Who’s Behind The (Mis)Leading Report?
What do baseball and car wash have to do with one of the most prolific sources of misinformation on X/Twitter? Well, more than one might realize, if that source is The Leading Report. Science Feedback’s investigation into Leading Report, which took place between September and October 2023 traced the website to two individuals in the U.S.—a former baseball athlete and the owner of a car wash. We also found that at least one of these individuals had a pattern of creating social media accounts purporting to report “breaking” news while citing no sources, notably the popular right-leaning @DJTTracker Twitter account.
Leading Report bills itself as a “Leading source for breaking news” on its X/Twitter account. Registered in May 2022, it has since accrued more than 172,000 followers.
Scrolling through its timeline however, it becomes clear that the account traffics in misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and U.S. politics. Fact-checking organizations, including AFP, Reuters, and PolitiFact (see here, here, here, and here) have, on multiple occasions, found the website propagating inaccurate or misleading information.
Its tweets mainly serve to share articles published on its website theleadingreport.com, which was registered in February 2023, about nine months after the Twitter account was set up.
Indeed, it appears that the Twitter account’s main purpose is to funnel traffic to the Leading Report website. According to SimilarWeb, more than 95% of the website’s social media traffic arrives through X/Twitter.
Little information about its ownership and those who produce its content have been made available on the Leading Report website. Its WhoIs record shows that the person or people behind it use a privacy service.
Using a privacy service in itself isn’t necessarily a sign of nefarious activity. But when coupled with the fact that the website almost consistently publishes inaccurate or misleading information, it does suggest that those behind it don’t wish to be publicly associated with its content.
Its track record of posting misinformation and lack of transparency about its ownership led us to try to uncover the actors behind the website and its X/Twitter account. We also wanted to better understand the motivations of these actors and how the website is potentially being funded.
Some simple searches yielded helpful clues. A search on X/Twitter for “leadingreport” produced three results, one of which was the Leading Report Twitter account, and those with the handles @RealPatrickWebb and @leadingfounder. Apart from the first and last names, which are fairly common, however, this approach yielded no additional information that enabled us to specifically identify these users. Thus our next step was to examine these accounts in greater detail.
“Founder of Leading Report”
One of the users connected to Leading Report is Jacob Cabe. His account @leadingfounder is curiously less than a year old at the time of writing, having been registered in January 2023. For reference, Leading Report’s X/Twitter account was registered in May 2022. Cabe also has an Instagram account, with the same profile picture and religious references similar to his X/Twitter account.
We attempted to search for other, potentially older, accounts that might be used by Cabe, as this could yield historical information about the user. By running a Google search for Cabe’s name together with the religious reference, we found the Twitter account @jacobcabe through HypeAuditor, a platform that tracks the performance of influential social media accounts, showing that it managed to attract more than 14,000 followers.
An archive of Cabe’s Twitter profile shows that this particular account had been registered in November 2015. The account is now suspended for violating Twitter policy, so the @leadingfounder account set up by Cabe in January 2023 may have been to circumvent the suspension.
We also found another Twitter account with the handle of @JacobCabe (see below), which was registered in 2012, three years before the one detected by HypeAuditor. Its bio, like Cabe’s Instagram account, also contains the same phrase referencing Jesus. Given the similarities, we concluded the account registered in 2012 was also Leading Report’s Cabe.
Archives of Cabe’s earlier bio and tweets, like the one above, indicate he is a fan of the professional baseball team Atlanta Braves. The bio also shows his location as Atlanta, Georgia.
We found a Facebook profile for an individual named Jacob Cabe living in Georgia, which is consistent with the information we found above. The profile also stated that Cabe “Works at Atlanta Braves Baseball”, although we didn’t find Cabe’s name among the current roster of Braves players and staff.
Cabe’s Facebook profile also sheds light on his interests. For instance, we found a photo of the Cambridge Bears logo—an emblem of the Cambridge High School Athletics team. Correspondingly, his name is listed on the Cambridge Bears website, and MaxPreps, a website that covers American high school sports, also lists Cabe as a former player for the Cambridge High School varsity baseball team.
Overall, Cabe clearly showed promise as an athlete. It is unclear what Cabe’s current occupation is, but as his X/Twitter bio states, he is Leading Report’s founder and the author slugs shown in Leading Report’s sitemap also suggest he contributes to the content published on the Leading Report website.
“I run the internet”
Webb’s X/Twitter profile was registered in November 2017 and has drawn more than 52,000 followers to date.
He is a prolific writer for the Leading Report website, with his name appearing in the byline of multiple articles. The author slug (adminwebb) also suggests that Webb is an admin of the site.
Another of the website’s writers, Blake Gotley, may be a pseudonym for Webb, given the author slug (patwebb). We were unable to locate information indicating Gotley was a real individual. The top results of a Google search of “Blake Gotley” showed that the name appeared only in association with Leading Report.
Although the @RealPatrickWebb Twitter account was registered in November 2017, we were unable to find tweets made in the first few years after the account was created. One possible reason is that the account was completely inactive until 2021.
But another possible reason is that the account previously used a different handle. Generally, a search using the current handle doesn’t turn up tweets that display the old handle, even if the tweets were made when the old handle was active (although the reverse isn’t true—as we will demonstrate later on).
We can check which of these hypotheses is true by looking at the archives of replies to old tweets made by the account of interest. These archives can potentially reveal the account’s previous handle, depending on whether the account was still using the previous handle at the time the archive was created.
First, we scrolled through @RealPatrickWebb’s timeline to reach old tweets that contained replies, and then screened each tweet to see if there were available archives. Using this method on one such tweet from November 2021, we were able to identify one of the account’s previous handles, @alwebbj.
We found an August 2021 archive of alwebbj’s profile, showing a photo, a link to their Cash App, location, and age. A reverse image search of the profile photo on Google, Bing, Yandex, and TinEye produced no matches.
The Cash App account also lists the name Al Webb.
Searching for more archives using the @alwebbj handle also led us to another old handle, @patwebbjr. And a Google search of “Patrick Webb leading report” produced another handle, @pwleaks.
We also found a Reddit account belonging to someone named Al Webb, which displayed a Twitter handle, @CashoutAl. A search of tweets using the @CashoutAl handle turned up replies to @RealPatrickWebb, which strongly suggested that @CashoutAl was yet another of Webb’s handles.
Cross-checking the user ID (by viewing the source code of archives), which is a unique numerical identifier assigned to each user and cannot be changed, showed that @CashoutAl had the same user ID (930561624875945989) as @alwebbj and @RealPatrickWebb, confirming our finding.
Archives of replies to @CashoutAl from the @JacobCabe Twitter account also reinforced the connection between the handle and Webb. These exchanges also point to how both Webb and Cabe share a deep interest in baseball and the Atlanta Braves.
Numerous tweets by @CashoutAl claimed to pay anyone who followed and retweeted his account; references to the cryptocurrency Dogecoin can be seen in these tweets. These tweets suggest that one of Webb’s methods to grow his follower count and attract engagement—thereby improving the visibility of his content on the platform—was through these financial incentives. It’s unclear if these payouts actually occurred.
In addition, the Twitter bio of @CashoutAl showed that Webb is linked to the Instagram account Greater Sports, which bills itself as an “entertainment website” and mainly posts about football. A Greater Sports post even led us to another Twitter account used by Webb, now suspended, that used (ironically) the handle @notPatWebb.
We weren’t able to find archives of tweets by @notPatWebb, but searching X for this handle suggested that the account handle was later changed to @patbrodyjr, based on the replies.
That Webb was indeed behind the @patbrodyjr account was established thanks to information in this archived tweet by @patbrodyjr, stating “My account @djttracker was suspended 6 months ago with over 70,000 followers, please follow me back here!” An archive of the Twitter bio of @DJTTracker showed it was “[Run] by @alwebbj”.
In brief, by following the trail of breadcrumbs leading from the @CashoutAl handle, to the Greater Sports Instagram account, to the @patbrodyjr handle, we were able to connect Webb to @DJTTracker. And the archives of the now-suspended @DJTTracker account demonstrate that Webb’s history of publishing inaccurate claims had already started even before Leading Report was set up, thus establishing a pattern of behavior for Webb.
The @DJTTracker account similarly published misinformation about U.S. elections and vaccines. It had falsely claimed that Pennsylvania wouldn’t accept mail-in ballots, which reportedly “made the rounds”, according to an October 2022 New York Times article.
The account also falsely claimed that COVID-19 vaccines spread Hepatitis B, a claim that went viral during the COVID-19 pandemic and was debunked by Forbes.
In summary, our findings show that Webb made numerous ventures into growing his online following, changing his handle multiple times along the way—perhaps to avoid attribution— and encouraging users to engage with his account through financial incentives, while running several accounts that play off of one another.
“Patriots For Trump” and car wash
We found Webb’s public Facebook page, with a profile photo that corresponds to the Twitter profile photo used by @alwebbj. The Intro section lists the URL net-breaking.com, the same URL that appeared in the Twitter bio of @jacobcabe (shown earlier in this report).
The profile also indicates that Webb is a member of the group “Patriots for Trump”.
Webb is not simply a rank-and-file member of the “Patriots for Trump” group; he is also one of the admins. His affiliation to such a group is also in line with the type of content published by Leading Report, which is generally heavily partisan and right-leaning.
Interestingly, Webb appears to have two Facebook profiles, with the other bearing the name “Pat Webb”. Its profile picture is identical to the one used by @RealPatrickWebb on Twitter, although the one used on Twitter is desaturated.
We also looked into the URL net-breaking.com, which was present in the Twitter bio of @jacobcabe and Webb’s Facebook page. While the URL currently leads to a fairly empty WordPress blog, archives from 2021 show that the website was populated with articles written by Webb and Cabe.
Both individuals’ Twitter handles were also listed in the Affiliates section of net-breaking.com, reinforcing the connection between Cabe, Webb, net-breaking.com, and theleadingreport.com.
We reached out to Webb and Cabe with our findings via the contact email address for Leading Report and Webb’s email address, but received no response by the time of this article’s publication.
Following our article’s publication, Webb’s two Facebook profiles were either switched to private or deleted. The “Patriots for Trump” Facebook group also no longer displays Webb as the group admin. Webb’s X/Twitter bio was also updated, changing from “I run the internet” to “Nonpartisan”.
Webb also continued to post inaccurate claims about COVID-19 vaccines, such as the claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain graphene (they don’t) and that a JAMA study showed “Vaccinated children found to shed COVID 3X longer than unvaccinated children” (the study actually reported “no association between vaccination status and infectivity duration”)
Monetization via digital ads and sale of merchandise
A search of theleadingreport.com on the Well-Known index—a collection of resources used to build websites—led us to the ads.txt file for the website. The ads.txt file lists the “authorized digital sellers” (or “ads”, hence the file name) for a website. Put simply, these are the advertisers authorized to serve ads on the website.
According to the ads.txt file, Ezoic, an ad exchange that has headquarters in the U.S. and the U.K., is listed as the manager for ads on the Leading Report domain. The company states that it is “proud to be a socially responsible corporation [that] care[s] about our local, publishing, and global communities”.
According to Ezoic’s Help Center, websites using its platform must comply with Google’s Publisher Policies. These policies clearly state that unreliable and harmful claims, including content that is “demonstrably false and could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process” and content that “promotes harmful health claims, or relates to a current, major health crisis and contradicts authoritative scientific consensus” are not allowed.
Among the examples listed in Google’s Publisher Policies are “Information about […] election results or census participation that contradicts official government records”, “anti-vaccine advocacy”, and “denial of the existence of medical conditions such as AIDS or COVID-19”.
This raises questions about Ezoic’s association with Leading Report, given the latter’s track record of publishing harmful election, COVID-19, and vaccine misinformation, which directly contravene Google’s policies.
Ezoic didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Several Google AdSense codes can also be found in the ads.txt of Leading Report, although at the time of writing, the ads served on the website appeared to be only from the advertising platform MGID.
An examination of the website’s sitemap indicated that the website contains a Shop section, along with other features related to online shopping, although none of these pages are directly accessible through the links on the webpage. The Shop page was removed by the time of this article’s publication.
Taken together, these findings suggest that part of the motivation behind the website may be financial.
Reputable news sources demonstrate transparency in all aspects of their operation. They disclose their sources of funding, identify staff who produce their content and demonstrate their credibility, and clearly indicate their sources of information (except in cases where this may jeopardize their sources’ safety). If they commit errors, they openly acknowledge and correct these errors.
As our investigation above shows, Leading Report exhibits none of these characteristics. The two individuals who run the website and its X/Twitter account appear to hold no relevant credentials in health, medicine, biology, or journalism. Yet it has nevertheless established itself as a source of information for tens of thousands of users, making it instrumental in the spread of harmful election and health misinformation on X/Twitter and other social media platforms.
Our investigation illustrates the ease with which anyone can set up a website that styles itself as a news outlet—and with the help of clickbait headlines and viral misinformation—accumulate a significant online following that helps to spread that misinformation.
The democratization of information enabled by the Internet thus proves to be a double-edged sword: while the Internet now affords many people freedom of access to information, it has also lowered the bar for the credibility of that information. After all, no one needs to provide qualifications when they get up on their social media soapbox to express their opinion on something, even when doing so in certain areas requires subject knowledge for an individual to hold an informed opinion.
In brief, users need to be empowered not only with freedom of access to information, but also with the skills to discern what information is trustworthy and what isn’t, such as media literacy training.
We summarize our findings with a map of the individuals, X/Twitter accounts, and websites that we showed in this investigation to be associated with the Leading Report website.
UPDATE (7 November 2023):
Approximately one week after our article was published, Webb’s two Facebook profiles and the Facebook page for Webb Mobile Car Detail were either switched to private mode or deleted. The “Patriots for Trump” Facebook group also no longer displays Webb as the group admin. Webb’s X/Twitter bio was also updated, changing from “I run the internet” to “Nonpartisan”. We updated our article to add this information to the forty-sixth paragraph.