Brett Vanderbrook was driving for Uber last week when he got a call from an unfamiliar number. He let it go to voicemail and when he listened to it later, he got a shock: It was a recorded message telling him to stop making “negative and derogatory posts about President Trump.”
“It was kind of threatening. I was dumbfounded at first and then creeped out,” Vanderbrook, who lives in Dallas, Texas, said in a phone interview. “Then I was angry and that’s when I decided to share it.”
Vanderbrook makes progressive political posts on Facebook, voicing support for gun control, LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights. None of his public posts mention President Trump or come across as “derogatory.”
Vanderbrook is not alone, though. Across the country, and even in Canada, people have reported on social media that they’ve received the same robocall. The earliest complaint dates back to July. The intensity of the calling campaign is hard to gauge; a search of complaints turned up 10 reports scattered across different platforms.
The reports, though, are all consistent. When the call goes to voicemail, as it did for Vanderbrook, the beginning of the recording gets cut off, but people describing the calls on Twitter, Facebook, and the telemarketer-reporting site ShouldIAnswer.com have said that the recording claims to come from “Citizens for Trump.”
Update (Nov 29. 8:46 p.m.): Several readers recognized the voice in the recording from Ownage Pranks, a service that places automated prank calls. “Citizens for Trump” is a prank offered by the service, which records the call and lets the person who ordered it post it publicly if they choose. In the full recording, the caller is identified as “Russell from the Citizens for Trump Foundation.” Ownage Pranks says they never thought people would take the call seriously, but their call-back function that revealed the prank was temporarily broken.
The problem with the prank is that it initially chose a real organization for its affiliation: Citizens for Trump describes itself as a “grassroots organization” that advocates for President Trump. According to a legal filing by its co-founder Timothy Selaty, the group was formed in 2015 by Patriotic Warriors LLC. Patriotic Warriors had now-expired business licenses in West Virginia and Arizona. The Citizens for Trump website encourages people to submit “Trump-related memes” for publication. In 2016, with the help of the ACLU, Citizens for Trump sued the city of Cleveland for the right to hold a parade there during the Republican National Convention.
Citizens for Trump has not yet responded to questions about whether it is behind the calls or, if it is, how it is choosing whom to target.
The numbers listed as the call’s origin are different each time, but the content is apparently the same. A man’s voice in a pre-recorded message says, “We’ve been monitoring some of your posts and it does seem that you’ve been making some rather negative comments about President Trump. Is that correct?”
After pausing as if waiting for a response, the man says, “Listen. We’re going to have to ask you to lay off on the negative and derogatory posts about President Trump, OK?” After another pause, the man says, “What’s your problem, anyways? Don’t you want to make America great again?”
“Well, you’ve been warned,” says the man to end the message. “We’ll be keeping an eye on you. Have a nice day.”
The script is cartoonish enough to sound like a prank. That might not be out of character for Citizens for Trump: The group is affiliated with Jack Posobiec, a Trump-supporting stunt artist and self-proclaimed investigative journalist, who listed himself in a bio as its former Special Projects Director in 2016. Posobiec is infamous for misinformation stunts; he allegedly brought a “Rape Melania” sign to a Trump protest to discredit the actual protesters, and he helped promote the bizarre conspiracy known as Pizzagate. Scholars from the Public Data Lab listed Citizens for Trump as being part of a “fake news ecosystem” during the last election.
The call may belong to that new strange realm of alt-right activism mixing political trolling and purposeful misinformation. A tongue-in-cheek robocall designed to scare or annoy or anger its recipients, its primary purpose is likely just to get a rise out of the person who picks up the phone (or more likely given that the call comes from an unfamiliar number, listens to the voicemail).
But how is the campaign choosing its targets and getting their phone numbers? Eric Wright, a man who lives in Florida and who got the message on Monday, said he “talks shit about Trump all the time” publicly on Twitter and privately on Facebook. Wright, who uses the pseudonym “Chozo Ninpo” online, put a recording of the message on YouTube along with the number it came from.
“It’s really shady,” Wright told me by phone. “I put it on YouTube because an older person like my grandma could believe it and thinks she’s being watched.”
Both Wright and Vanderbrook told me that their mobile numbers are fairly private and that they don’t usually receive telemarketing calls, so neither thinks their number is on an easily purchased list.
Vanderbrook says many of his friends on Facebook are conservative and he suspects that one of them reported his number to a service of some kind to send the warning to him.
For now, the mechanics of the calls remain a mystery. Robocalls are difficult to trace, and the proliferation of internet-based phone systems makes it cheap and easy to place them en masse. I was able to link five of the numbers attached to the incoming calls to two different VoIP services, Peerless Network and Inteliquent. A spokesperson for Peerless said that the company would only reveal who owned a particular number if there was a court order to do so, and noted that the numbers appearing on the incoming calls could have been spoofed. Inteliquent has not yet responded to questions.
If you have received these calls or know more about them, please get in touch.
But whether people are being targeted by conservative friends—or by liberals in some sort of false-flag stunt, or by conservatives impersonating liberals in a double-false-flag stunt—or the calls are simply sent out at random, they are a creepy practice, transforming robocalls from a simple annoyance into a political weapon. Though it’s a weapon that may backfire.
“I find it pathetic,” said Wright. “And it certainly isn’t going to stop me from doing anything.”
This story was produced by Gizmodo Media Group’s Special Projects Desk.