A network of websites and a popular YouTube channel that spread false conspiracies about Sen. Kamala Harris, Mark Zuckerberg, and other public figures are owned by a couple who operate two Montessori schools in Michigan, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.
This same operation also published a controversial image of US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson with crosshairs next to her head; two weeks later, Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone shared it on Instagram. Jackson, who is presiding over Stone’s case, later barred him from speaking publicly about the case or special counsel Robert Mueller after his use of the image.
The ability of this small network of sites and self-described researchers to influence public figures such as Stone and help fan false claims about a presidential candidate shows how fringe operators continue to break into the news cycle in advance of the 2020 presidential election. It also offers an example of how political and social conspiracy theories often intersect with new age spirituality and alternative medicine.
Tyla Wells and her husband, Douglas Gabriel, are the Michigan couple behind the operation. They run at least three websites and a YouTube channel that has garnered more than 15 million views under the brand American Intelligence Media. The couple use pseudonyms, including “Betsy Ross” and “Thomas Pain,” in videos and radio interviews. However, Wells, who also goes by Tyla Gabriel, is listed in the domain ownership information for aim4truth.org, truthbits.blog, and patriots4truth.org. Both she and her husband have at times used their real names in videos about AIM content.
The couple also use their conspiracy operation to promote their network of websites dedicated to “spiritual writings to help you navigate your own spiritual journey.” They advise people to use “silver water,” a concoction that involves “charging” the water with batteries and shining a laser through it. One of their spiritual lessons calls silver water “a natural antibiotic” that can fight diseases. There’s a health warning at the bottom of the recipe instructions. In 1999, the FDA ruled that “products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for internal or external use are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded.”
Wells’ day job is the head of Schoolhouse Learning Communities, a company that runs two Montessori schools for children up to the sixth grade in the Detroit area. She was featured in a "top 40 under 40" list by Crain’s Detroit Business in 1996 for starting a charter school and vocational education centers. The vocational centers appear to be closed, and charter schools she operated in the past are also out of business.
Gabriel’s bio says he has a doctorate and is “a retired superintendent of schools and professor of education.” He also claims to be a priest and a lecturer for several colleges, and to have worked for the National Security Agency as a “cryptologist and systems analyst in signal intelligence."
A spokesperson for the NSA told BuzzFeed News it could only confirm whether a person worked at the agency if they give the agency their consent to release details.
“We will not look into whether an individual worked for the NSA without their consent and we do not confirm an individual’s affiliation without their consent,” said Greg Julian in an email.
Neither Gabriel nor Wells replied to emails and phone messages from BuzzFeed News.
Their sites are home to conspiracies and false claims such as: Sen. Kamala Harris is not eligible to serve as president; there were no plane crashes on 9/11; Queen Elizabeth secretly controls the world; and that “Hillary paid Facebook to rig elections while colluding with Russian Uranium One.”
As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, the AIM article about Harris includes an unverified image alleged to be her birth certificate. The site’s false claims about Harris’s eligibility and background were echoed in online attacks that emerged after the most recent Democratic candidate debate. The claims were propagated by neo-Nazis and people who doubt former president Barack Obama's US citizenship, also known as birthers.
Though the couple appear to be at the core of the operation, they claim to work with “Anonymous Patriots, a citizen journalist group aligned with the American Intelligence Media.” Gabriel has said in videos that they work with a “conclave” of other people who contribute research and articles to the sites, and claimed some of these people previously worked in the US government.
One of AIM’s most-cited sources and “researchers” is Michael McKibben, a tech entrepreneur who unsuccessfully sued Facebook.
Two websites linked to McKibben, fbcoverup.com and americans4innovation.blogspot.com, appear to be the original sources of the infamous “crosshairs” image of Judge Amy Berman Jackson. The Americans for Innovation site published an uncropped version of the image Feb. 4, two weeks prior to Stone sharing it. Aim4truth.org then published it Feb. 8 in a post that credited McKibben with research and promoted a YouTube video of him and Gibson. (The Americans for Innovation blog lists itself as a “member” of AIM.)
McKibben is best known for his lawsuit that claimed Mark Zuckerberg hacked into his son’s Harvard email address and stole a white paper that outlined his plan for a social network. The case was covered by the press at the time, but since then McKibben’s claims have become even more outrageous, culminating in statements that Zuckerberg is a government pawn and that Facebook was actually built so intelligence agencies could spy on the public. AIM produced a six-part YouTube series featuring interviews with McKibben.
McKibben did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
In June, AIM kicked this conspiracy into high gear when it published an article claiming “Mark Zuckerberg Is a Fraud Used by the CIA.” The author used the pseudonym “John” and claimed to be the Facebook founder’s former Harvard roommate. The first-person article spins a range of false claims, including that Zuckerberg is gay and that he created Facebook at the behest of government agents.
Although there is no way to verify who wrote the article, it regurgitates the same conspiratorial talking points McKibben made in conversation with “Betsy” during the YouTube videos AIM hosted.
The anonymous article about Zuckerberg was picked up by a handful of fringe websites, most notably Collective Evolution, which boasts more than 5.3 million fans on Facebook. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.)
AIM wrote in a preamble to the letter from “John” that “we do not claim that this anonymous ‘confession’ and ‘indictment’ is true in all its parts.” But it also claims to have “been able to quickly verify that many of the claims insinuated in this ‘Zuckerberg Dossier’ are true and this leads us to conclude that the document is authentic and exactly what it appears to be.” (It’s not.)
Now AIM is doubling down. Today it published an interview with yet another anonymous insider (“Jane Doe”), who claims to have worked at “Google/Facebook/DARPA.” This article contains a range of false accusations about former Google CEO and chair Eric Schmidt and attempts to connect him to the previous Facebook allegations.
Though much of AIM’s content aligns with conspiracy theories such as QAnon and others rooted in claims of secret cabals controlling the world, Gabriel has riled others in the alternative media universe and the QAnon crowd in particular.
Jason Goodman, who runs the "Crowdsource the Truth" YouTube channel, last year labeled Gabriel “the latest double-talking charlatan to attempt to infiltrate the alternative media world.”