickbait" stories, for more than $100,000, according to a former employee and a colleague.
“Brian is a genius. He knows how to manipulate people and the system,” the former employee said. “The stories were doing more harm than good. Hillary’s face would be on someone else’s body with handcuffs and the story had nothing to do with that. He would brag about how we would be even bigger and explode in 2018 because of the fake news stuff.”
Neither Kolfage nor his representative responded to multiple requests for comment.
A well-known Purple Heart recipient who lost three limbs in Iraq, Kolfage has garnered a loyal following online, especially on Facebook, and is a regular guest on conservative cable news channels. But after Facebook suspended several of his pages and hundreds of others during a major purge of inauthentic accounts in October, he sharpened his identity as a crusader for American values, like free speech.
He burst back into the mainstream in mid-December with the now-viral mission to crowdfund Trump’s controversial US–Mexico border wall through donations on GoFundMe, with a record-setting goal of $1 billion. In just a few weeks, the account has raised more than $20 million, with more than 300,000 people donating anywhere from $10 to $50,000 each.
The veteran has tapped crowdfunding and his social media following to help raise money for a variety of issues and causes over the years, including his own legal fees against what he characterized as “radical left-wing extremists” who slandered him, according to 2014 court documents.
A year later, he used GoFundMe to collect $16,246 for a veteran mentorship program. The campaign closed in February 2015, and the funds went directly to Kolfage, Bobby Whithorne, a GoFundMe spokesperson, confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
In now-deleted Facebook posts, Kolfage appealed to followers to donate to “get vets back on track” and said his program worked in conjunction with military hospitals, such as Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which treated Kolfage in 2004 after the horrific explosion at Balad Air Base in Iraq that left him injured.
But representatives for all three medical centers told BuzzFeed News that they have no record of any peer-mentoring programs or Kolfage working with patients at their centers.
“We do not have a record of Mr. Kolfage visiting Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in any official capacity after 2012,” Gia E. Oney, chief of public affairs for Landstuhl, told BuzzFeed News. “We have no record of a donation made in his name to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.”
In addition to his build-the-wall campaign, Kolfage is still raising money on GoFundMe for his “Fight 4 Free Speech” initiative to “take on Facebook in an unprecedented legal case that will shape our nation for future generations.” It has raised more than $73,350 of its $100,000 goal in two months.
Before Facebook yanked his accounts, Kolfage created and oversaw a host of right-wing pages and profiles that shared incendiary stories generated by the Freedom Daily website. Starting in 2016, he hired about a half dozen people to post and spread content across at least 10 accounts, pushing them to sensationalize and fabricate content to gain more followers and reap thousands in advertising dollars, according to text messages, email exchanges, and interviews.
At first, the former employee who declined to be identified said “everything was going pretty good.” The pay was fair — about $2 per 1,000 clicks on Facebook — and she was able to pitch and write stories, which she said she loved.
But then she said her work, and the company’s mission, changed.
“He started creating more [Facebook] pages. I think he had around 10 when I was there and I remember I would see shares and be like, ‘Where did this page come from?’” she recalled. “He was very smart in how he would do it. He never wanted the truth. It was all just for clicks, and the more inflammatory, the better. I felt dirty writing the stuff.”
Lowery detailed a similar experience, describing how her role as a writer and editor for Freedom Daily morphed into creating more outlandish content on Facebook.
“Toward the end is when it got really bad with the fake news. I had no control over how my stories were titled,” Lowery said. “Brian only cared about the money.”
By December 2016, about 1.6 million people followed Freedom Daily on Facebook, according to an email Kolfage sent to employees. And as 2017, and the Trump presidency, wore on, the posts and pages became more extreme.
In November of that year, a text message exchange shows Kolfage claiming to have been affiliated with the president “to grow a massive Facebook group” called America FIRST, and boasting about having created a Nevada business license for “President Donald Trump Official LLC” to troll a competitor and “show that he could do it.”
Freedom Daily licensed “President Donald Trump Official LLC” in Nevada in November 2017, according to state records.
Those who worked with Kolfage described calculated efforts to ensure that his ownership of and influence over his web of Facebook pages was untraceable. Lowery said he would also post content under pseudonyms, like Ronnie Martin, to distance himself “from all the shady stuff.”
In one email to employees, Kolfage warned to “NEVER tell anyone who operates Freedomdaily. It’s a tightly guarded secret, and our LLC has a privacy veil set up to protect it. It allows us to operate without consequence where we can’t be sued or attacked by trolls.”
The more outlandish the headlines and images, the more Facebook traffic he garnered. In August 2017, more than 28 million people viewed the Freedom Daily website, generating about $300,000, said Lowery, who tracked the company’s analytics.
However, Frank Bojazi, a writer for the Right Wing News site in 2017, said in his experience the site's top editors were responsible for altering and intensifying headlines to make them “more clickbait.”
“Brian didn’t do the titles, someone else did those,” he told BuzzFeed News, though he emphasized that “his only job was to write stories,” and he had nothing to do with Facebook.
He lamented how the headlines on his stories were altered to drive traffic.
“They sucked,” Bojazi said. “Inaccurate isn’t cool. I wanted more accurate headlines so readers weren’t confused. I was bottom of the totem pole though, don’t get to talk much.”
Eventually, Kolfage’s high visibility, record of harassment complaints, and manipulation of the platform got him permanently banned from the site, according to a Facebook spokesperson.
“His pages continue to be able to exist so long as they are administered by someone other than himself,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, adding that several pages promoting the border wall fundraiser were also recently removed because they violated rules regarding misrepresentation.
As bad as it was being part of the operation, especially in its final days, Lowery said employees who pushed back or quit had to deal with Kolfage’s ire and retaliation.
According to Lowery and two other former employees, Kolfage allegedly threatened her and her husband after she quit, and they got into a heated dispute over allegations that Lowery recruited one of Kolfage’s writers to create content for her new site, which she started after leaving Freedom Daily. Lowery also said that Kolfage reneged on an agreement to not run her content on Facebook after she left.
Text messages to Lowery show Kolfage telling her to “go fuck yourself” and threatening, “Your website is going down today.”
Then one day last July, her husband called in a panic. FBI agents were at the door of their Colorado home responding to an anonymous tip that the mother of two was planning “on going on a killing rampage and talked about killing people,” Lowery said, which she insists never happened.
An FBI spokesperson said the agency would not comment on any specific tips it received.
A month later, an anonymous tip into her husband’s workplace at Northrop Grumman, a major aerospace and defense contractor, also sparked an investigation. The family had just returned from vacation when her husband, Tyler Lowery, was approached about a report that they had been in contact with “foreign nationals,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“They came to my home and said that there was a report on the open line...about how Lindsay was working for Macedonians,” he said. “I explained the situation with Brian and showed them the same text messages.”
A source familiar with the matter confirmed the account to BuzzFeed News, saying Northrop Grumman “investigated what they understood to be the allegation, and it was not substantiated.”
Now, having extricated themselves from Kolfage’s orbit, the Lowerys hope they’ve seen the last of it.
“I had seen him go after people firsthand, but it was terrifying being on the other end of it,” Lindsay Lowery said. “I am honestly terrified of what he might do to harass or retaliate. He thinks he’s untouchable.”