About a week before Christmas, I received a most
unwelcome email. A criminal complaint had been filed against me in Bulgaria, a
country I have never visited and with which I had no personal connection. I
stood accused of defamation; attempted censorship; illegally spreading
personal, family, and business information; and insulting the memory of
someone’s parents and grandparents.
The email was from a veteran Bulgarian journalist named Krassimir Ivandjiiski, who took issue with an article I had written about Zero Hedge, the hugely popular website founded by his 41-year-old son, Daniel. My article, which appeared on my personal blog, was an outgrowth of a New Republic story I wrote about the business of conspiracies, in which Zero Hedge plays a major role. Millions of readers visit Zero Hedge each month, drawn by the site’s deeply pessimistic view of Wall Street and its alarmist, conspiratorial take on international affairs. In the world according to Zero Hedge, the financial markets are always on the verge of collapse and the United States is always a power in decline.
Zero Hedge is often blamed for spreading false information. In February, Twitter permanently banned Zero Hedge’s account, which boasted more than 670,000 followers, for violating Twitter’s policy prohibiting fake accounts and spam—part of a crackdown that intensified in response to Russia’s use of social media to influence voters during the 2016 presidential election. Within hours of the ban, Zero Hedge posted a counternarrative on its site, asserting—falsely, according to Twitter—that it had been suspended over its conspiratorial, evidence-free claims that the coronavirus was a Chinese biological weapon that escaped from a lab in Wuhan, “accidentally or not.” Zero Hedge’s Twitter ban was big news, and the knee-jerk response by journalists to cover both sides further spread the bogus coronavirus conspiracy, which has continued to gain ground since Republican Senator Tom Cotton repeated it on Fox News.
At first, I thought the criminal complaint was a joke. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would go to such lengths over a personal blog post that, at the time I received the complaint, had been read by little more than 100 people. The rambling email seemed paranoid, and it was rife with misspellings, including one for the word “comlpaint.” Ivandjiiski and his Bulgarian attorney refused to provide me a copy of the original, Bulgarian-language version of the complaint, leaving it unclear what laws I might have violated or even what country’s laws I might have stood charged with violating. Further checking, however, showed that a complaint had been lodged with the office of the Bulgarian prosecutor general.
In Bulgaria, the news that the publisher of Zero Hedge had filed a criminal complaint against an American journalist created a firestorm. I appeared on Bulgarian TV twice to answer questions, and the story was covered on multiple news sites. Journalists in Bulgaria were just as confused as I was about the criminal complaint. “Is this a common practice in the United States?” a journalist for a Bulgarian online publication asked me. No, it certainly is not. “Did you feel you were in danger?” a Bulgarian TV host asked me. Not really, though there was the possibility that I might have a Bulgarian court judgment hanging over my head. Still, an awful precedent could be set, so I decided to hire an attorney in Bulgaria and fight it.
Among the various “crimes” of which I stood accused was posting publicly available information that revealed Zero Hedge’s ties to Bulgaria. While Ivandjiiski’s son, Daniel, lives in an affluent northern New Jersey suburb, Zero Hedge’s domain was registered not in the U.S., but in Sofia. Court records revealed that Zero Hedge was owned by a company called ABC Media Ltd, a Bulgarian company whose sole manager was Krassimir Ivandjiiski.
The Bulgarian connection intrigued me because Zero Hedge runs political news and commentary that “frequently echo the Kremlin line,” as a 2018 RAND Institute study put it. Among Zero Hedge’s most Russia-friendly fare were stories depicting the Mueller investigation as a hoax, pieces claiming that the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was staged by British intelligence, and posts asserting that the Steele dossier was a work of “fanfiction” by internet trolls on 4chan. Andrew Weisburd, a private intelligence analyst who has done work for the U.S. intelligence community, has found that Zero Hedge is at the center of a web of conspiracy sites with spokes extending out into the darkest fringes of the internet.
Zero Hedge takes a particular interest in the controversy surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a passenger jet that was shot down in Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board. A Dutch-led criminal investigation last year charged four people, three of whom had ties to Russian intelligence, with shooting down the plane. A few days after the criminal charges were filed, Zero Hedge published a story claiming, without evidence, that the U.S. was using the MH17 crash as a pretext for a NATO invasion of eastern Ukraine. An analysis by the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project of the Atlantic Council, found that even though Zero Hedge is written in English, this disinformation narrative was picked up by Russian-language media, demonstrating “the synergy between conspiracy outlets in English and pro-Kremlin fringe media in Russian.”
A former Zero Hedge employee named Colin Lokey, who says he earned more than $100,000 in a year writing much of the site’s political content, claimed that he felt pressure to frame issues in a misleading way. “I tried to inject as much truth as I could into my posts, but there’s no room for it,” Lokey told Bloomberg in 2016. “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry=dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft.” In its published reply, Zero Hedge blasted Lokey as “deranged” and said critics had falsely called the website a Russian disinformation outlet “simply because we refused to follow the pro-U.S. script.”
All this only made the criminal complaint against me more puzzling. Why file a criminal complaint, instead of a lawsuit, in Bulgaria? Why call attention to the site’s ties to Bulgaria, and possibly to Russia? And all for a post hardly anyone had read?
It was clear I had touched a nerve. But how? What had I stumbled into?
The story of the criminal charges against me carried deeper meaning in Bulgaria, which is still coming to grips with its Communist past. Bulgaria today is a member of both NATO and the European Union, but it has close historic and cultural ties with Russia, which continues to cast a shadow over what had been one of its most loyal vassal states during the Cold War. In 2006, as Bulgaria prepared to formally join the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s long-serving ambassador to the EU, said, “Bulgaria is in a good position to become our special partner, a sort of a Trojan horse in the EU.” Last year, authorities in Bulgaria charged a socialist lawmaker in an espionage investigation examining how Russia was using nongovernment organizations to influence the country’s policy to the West. As a result of the investigation, Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian billionaire and ultranationalist dubbed “Putin’s Soros,” was banned from the country.
“Bulgaria is working not as a country, not a state, but as a Russian base,” Ivo Indzhev, a well-regarded Bulgarian political blogger, told me. “They have plenty of people who are willing to work as proxies for the Russian state.” American ignorance of the country made it a perfect staging ground for Russia’s information war against the U.S. “Bulgaria is a nobody,” he said, “unknown to the general American public.”
Several sources with connections to the Bulgarian government told me that they suspected Zero Hedge may be a Trojan horse as well. “I trust it is a project of Bulgarian intelligence,” a former senior Bulgarian government official told me. “It is unlikely that they would embark on their own without the backing or funding from Moscow.” An academic who asked not to be named because of his ties to the government agreed, saying he saw the criminal complaint against me as proof of Zero Hedge’s connections to Moscow. “It is likely that Russians are the ones that have been affected,” he said. “And they may have goaded the Bulgarians in the circle that runs Zero Hedge to file a criminal complaint.”
The evidence for this was indirect and primarily stemmed from Krassimir Ivandjiiski’s past associations. “If you read carefully his career, you can see the possibilities of the KGB in the shadow of the mirror,” said Nikolay Hadjigenov, the attorney who represented me in Bulgaria.
After studying at an English-language school in Sofia and graduating from the Warsaw School of Economics in 1971, Ivandjiiski worked briefly in the Bulgarian ministry of foreign trade and served in the military before beginning his career as a journalist. The main mission of the Bulgarian press during Ivandjiiski’s days as a reporter was to disseminate Communist Party propaganda. Ivandjiiski’s online bio says he spent a dozen years abroad as a foreign correspondent and became a “special envoy” to various wars in Africa. Ivandjiiski also proudly informed me of his membership, since 1974, in the International Organization of Journalists, a front organization that a declassified CIA study described as “an instrumentality of Soviet propaganda.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ivandjiiski became involved in a movement called Neutral Bulgaria that looked very much like a Russian proxy, since it shared with Moscow the goal of keeping the country “neutral”—meaning out of NATO. Ivandjiiski’s partner in Neutral Bulgaria was the son of a Communist general who played a key role in Bulgaria’s Cold War intelligence service, the Committee on State Security. “We are talking the core of the core,” said the former senior government official.
Today, Ivandjiiski runs his own conspiracy website in Bulgaria called Strogo Sekretno (Top Secret). Another one of the “crimes” listed in the complaint against me was calling out Strogo Sekretno’s blatant anti-Semitism, such as a recent post that declared that the coronavirus was an act of bioterrorism by “colluding Zionists” in the West to weaken Russia and China. According to Ivandjiiski, this was an insult to him and his family of “anti-fascists,” which, I was told, reads as “faithful Communist” in Bulgaria.
Ivandjiiski never responded to requests for comment from me or from Bulgarian journalists who wrote stories about my case. On his website, he wrote that he had nothing to do with the KGB and threatened to sue anyone who asserts otherwise. It is nearly impossible to prove him wrong, as some 140,000 secret files on Bulgaria’s top Cold War agents have been destroyed, the former Bulgarian government official told me.
When I was a college student many years ago, someone passed me a copy of a magazine called Covert Action Information Bulletin. The magazine had been co-founded by a former CIA case officer, Phil Agee, who had turned against the agency. Covert Action Information Bulletin dedicated itself to exposing the CIA’s operations and personnel. For its first few issues, the magazine published an infamous “Naming Names” column that outed American spies, until Congress outlawed the practice in 1982 with what was popularly known as the “anti-Agee bill.”
I no longer recall the particulars of the issue I read, but the magazine reflected my nascent political beliefs, such as they were, during the first Bush administration. I was angry at the CIA, which I saw then as an evil force controlling world affairs and corporate media; as a result, I believed only people outside the mainstream could expose the truth. Decades later, while reading the revelations of a KGB defector, I learned how deeply I had been had. Files spirited out of Russia by Vasili Mitrokhin, a former archivist for the Russian intelligence service, claimed the magazine was founded “on the initiative of the KGB,” which assembled a task force to keep the publication supplied with material designed to compromise the CIA. (There was no evidence that the magazine’s staff was aware of the KGB’s role.)
It’s a cautionary tale for the disinformation wars of the internet age, or at least it should be. “Where does my news come from?” is a question not enough Americans are asking these days. Even as venerable newspapers collapse into bankruptcy and the FBI warns that Russia is poisoning our public discourse, popular sites like Zero Hedge continue to grow in power and influence.
All of Zero Hedge’s posts are written under the nom de plume of “Tyler Durden,” the anti-establishment character played by Brad Pitt in the film Fight Club. “We believe that not only should you be comfortable with anonymous speech,” Zero Hedge contends in its “manifesto,” “but that you should be suspicious of any speech that isn’t.” For whatever reason, people seem to go along with this, and it’s a strange sight to see the name of a psychopathic character in a Chuck Palahniuk novel cited as a source in a Congressional Research Service report and a scholarly law review article, or introduced as a guest on Bloomberg radio.
Neither Zero Hedge’s anonymity nor its Bulgarian connections and pro-Kremlin views have turned off some financially savvy readers. Mark B. Spiegel, a professional investor, praised the site for its “spectacular” market coverage but panned its take on foreign policy, which he said he ignores. “I consider ZH [Zero Hedge] to be a collection of great sources (the financial stuff) and bad sources (the foreign policy stuff),” he told me. “I consider The New York Times to be a collection of bad sources (pretty much the entire op-ed and national news sections) and great sources (the feature articles).” Many other financial professionals, however, dismiss the site as the Wall Street version of Infowars.
In Fight Club, Tyler Durden declares that “it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”—a sentiment that reflects the aborted career path of Zero Hedge’s founder, Dan Ivandjiiski. Born in Soviet-era Bulgaria, Ivandjiiski was something of a wunderkind. He spoke multiple languages, was a virtuoso pianist, and emigrated to the U.S. to attend the University of Pennsylvania with hopes of becoming a doctor. He changed his mind after graduation in 2001, when he realized how much money he could make on Wall Street. Seven years later, he was banned from the securities industry for earning $780 from an insider trade. He resigned his job at a hedge fund and, in early 2009, Zero Hedge was launched.
Ivandjiiski’s early vision for Zero Hedge was a version of the sassy Wall Street blog Dealbreaker, but with quantitative content. Ivandjiiski logged 20-hour days in the site’s early years. “He’s a machine,” says a person who knows him well. “That’s all he would do is work.” He took on paragons of the financial establishment like Goldman Sachs, and the site grew quickly as Ivandjiiski won praise for calling attention to the problem of high-frequency trading. New York magazine called him a “full-blown cult hero—a blogger with a bullet.” (Ivandjiiski did not respond to messages left by The New Republic seeking comment.)
Over the years, the site—and its audience—began to evolve. Zero Hedge runs an annual story on its most popular posts of the year, which shows that in 2013 social and ideological issues edged out finance as the site’s most-read articles. The audience grew rapidly over the next few years, with a single post about whiny millennials reaching 9.4 million readers. It was around this time that hateful, toxic views began to pollute the comments section. Zero Hedge’s discrimination notice says “racism, to include religious affiliation, will not be tolerated in ANY FORM on this site,” but that’s clearly not true, as the comments section is riddled with references to “joos” (Jews) and unmentionable words for African Americans.
What Zero Hedge became, in essence, was a forum for the hateful, conspiracy-driven voices of the angry white men of the alt-right. Racists, anti-Semites, extreme right-wingers, and conspiracy nuts were an underserved audience, and, as it turns out, a profitable one. Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser who recently described himself as a “huge fan” of Zero Hedge, has largely built his career around the similar recognition that these overlooked masses represented an untapped well of anger that could be shaped into a powerful political force.
The synergy between Zero Hedge and the Trump era was made clear last year when Facebook temporarily banned the site. Rising to the site’s defense were political and media figures whose careers thrived on outrage: Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party; Katie Hopkins, the openly bigoted British media figure; and Donald Trump Jr. (The ban was lifted after Facebook identified what it called a “mistake with our automation to detect spam.”)
“The censorship continues,” the president’s son wrote on Twitter. “[Facebook] doesn’t agree with them and they hit the platform’s obvious flaws at times. That’s it and it’s disgusting!”
“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” reads the Zero Hedge “manifesto,” but a conversation with one of the site’s former employees made me realize that Zero Hedge’s anonymity and murky ties to Bulgaria might be hiding something else.
I had noticed that a few months after Zero Hedge launched, Daniel Ivandjiiski quietly registered the domain “zerohedge.com” overseas—first in Lichtenstein and Switzerland, two countries known for financial secrecy, then in Bulgaria in 2011, according to records compiled by domaintools.com.
I asked the former employee what this was all about. “Dan didn’t want to have the U.S. looking at anything he’s doing,” the former employee said. I thought that this meant that the younger Ivandjiiski was nervous about the FBI or U.S. intelligence agencies tracking his actions, but I was mistaken; Ivandjiiski didn’t want the government to know how many people visited his site because that would give away how much money he was making. “Five years ago, that thing had to be kicking off millions of dollars in revenue,” the former employee continued. “If you look at Dan’s tax returns, I’d bet there’s nowhere near a million dollars in revenue.”
Dan Ivandjiiski’s father, Krassimir, gave the game away when he accused me of acting as an unnamed person’s agent to exert pressure on a court in New Jersey. In his list of demands on the final page, he said I was to hand over the names of the people with which he believed I was conspiring. The purported object of this conspiracy was a divorce case in Bergen County, New Jersey, that I had not previously known about, brought by a plaintiff I have never met or spoken to, who turned out to be his estranged daughter-in-law.
Dan Ivandjiiski’s wife filed for divorce in 2018, citing irreconcilable differences that stemmed in part from her husband’s slavish devotion to his website. The couple are battling over custody of their one child, alimony, and child support. Court papers, released to The New Republic under a media request, suggest that Zero Hedge paid the bills on the couple’s luxurious lifestyle (one that the fictional Tyler Durden would have no doubt abhorred), which included a $2.3 million mansion. In her complaint, Ivandjiiski’s estranged wife, Blair Kress, stated that she had inadequate means of support for herself and the couple’s only child or even funds to pay her divorce lawyer. (Her husband disputed this claim.) Attorneys for both parties either declined to discuss the case or did not return messages seeking comment.
While Zero Hedge isn’t mentioned in the court documents that I’ve seen, the website, and the money it generates, are an issue in the case. In his email informing me of a criminal complaint filed against me in Bulgaria, Ivandjiiski’s father had accused me of illegally stealing documents from his son’s divorce case—including Zero Hedge’s parent company’s registration in Bulgaria—that are protected under Bulgaria’s Personal Data Protection Act and European Union laws. This was false, but one of the hazards of writing about the business of conspiracy websites is that you occasionally find yourself cast as a central character in another person’s conspiracy.
The reason is that money, not ideology, is what drives Ivandjiiski and other successful entrepreneurs in the burgeoning conspiracy business. “They care what generates page views. Clicks. Money,” Colin Lokey, the former Zero Hedge employee, told Bloomberg. Ivandjiiski’s personal beliefs have little to do with the site’s content. “He may believe with 2 percent of his body that everything’s going to blow up,” another former employee told me, “but the other 98 percent knows this is what makes money.” Another person who knows him well says, “He’ll write about what brings in readers.”
Zero Hedge says it has been profitable from day one, but how much money the site makes is a closely guarded secret. Dan Ivandjiiski took the unusual step of requiring his wife to sign a nondisclosure agreement during the divorce to prevent disclosure of Zero Hedge’s business secrets “That’s how he is. He’s very secretive,” says the person who knows him well, adding that leaving Wall Street to start Zero Hedge may have been an even more lucrative career path. In a sign of just how profitable the site might be, Daniel Ivandjiiski and his wife paid off a $1.7 million mortgage on their New Jersey home in less than two years.
It may very well be true, as Zero Hedge claims, that it has
never been in contact with anyone from Russia, the U.S., or any
government. At the same time, it may also be true that Zero
Hedge is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian disinformation operation. In the bizarre world of conspiracies and disinformation, both things
can be true at once. The warped incentives of the internet drive sites like Zero
Hedge to publish pro-Kremlin content without any help from Vladimir Putin. If conspiracies and pro-Russia propaganda
keep the audience clicking on the ads that festoon Zero Hedge, then that’s what
they get. This is the future we are careening toward: a world where the “news”
becomes whatever material holds readers’ attention, no matter what it is, and
is delivered by a machine that doesn’t distinguish between true and false or
between facts and propaganda, so long as it maximizes revenue. It’s the cold
logic of the markets applied to publishing.
After a district prosecutor in Bulgaria declined to press charges against me, finding insufficient evidence that I had committed a crime, I realized what had sparked the criminal complaint was not Russian or Bulgarian intelligence operations, but something much closer to home: I had threatened the golden goose. Tyler Durden wasn’t defined by how much money he had in the bank or what was in his wallet, but Dan Ivandjiiski, the man who has made a fortune writing anti-establishment posts under his name, very much is.