Lawsuit: After a sexual harassment claim, Fox News planted spyware on ex-host’s computer.
Comparing their actions to the plot this season on the Showtime series Homeland, an attorney for former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros has filed a complaint in federal court against Fox News, current and former Fox executives, Peter Snyder and his financial firm Disruptor Inc., and 50 “John Doe” defendants. The suit alleges that collective participated in a hacking and surveillance campaign against her.
Tantaros filed a sexual harassment suit against Roger Ailes and Fox News in August of 2016, after filing internal complaints with the company about harassment dating back to February of 2015. She was fired by the network in April of 2016, as Tantaros continued to press complaints against Fox News’ then-Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others. Tantaros had informed Fox that she would be filing a lawsuit over the alleged sexual harassment.
Tantaros claims that as early as February of 2015, a group run out of a “black room” at Fox News engaged in surveillance and electronic harassment of her, including the use of “sock puppet” social media accounts to electronically stalk her. According to the lawsuit:
Trying to silence Ms. Tantaros by unsuccessfully seeking to overwhelm her with a multitude of lawyers was unsavory, but legal. But the Defendants went to the next level with Ms. Tantaros: committing crimes…the Defendants in this case subjected Ms. Tantaros to illegal electronic surveillance and computer hacking, and used that information (including, on information and belief, privileged attorney-client communications) to intimidate, terrorize, and crush her career through an endless stream of lewd, offensive, and career-damaging social media posts, blog entries and commentary, and high-profile “fake” media sites which Fox News (or its social influence contractors) owned or controlled. These accounts and sites were made to appear as held by independent persons or neutral media entities (“sockpuppet accounts”). While the use of professional social influencers and fake stories, accounts and posts has been part of Fox News’s [sic] stock and and trade for years. the use of illegal electronic surveillance and computer hacking has taken the company’s conduct to a profoundly disturbing next level.
Tantaros’ suit identifies Peter Snyder and Disruptor Inc. as the operators of a social influence operation using “sock puppet” accounts on Twitter and other social media. According to a report by Salon’s Matthew Sheffield, Snyder had originally done social media “black room” work for Fox News and Ailes through his company New Media Strategies, and he continued to do so under the aegis of Disruptor. This work, also done by a number of other contractors (such as Bert Solivan, a former FOXnews.com general manager who reported directly to Ailes), included operating a number of blogs under concealed identities to spread disinformation about competitors and allegedly obtaining phone numbers and credit reports of reporters Ailes disliked in order to spy on them. These surveillance campaigns were funded by Ailes from Fox News’ budget.
Tantaros’ complaint states that the same day she was fired, a number of e-mails were remotely wiped from her BlackBerry. A forensic analysis of Tantaros’ computer conducted later “revealed that it contained unique surveillance viruses that are not found in any mass malware.” Tantaros believed, “a person working for Fox News was responsible for hacking Ms. Tantaros’ computer so she could be spied on,” according to the lawsuit. Ars contacted Tantaros’ attorney requesting more information on that analysis, but we received only a copy of the complaint with its full set of exhibits, some redacted. None of those exhibits include the forensic data referenced.
However, among the exhibits filed with the complaint are a series of Twitter posts by accounts Tantaros claims are “sock puppets” operated by Fox News co-president Bill Shine and Fox News public relations executive Irena Briganti. While many of the accounts have since been deleted, a check by Ars found some were still active.
One of the accounts cited in the complaint, bearing the name Daniel Wayne Block, had clearly singled Tantaros out in the months after she filed a complaint with Fox News. The account’s posts could be construed as stalking: posting images of her with messages like “Good morning ‘Sunshine,” sharing a post about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and sending other messages tangentially related to places she was or discussions she was having in e-mail. On several occasions, the account posted photos of her referring to places she was on the same day or links to videos for sale on Amazon that were references to conversations Tantaros said she had with friends and family. Another Twitter account alleged to be involved remains active, but all of the posts related to Tantaros have been deleted.
The complaint goes on to mention a number of Twitter accounts that sprung up using the same stock photo of a model. One posted to a male friend of Tantaros, “are you still dating @AndreaTantaros? If not DM me! Just a quickie Q.” Others posted to her about looking forward to seeing “my greek goddess” on Tantaros’ show, Outnumbered. All of these accounts have been deleted.
Additionally, Tantaros claims a Twitter account and WordPress blog called “The Cable Game” was used by Fox News to spread disinformation about the reason for her firing. The blog, which according to a biography of Ailes by New York Magazine journalist Gabriel Sherman was run by Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton at Ailes’ direction, suggested that Tantaros was fired because she had written and published a book (Tied Up in Knots: How Getting What We Wanted Made Women Miserable) without getting clearance from Fox. Pinkerton posed as a woman on the blog with the bio “I’m not a former cable news insider. I didn’t spend nearly a decade at a US cable news network. I was never a highly-placed source quoted in leaks to the press.”