On May 22, a Donald Trump superfan and occasional sports blogger from the Bronx named Shawn Brooks posted a video clip of Nancy Pelosi on his personal Facebook page. The clip showed Pelosi at her most excitable, stammering during a press conference as she voiced frustration over an abortive infrastructure meeting with the president. Brooks’ commentary on the video was succinct: “Is Pelosi drunk?”
Thirteen minutes later, a Facebook official told The Daily Beast, Brooks posted a very different Pelosi video to a Facebook page called Politics WatchDog—one of a series of hyperpartisan news operations Brooks runs (with help, he claims). This clip had been altered to slow Pelosi down without lowering the pitch of her voice. The effect was to make it sound as though the Speaker of the House was slurring her words drunkenly while criticizing Donald Trump.
Fifteen minutes after that, the same doctored video appeared on a second Facebook page Brooks manages, AllNews 24/7. This clip was identical to the Politics WatchDog video on every way, except that it didn’t carry the Politics WatchDog branding that was superimposed over the earlier video. Whoever posted it had access to the director’s cut. On both pages the clip was accompanied by the exact same dispassionate, newsy prose: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on President Trump walking out infrastructure meeting: ‘It was very, very, very strange.’”
The video was an instant social media smash, surging through the internet’s well-worn ley lines of credulity and venom. It was shared more than 60,000 times on Facebook and accumulated 4 million page views from links. “Drunk as a skunk,” mused actor turned alt-right curmudgeon James Woods, whose tweet of the video scored 17,000 retweets and 55,000 likes. “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi?”, wrote Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, in a tweet linking to the AllNews 24/7 post. “Her speech pattern is bizarre.”
Brooks, a 34-year-old day laborer currently on probation after pleading guilty to domestic battery, claims that his “drunk” commentary on an unaltered Pelosi video had no connection to the now-infamous fake clip that premiered less than 15 minutes later. “I wasn't the individual who created that Pelosi video,” he insisted in a telephone interview.
It’s conceivable that someone else actually edited the clip. But a Facebook official, confirming a Daily Beast investigation, said the video was first posted on Politics WatchDog directly from Brooks’ personal Facebook account.
Brooks acknowledged that he’s involved in the management of both Politics WatchDog and AllNews 24/7, the Facebook pages that sent the bogus video on it’s viral tear. To the outside observer, the two pages are unconnected, but after a tell-tale link on one of the pages led The Daily Beast to Brooks, he admitted that the ad revenue for both outlets goes directly into his personal PayPal account.
In the first hint at a possible motive for the Pelosi smear, Brooks volunteered that the video brought in nearly $1,000 in shared ad revenue.
That number would have been higher, he said, except that Facebook cut off any future earnings when the company’s fact-check partners ruled the clip a hoax about 36 hours after its Politics WatchDog debut. “It makes money for Facebook too,” he groused. “I'm sure that's their motive for not taking it down."
In a statement, Facebook disputed that, saying, “We have zero interest in making money from fake news and our policy is to not allow people to make money from content that has been rated false by a fact-checker.”
Over the course of an hour-and-a-half interview, Brooks insisted repeatedly that he wasn’t the one who posted the Pelosi clip on Politics WatchDog. He claimed he’s just one of half-a-dozen administrators who jointly control the page and its content. It was one of the others, he said, who debuted the doctored video. “It was a female admin who posted it.”
He declined to identify the “female admin” or any of his other supposed colleagues. And a Facebook official told The Daily Beast that they simply don’t exist.
According to the official, there were indeed six other accounts registered alongside Brooks as page administrators, but the company determined last week that all six of them were controlled by Brooks. Facebook deleted those accounts under its real-name policy, the Facebook official said.
Politics WatchDog ran an online poll as the furor crested, asking if the page should keep the video up. (58 percent of respondents said yes.) Now, Brooks professes concern over how easily prominent figures like Rudy Giuliani were fooled by a little audio trickery. “I couldn't believe it,” he said “I was reading an article and it said, the president’s lawyer, and I was like, what the hell? If he believed that she was really drunk, and he shared it, that's kind of bad. Somebody that high up.”
The Daily Beast started looking for Brooks last week after noticing a donation link at the bottom of AllNews 24/7’s “about” page that had “ShawnBrooks32” plainly coded in the URL. Brooks personally outed his connection to Politics Watchdog in a May 24 tweet first noticed by Manic News. In it, Brooks responds to PolitFact’s pants-on-fire debunking of the video hoax, which singled out Politics WatchDog. “I'm one of the admins for the page,” he wrote. “I did not post the video. I deal with the inbox and emails. I notice you said you tried to reach the page but didn't get a response. Why did you lie about reaching out?”
A review of Brooks’ personal fan page reveals him as an avowed conservative and a proud member of Trump’s razor-thin African-American support base. A couple of Brooks’ Instagram posts feature misogyny. The strongest example is a post last year featuring a photo he evidently snapped of a woman sitting next to him on the subway. “This dumb bitch sitting in front of me on the E-train continues to kick me without saying excuse me,” he wrote.
He runs other pages as well. An ardent New England Patriots fan, Brooks has a long history of online ventures around athletics, including a Facebook page called Out Kick the Sports. Brooks’ sparse LinkedIn profile lists him as an “Analyst at Sports Blogger,” a long-shuttered blog platform where Brooks once blogged under his current Twitter screen name, “SportsGurufsr.”
At first Brooks didn’t respond to emails, phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages and a direct message over Instagram, and he blocked this reporter on Twitter. On Friday he called back, explaining that he was worried over the prospect of being publicly linked to the video fakery.
“I’m in New York City,” he said. “Very liberal. People make judgments. I just don't want to be linked to a conservative right-winger and be potentially denied services and stuff… People are nasty. You should see some of the messages that are coming in.”
As he tells it, Brooks’ gravitated to conservatism after seeing first hand the failure of liberal policies during the Obama era. "I've traveled around and seen too many things, and I don’t like the way things have been run,” he said. A key personal turning point came years ago when he was working in a warehouse in Queens doing “forklift work, loading, unloading, labeling,” he said “Basic stuff.” He’d started the job off-the-books, but eventually became an official hire. Then the managers began supplementing their workforce with undocumented immigrants willing to do the same work for less, he claimed.
“I was working there four or five years and I was being paid pretty well,” he said. “And then they "starting bringing these guys in vans through the side door. This was going on for months. Then all of a sudden they told me, ‘We can't pay you anymore."
Since then he’s struggled to find steady employment, taking temporary jobs in light construction or janitorial work. In 2017 he uprooted from his apartment in the Bronx and relocated to Greenville, North Carolina where he found work cleaning hotel rooms. When that didn’t work out, he headed west to California and turned up on the doorstep of an ex-girlfriend. He crashed at her Riverside apartment for about a month, the woman told The Daily Beast. “We got into arguments and fights all the time,” she said. “He has a lot of issues going on. He has a lot of anger issues.”
That October one of those fights ended with Brooks being arrested on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 days in jail, 20 hours community service and three years of probation, and ordered to enroll in a 52-week domestic violence program. His ex-girlfriend took out a restraining order, and she said she hasn’t seen or heard from him since.
The woman, who asked not be named in this story, said she never had much interest in Brooks’ Facebook activities, but knew he was passionate about politics. “He’s deeply into politics,” she said. “That drew me into him more because he's smart on politics.” His other obsession, she added, was spycraft. “He has this thing with being a secret agent and working for the government,” she said. “He always said, ‘Oh I want to be a secret agent.’”
When he got out of jail Brooks promptly moved back to New York, where he’s been ever since. He said he had permission to move, but failed to complete the court-ordered domestic violence program. “I did probably 10 weeks of it and I couldn't afford doing more classes,” he said. Court records show that In February 2018 he was written up for a probation violation, and a California judge issued a warrant for his arrest. A spokesperson for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department confirmed the warrant is still outstanding.
Throughout all of this, Brooks was leading a second life on Facebook.
An early version of AllNews 24/7 appeared as a Wordpress blog and Facebook page in 2015. It launched in its current form in November 2016 shortly before the election. The page purports to be a straightforward news aggregation feed, describing itself as “the only News Page on the planet that never sleeps…. Unbiased and Unfiltered.” It has around 18,000 followers on Facebook. Its presence on other platforms has been touch-and-go. Prior to the Pelosi controversy, AllNews 24/7 had already been suspended from Twitter at least once, and was banned altogether from YouTube for “multiple or severe violations” of the site’s content policies. Both times it quickly returned under a slightly different account name.
Politics WatchDog is newer and more successful, boasting 35,000 followers. It was set up in February 2017 and depicts itself as non-partisan political news and commentary by a select group of anonymous co-administrators, though most of its content is on the far right.
The phoney video plunged op-ed pages and cable news talk shows into a fierce discussion of social media’s vulnerability to even half-hearted fakery. Hillary Clinton called the doctored clip “sexist trash.” Facebook responded by demoting the video’s ranking so severely it became all but unfindable on the platform, and surrounded the clip with conspicuous links to fact-checks debunking its authenticity. But the plattform refuses to remove the video, despite harsh words from critics, including Pelosi. “I think they have proven —by not taking down something they know is false—that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Pelosi said in a radio interview Wednesday.
But as the 2020 election draws closer there’s a more urgent lesson in the Pelosi video hoax: Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on disinformation. Fake news is the most egalitarian of fields, where even a hastily produced, low-budget fraud can fool millions if it lands just right. In the end the Speaker of the House didn’t have to look so far to find the people behind her viral hoax. One of them was just a few hours north, in the Bronx.