MSNBC host Joy Reid this week employed the same excuse as so many other public figures who have been embarrassed by something they had written online: she said she was hacked.
But after widespread skepticism regarding her claims, Reid and her employer went further than most of those humiliated celebrities, providing analysis from her own cybersecurity consultant, who said that old, homophobic posts that appeared to have been published on Reid’s now-shuttered blog were indeed the result of nefarious activity.
Reid, a liberal pundit who hosts a program every weekend on MSNBC, said Monday that a number of posts unearthed by a Twitter user were placed online by an “external party.”
The claim was met with immediate and widespread skepticism; the doubt shifted to derision on Tuesday afternoon, when a representative for the Wayback Machine, a digital archive that stores old content, said that a review “found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions.”
The backlash grew so severe that an LGBTQ advocacy group, PFLAG National, announced that it was rescinding an award it intended to give to Reid next month.
But on Tuesday night, a spokeswoman for MSNBC shared several documents with CNNMoney, including a statement from an independent security consultant named Jonathan Nichols, who said he has “significant evidence” that some of the recently circulated posts are bogus.
In his statement, Nichols said that he “discovered that login information used to access the blog was available on the Dark Web and that fraudulent entries — featuring offensive statements — were entered with suspicious formatting and time stamps.”
“At no time has Ms. Reid claimed that the Wayback Machine was hacked, though early in our investigation, we were made aware of a breach at archive.org which may have correlated with the fraudulent blog posts we observed on their website,” Nichols said. “We simply wanted to ascertain whether that breach was related to the compromising of Ms. Reid’s blog.”
He pointed out that the inflammatory blog entries in question didn’t have reader comments. “If those posts were real, they would have undoubtedly elicited responses from Ms. Reid’s base,” he wrote.
The MSNBC spokesperson also provided letters sent in December from Reid’s attorney to Alphabet, the parent company of Google, which owned the site on which Reid’s blog was hosted at the time of the disputed posts, and Internet Archive, which runs the Wayback Machine, to alert the companies of the alleged hacking. CNNMoney has reached out to Alphabet for comment. The MSNBC spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up inquiry regarding Alphabet’s response.
Nichols said that many of the posts in question were published at a time when Reid was hosting a radio show, and that the “text and visual styling was inconsistent with her original entries.”
He added that “some of the recently circulated posts were not even on the site at any time, suggesting that these instances may be the result of screenshot manipulation.”
Reid’s attorney, John H. Reichman, highlighted what he said was another discrepancy in his letters to the companies, pointing out that Reid published posts on January 10, 2006 about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito at 10:18 a.m., 11:34 a.m. and 11:41 a.m., but that the archive showed what Reichman described as a “lengthy, fraudulent entry” at 11:28 a.m.
“Ms. Reid did not have the superhuman blogging skills needed to do all of these posts simultaneously,” Reichman wrote.
A Library of Congress archive of the site shows that the “lengthy” entry contains only two sentences of text actually written by the post’s author; the rest is a quote.
The Library of Congress archive reviewed by CNNMoney — which the Library says is created using a local installation of the Wayback Machine — contains the disputed posts and lists them as having been archived on January 12, 2006. The documents provided by MSNBC to CNNMoney do not contain a letter to the Library of Congress regarding its archive.
In his letter to Internet Archive, Reichman demanded that the site provide “the information needed to determine how the fraudulent posts came to be included in the archived posts.” He asked Alphabet for “immediate assistance in determining how, when and by whom the Blog was hacked and the fraudulent posts entered.”
The controversy, one of the strangest in recent memory to ensnare a media personality, began Monday, when Mediaite reported on the blog posts, many of which contained homophobic sentiments. In one, the author wrote “most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing,” and that it is in the “intrinsic nature” of straight people to find homosexual sex “gross.”
Reid told Mediaite in a statement that she “began working with a cyber-security expert who first identified the unauthorized activity,” and that she “notified federal law enforcement officials of the breach.”
The claim was met with plenty of skepticism, at least in part because Reid had already apologized in December for other years-old anti-gay posts that appeared on the blog, which were found by the same Twitter user, @Jamie_Maz, who also unearthed this week’s posts through the Wayback Machine.
It didn’t help Reid’s credibility when the representative for the Wayback Machine rebutted her claim on Tuesday afternoon.
“When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions,” wrote Chris Butler on the Wayback Machine’s blog. “At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.”
Butler said “the point at which the manipulation is to have occurred, according to Reid, is still unclear to us,” and that he and his colleagues “let Reid’s lawyers know that the information provided was not sufficient for us to verify claims of manipulation.”
“Consequently, and due to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives,” Butler wrote. “We were clear that we would welcome and consider any further information that they could provide us to support their claims.”
CNNMoney (New York) First published April 25, 2018: 2:10 AM ET