Astroturfing, Dr. Evil, and N.Y.C.’s Elite Schools

The New York Post Headline

Last week, The New York Post published an exclusive article, by investigative reporter Dana Kennedy, about 3 groups of anonymous concerned parents who “plan to troll elite NYC schools with anti-woke billboards.” The Post named one of the groups as “Prep School Accountability” and linked to their website. Prep School Accountability, or PSA, wants to be seen as a grassroots effort of concerned parents, but appears to be anything but. Rather than being actual grassroots, organized bottom up, it appears to be astroturfing, the term for fake grassroots organizations that are actually built out by experienced political operatives and made to look authentic.

The Front Page for Prep School Accountability

The home page for Prep School Accountability is overly polished and includes a series of links to news stories about private NYC schools offering “Woke” or “Critical Race Theory” and parents’ responses. Underneath the news is a section of resources with a who’s who of conservative activists on blocking “Critical Race Theory” from schools, and a list of organizations Prep School Accountability claims no affiliation with but encourages parents concerned about their kids learning critical race theory to reach out to.

The front page is, like all websites, code displayed as text and images and that same code reveals who was involved in building out the site. As websites became more and more complex content management systems, or CMS, software that allows anyone to easily manage pages and themes with little coding ability became commonplace. The Prep School Accountability page is running on avery common CMS known as Wordpress and Wordpress by default creates a user page for each author of a Wordpress website. There are ways to hide those author pages but the people behind PSA failed to do so properly. Simply adding ?author=# to the end of the URL and iterating the number shows the authors.

A Twitter user, @soft_fox_lad noticed this first and alerted me to it

From there I was able to uncover more information about each of the four authors of the site

Author 0:

https://www.prepschoolaccountability.com/?author=0

The image above may seem like a dead end, until you look at the code underneath

Code from the Page above

A site plugin had indexed the author’s name as “Prep School Accountability”

Using the same technique we can find the author names for the next 3 authors, numbers 1,2, and 3 (computers start counting at 0, not 1)

Author 1 is named PSA

Author 2 is named “Charlyce Bozzello”

Author 3 is named “petriccione”

A quick google of the name “Charlyce Bozzello” leads us to a person who has worked at conservative think tanks and for conservative state representatives. It also leads to her long history of publishing articles in her role as Communications Director for the Center for Union Facts. The Center for Union Facts is a known right wing anti-union organization run by a man dubbed Dr. Evil, Rick Berman. Rick Berman is a DC lobbyist who has fought against Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Human Society and a slew of other organizations at the behest of moneyed interests via his lobbying group Berman and Co. In fact, John Oliver has covered him:

The next assumption is that Petriccione has to be someone else associated with Rick Berman and searching for that last name and “Berman” brings up a “Communications Associate” for “Berman and Company”, she also work for the Employment Polices Institute, a virtual organization ran out of Berman’s office that opposes any raising of the minim wage. She is listed on EPI’s website as the media point of contact

The website’s code hides a second set of secrets, the other websites that the same accounts have been used with. The sites happened to have links to a service called Gravatar, which bills itself as a service offering “Globally Recognized Avatars, which means any site you post on with your Gravatar ID can be confirmed to be the same you as on any other website. The IDs are a series of numbers and letters unique to that user. When we go back and look at the source code of the author pages again we find 3 such IDs:

Author 0 — aka Prep School Accountability — no ID as this account was created for this site
Author 1 — AKA PSA — 90a09ed027901e34e98ad536287b3a14
Author 2 — AKA Charlyce Bozzello — 77b26c940744b3dc3cd34348b6077eae
Author 3 — AKA petriccione — 9b0893716cfdd17fd0b17cc1374d8e2b

Using Google Search and checking the image tab we can find other blogs the exact same accounts were used for. Google brought up “Friends of the National Institute of Aging” when I searched the PSA ID and the code matched.

The ID hidden in the page code

The ID for PSA comes up with multiple URLs:
Friends of the National Institute of Aging — Username:friendsofnia
Alliance for Aging Research — Username:Alliance for Aging Research Team
LegBranch.Org — Username: LegBranch Team
Minimumwage.com — Username:minimumwage

The Alliance for Aging Research had this helpful page which lists Berman And Company as a donor to the Allicance for Aging Research…which they either run or are a vendor for

Since the IDs match all these accounts are actually the same Gravatar ID and same person and persons behind them. You would have to wonder why a person o persons concerned about aging, legislation, and fighting the minimum wage became so passionate about private schools in NYC?

Next we have Bozzello, her ID brings up the following site:

CABIA is the “California Business and Industrial Alliance” a “trade organization” that wants to fight California’s Private Attorneys General Act.
Per the California Government the Private Attorney’s General Act allows for employees to file lawsuits, as the state, to recover civil penalties, like stolen wages, directly against an employer rather than needing a state attorney. Basically, if your employer wronged you civilly and the state of California you can sue on behalf of the state rather than the other way around. Businesses dislike this since it has increased lawsuits against them and increased pay outs, per a report by the UCLA Labor Center.

A board member of CABIA is also a Senior Vice President at Berman

And finally, petriccione, her ID doesn’t bring up any further websites

But we aren’t done yet! There is more hidden information in their Twitter accounts!

Using the website Tweepdiff.com to compare who follows two accounts I compared “Union_facts”, the twitter for the Center for Union Facts, and PrepSchoolAcc. There are only two people that follow both, Michael Saltsman, a partner ay Berman and Co and managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, where Petriccione works, and as the board member of CABIA pictured above and the second is Tim Rice, the Associate Editor of the conservative Washington Free Bacon and former employee of the conservative think thank the Manhattan Institute, where Charlyce Bozzello used to work. Tim Rice also happens to be engaged to Charlyce Bozzello, yes the same one who is linked to the PSA.

https://tweepdiff.com/Union_Facts.followers/PrepSchoolAcc.followers?s=2

Using the website Tweetbeaver’s follower tool, I was able to download a list of followers of the PSA group and sort them by creation date. I found the top 2 dates, 2/5/2021 and 5/8/2021, each had 6 accounts created on those dates. For an account with ~600 followers to have two large sets of followers with the same creation date is an unlikely anomaly.

All 12 users appear to be located in either India or Pakistan. The idea that they all decided to oppose the teaching of Critical Race Theory in NYC’s elite private academies seems unlikely. The alternative explanation is that these are paid follows, a practice against Twitter’s terms and conditions. Additionally, 75 of the CPA Twitter accounts 611 followers, as of when I pulled the report on 6/6/2021, have never tweeted at all

Here is a screenshot of some of their earlier followers:

I also graphed the year of account creation for all of their followers:

This sort of distribution leans heavily into inauthentic behavior activity given the other information we’ve seen.

Twitter Content Policy bans this exact sort of inauthentic activity:

This is fairly cut and dry inauthentic behavior: the site isn’t who they say they are and their followers aren’t who they appear to be. The low cost of entry to running disinformation campaigns makes it easy for everyone from a single troll with cash, programming skills, or both, to nation states. There is little friction, outside of getting accounts banned for engaging in it.

Dana Kennedy as follower #449

However, journalistic malpractice is another story. The first real follower of the PSA twitter account, after 448 inauthentic accounts, was Dana Kennedy. Dana Kennedy is the New York Post writer who wrote the article about the PSA in the first place:

If Dana Kennedy knew the story about it being just an anonymous group of parents being behind the Prep School Accountability organization was false or if she knew who fed her this story was doing paid public relations that is highly problematic or if she knew this is a Berman & Co press release masquerading as an article. There are few possibilities that leave both the reporters and the paper in a good light.

I mentioned at the top there were 3 groups named the in the Post article and all 3 are on Twitter: the largest being Prep School Accountability, second Speakupcgps, and the sparsely followed UWSParents account with it’s 7 followers with one of the 7 being SpeakUpCGPS. UWSParents is following only 3 accounts, first SpeakUpCGPS, second PrepSchoolAccountability and finally the NYPOST:

UWS’s 3 Follows

SpeakUpCGPS is following 63 accounts and has 83 followers. It’s limited numbers are far more realistic than PSA’s 600+ and the data reflects that, but being authentic can still be questionable. One of SpeakUpCGPS’s earliest followers was Dana Kennedy being follower number 6 since Twitter lists followers chronologically from newest to oldest and top to bottom, assuming no one followed and unfollowed before her.

The is clear platform manipulation happening on Twitter by “Prep School Accountability” and questionable ethics from the New York Post. This is a good example of why the Russian proverb of “Trust But Verify” should be the default approach to political groups, and well everything else, on the Internet. Since the article first went out on Saturday, the 5th, Dana Kennedy has published a second article about critical race theory in prep schools, this time in New Jersey, and the New York Post has published a second article about the PSA and their billboards.

The story about NJ is about a teacher resigning so she doesn’t have to teach critical race theory and Dana cites her source for the story as “The Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism”

PSA has tweeted the following:

And has this disclaimer on the Berman linked PSA website:

I’m sure there is no reason to dig into that connection, no reason at all

Thanks to @soft_fox_lad for the tip, research assistance, and loads of editing help

Personal write up of my OSINT adventures