Who is using a deepfake to attack a leading candidate for governor? 

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

A politician attacking his opponent during an election is as old as the hills. But in the modern age, the methods by which attacks come are changing before our very eyes. 

On March 5, a website called The Pittsburgh Observer ran a “story” with the headline, “Moore Capito Could Become West Virginia’s First Gay Governor.” It looks like a legitimate news story. A quick glance at the website shows a handful of other news stories about national politics, a lady being attacked by a bear, and local sports. 

But according to reporting by Kyle Vass, The Pittsburgh Observer went out of business in 2011. The website was then purchased last month by Caiden Cowger. 

Cowger is a political consultant from Upshur County and President of the Family Policy Council of WV. 

A close reading of the original Capito story shows no author, no sources, and no quotes. All it contains is a publicly available picture and a salacious narrative about a leading gubernatorial candidate (whose mother also serves as one of the state’s US Senators). 

As digital media and artificial intelligence become more sophisticated, it is becoming harder to distinguish what is fake from what is real. 

This is the latest example of a “deepfake” website being used to advance a political narrative. 

What is a deepfake? 

“Deepfakes” are synthetic media manipulated to advance an agenda. They generally take one of two forms. One, a deepfake image, sound, or video can replace one person’s likeness with that of someone else. Two, a piece of deepfake content based on human-created media tells a story that is not based in reality. 

This “Pittsburgh Observer” articles takes the latter form. While it does not use synthetic pictures, audio, or video, it advances an agenda by way of digital media without supplying any factual basis. 

According to the University of Virginia’s Information Security office, “In today’s society, the vast majority of people get their information about the world and formulate opinions based on content from the internet. Therefore, anyone with the capability to create deepfakes can release misinformation and influence the masses to behave in a way that will advance the faker’s personal agenda in some way.”

Who is behind it? 

Caiden Cowger operates Cowger Media, in addition to serving as President of the Family Policy Council WV, and acting as a political consultant. Picture taken from his social media.

Cowger Media claims ownership for The Pittsburgh Observer. Caiden Cowger is a frequent visitor of the capitol, to the point that he’s been observed entering restricted capitol doors using an access card (as legislators and staff do). RealWV called Capitol Police to inquire as to whether Cowger had applied for and been given an access card. 

Capitol Police said they could not disclose the identities of those who hold access cards for security reasons.

Captain Kevin Foreman did confirm they grant access to approximately 50 people who are not lawmakers or staff who visit the capitol regularly. He also said that there are lobbyists among those 50 people with access cards. 

Beyond Cowger, the first outlet to widely share the Pittsburgh Observer deepfake was a Facebook page called Vets4Coal. According to Vass’s reporting, it is run by James McCormick. The page frequently shared content in support of Mac Warner. 

Warner is the current Secretary of State who is running for governor. Capito is one of his primary opponents. 

Just days after the deepfake was published, Warner issued a press release referencing the Capito story. He denounced it and called on his fellow Republicans to stop their infighting and negative campaigning. 

The next day, Vets4Coal disappeared from Facebook. 

Cowger Media’s main website has been taken down as well. 

However, Cowger Media updated The Pittsburgh Observer deepfake with this message at the bottom: “Since The Pittsburgh Observer’s initial story investigating Vets4Coal and their claims concerning Capito, the page that first made these claims, has been removed from Facebook.”

Vets4Coal was not part of the original deepfake but was added later. Why would Cowger Media want to tie Vets4Coal to the story? 

Follow the money

The Family Policy Council of WV hasn’t filed a campaign finance report for years. As previously reported by Steven Adams of Ogden Newspapers, Caiden Cowger hasn’t registered as a lobbyist with the WV Ethics Commission, let alone filed a lobbying report. He doesn’t appear as a donor or recipient of funds of any gubernatorial candidates. 

However, the party executive committee in his home county does share a high profile list of donors with one gubernatorial candidate. 

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is running in the Republican primary for governor against Moore Capito, Mac Warner, and Chris Miller. His campaign finance reports show prolific fundraising efforts from donors across America.

In April 2023, Patrick Morrisey’s fundraising arm (Team Morrisey) entered into a joint fundraising agreement with the Upshur County Republican Executive Committee. A filing with the Federal Election Commission confirms the financial partnership between Morrisey and Upshur Republicans, whereby Upshur Republicans receive a percentage of all the funds Morrisey raises. 

Over the following two months, nearly $50,000 flowed into the Upshur County Republican Executive Committee. It came from Morrisey donors who are also listed on his campaign finance reports:

  • Harlan Crow, Texas: $2,200
  • David Duon, California: $3,450.31
  • Richard Verehij, Florida: $10,000
  • Patrick Schmidt, North Carolina: $10,000
  • James Ruland, West Virginia: $10,000
  • Tanner Cline, Florida: $10,000
  • Ruben & Sophia Garibay, Texas: $3,921.15

Despite state law requiring timely campaign finance reports, Upshur Republicans submitted no campaign finance reports from mid-2023 until this week. Those reports are filed with the Secretary of State, Mac Warner. They do not show any contributions from or payments to Cowger. 

A new batch covering the last year suddenly appeared in the online system this Thursday. They show Upshur Republicans taking in more than $125,000 and making no expenditures. The donations come from Morrisey supporters, presumably as part of the joint fundraising agreement.

Caiden Cowger, right, attends the State of the State at the capitol with then-Delegate Patrick Martin, brother of Upshur Republican Executive Committee Chairman and Delegate Robbie Martin. Photo from Cowger’s social media.

“There’s no connection between us and Caiden,” says Delegate Robbie Martin, chairman of the Upshur Republicans, in a phone interview this week. However, Martin did concede that Cowger led a prayer at one of their dinners and received payment for services from the committee in past years. When asked if Cowger ran his campaign, he said, “No.”

In addition, campaign finance records show that Martin’s campaign paid Cowger over $2,000 in the 2020 election. His brother’s campaign for Senate paid Cowger more than $3,000, and Cowger attended the State of the State with him on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Cowger runs multiple media outlets, in addition to his lobbying and political consulting work. Over the past four years, the West Virginia Republican Executive Committee, West Virginia Senate Republican Committee, and individual Republican candidates for offices have paid Cowger tens of thousands of dollars for political consulting work. He did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Mac Warner’s campaign manager Jerry Wood did respond to questions from RealWV, saying, “In no way is the Warner campaign connected to or involved with Cowger Media or the ‘Observer’ story. As with countless social media contributors, we are aware of Vets4Coal as we’ve monitored our accounts as well as the accounts of our competitors. Outside of awareness, we have no further connection. We stand by our press release of March 6 and reiterate we do not know who was behind the ‘Observer’ article and that personal attacks should not be a part of the election process.”

Morrisey’s campaign spokesperson sent the following statement: “Our campaign learned about this article the same way everyone else did, when Mac Warner’s supporters began sharing it on social media. We had no prior knowledge of its publication.”

We asked Morrisey’s campaign about the nature of his campaign’s relationship with Cowger, and they referred us to their original comment (which did not mention Cowger).

Moore Capito, who was the subject of the deepfake, did not comment.

Stay tuned to RealWV for updates.

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