With a single Facebook notification, Mark Provost realized the thing he had spent years building was never truly his in the first place. Instead, it was under Facebook’s formidable blue-and-white thumb.

Provost is the publisher of U.S. Uncut, a progressive group that, in the span of a few years, evolved from a loose collection of left-wing activists protesting corporate tax dodgers to a popular online news organization. With a staff in the single digits, Provost leveraged Facebook to reach as many readers as some of the biggest names in media. The group’s page, according to the social media analytics firm NewsWhip, was the 23rd-largest publisher on Facebook in March 2016.

On Aug. 3, Provost tried to log in to the U.S. Uncut Facebook account. A pop-up informed him that he no longer had administrative access. Facebook accounted for virtually all traffic to U.S. Uncut’s website. Without it, readership plummeted to almost nothing.

“I was dismayed. I was enraged. I had all kinds of feelings,” Provost told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. “My first instinct, in the past, would have been to rage out and get really mad. … I tried to respond in a way like the CEO of a news organization would. … I cried a couple of times in the following week, but really not much.”

As Provost and Carl Gibson, U.S. Uncut’s other primary operator, scrambled to figure out why they were locked out, content began appearing on the U.S. Uncut Facebook page. The first was a meme attacking then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. In the bottom-right corner of the post were the words “US Uncut” with a small gray star separating the two – a logo they had never seen before.

Soon after Mark Provost and Carl Gibson were blocked from posting to the U.S. Uncut Facebook page, a meme with a mysterious logo appeared. Credit: Facebook.com Credit: Facebook.com

Three days later, the first article appeared. It was a gut punch. Provost’s website was usuncut.com. Whoever had taken control of his Facebook page now was sharing articles from a different site, usuncut.news. The two looked similar, but the content was different.

Here’s what the front page of usuncut.news looked like Aug. 5:

The front page of usuncut.news as it appeared Aug. 5, 2016. Credit: usuncut.news via Internet Archive Wayback Machine Credit: usuncut.news via Internet Archive Wayback Machine

And here’s what the front page of usuncut.com looked like around the same time:

The front page of usuncut.com as it appeared Aug. 12, 2016. Credit: usuncut.com via Internet Archive Wayback Machine Credit: usuncut.com via Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Provost and Gibson soon discovered what happened: A former U.S. Uncut member, Ryan Clayton – whom Gibson had shut out of the group two years earlier – had taken over and created a clone version of U.S. Uncut.

On Aug. 15, Provost and Gibson sued Clayton in federal court, alleging trademark infringement and cyberpiracy. Both sides have reached a settlement, but it has led to the demise of U.S. Uncut – they will be forced to stop using the U.S. Uncut name this week, by March 1.

U.S. Uncut had grown from a protest bulletin to a factory for activist memes to a successful media company, but was at the mercy of Facebook and its ever-evolving algorithm the whole time. The rise and fall of U.S. Uncut – told through firsthand accounts and court documents from the trademark legal battle – show how Facebook is a powerful force that shapes media and its visibility.

Provost may have ridden Facebook’s wave to viral success, but he no more owned that wave than a surfer owns the ocean.

***

U.S. Uncut began life as a meme in the original sense of the word – an idea or behavior spreading from person to person.

The concept was born in a London pub in 2010. Grousing about looming government spending cuts, a dozen friends decided to protest in front of stores owned by U.K. companies they believed were skirting taxes. They called their movement U.K. Uncut.

In a pair of articles published in The Nation the following February, writer Johann Hari urged U.S. activists to adopt the U.K. Uncut model as a progressive alternative to the right-wing tea party.

Ryan Clayton immediately was inspired. Then in his early 30s, Clayton had spent his adult life in progressive politics, working on political campaigns and training with liberal nonprofits such as EMILY’s List and Media Matters for America. Clayton understood political organizing enough to know that the first thing to do was create a Facebook page. He named it U.S. Uncut.

Hari’s ideas also resonated with Joanne Gifford. The 52-year-old Northern California anti-war activist began commenting on the page, and Clayton asked her to become an organizer. One of her first moves was to reach out to a young activist named Carl Gibson, who, she discovered, also had started a U.S. Uncut page.

Funneling their online efforts into Clayton’s page because it had the largest following, the three coordinated U.S. Uncut’s first action: a mass protest against Bank of America, which had paid no income taxes to the federal government in 2009 or 2010, after receiving billions in bailout money.

Organizing through its Facebook page, which had attracted 8,000 followers within a few weeks, U.S. Uncut hit the streets in late February with protests at Bank of America locations nationwide. The action’s success drew significant media attention. On MSNBC, host Cenk Uygur called U.S. Uncut “a people-powered protest … about real populism, not one paid for by billionaires like the Koch brothers.”

***

The protests continued, targeting companies such as Apple, Verizon and FedEx, but the movement’s momentum stalled. By the fall, Gibson later would claim in a sworn declaration, he was the only person regularly posting content to Facebook.

When Occupy Wall Street took off toward the end of 2011, what little energy still was being put into U.S. Uncut largely was diverted to the broader-based movement.

Clayton became the director of an anti-corporate group called Wolf PAC. Gibson traveled to New Hampshire to work with a super political action committee helping Democrat Carol Shea-Porter unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta.

It was there that Gibson met Mark Provost, a leader in Occupy New Hampshire. Then 31, Provost had signed up for Facebook as a way to coordinate protests. From the outset, he had an intuitive sense of what made something go viral.

Sitting in the front row of a town hall with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, fresh off a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, Provost asked why corporate profits weren’t trickling down into the pocketbooks of average Americans. Occupy New Hampshire repeated the tactic, injecting progressive, populist rhetoric into the Republican primary.

“We were able to get headlines from The New York Times. We were getting interviews. People were talking about us,” Provost said. “It was just such a small group of people, most of us with limited or no experience in activism, limited or no experience in media, and we were able to kind of capture the public imagination.”

United by their political perspective, Gibson asked Provost to assist with reviving U.S. Uncut. When Provost joined, he leveraged his ability to gain global attention with scant resources. He and Gibson transformed the U.S. Uncut Facebook page into what they called “a meme-based information hub for progressive politics.”

According to a declaration Gibson filed as part of his lawsuit against Clayton, the meme strategy worked. In September 2012, the group had about 58,000 followers. By June 2014, it had jumped to nearly 350,000.

U.S. Uncut’s memes pushed for action on issues such as Fight for $15 and resisting a push by Detroit officials to shut off water service to the city’s poorest residents.

For Provost, social media is a political battleground. U.S. Uncut’s memes are ammunition to be deployed against the other side of the partisan divide. The key, he found, was instantly evoking a gut response.

“My memes are very visceral,” Provost said, “they’re very emotional.”

As Gibson and Provost turned the U.S. Uncut Facebook page into a torrent of memes, they allege Clayton continued to drift away. In a court statement, Gibson claimed Clayton contributed less than 10 percent of the content appearing on the page. However, Clayton, in his own filing, maintained that at least one of his memes was shared more than 50,000 times.

Things reached a boiling point in June 2014, after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was unseated in the Republican primary by an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat.

Cantor was a longtime U.S. Uncut bugaboo, and, as Provost recounted, Clayton wanted to praise Brat’s victory with a meme. Gibson pushed back, arguing that a meme dancing on the grave of Cantor’s political career was fine, but Brat – a tea party darling who campaigned on a platform of tax cuts and repealing President Barack Obama’s health care law – was hardly someone a progressive organization such as U.S. Uncut should be celebrating.

Despite Gibson’s objections, Clayton posted a meme praising Brat, Provost claimed in an interview. Gibson removed it, he said. Clayton posted it again, and again, Gibson removed it – this time revoking Clayton’s administrator privileges on the Facebook page.

Clayton – who did not respond to multiple requests for comment – characterized his removal as the culmination of a plot by Gibson and Provost to gain total control over the organization.

“Provost and Gibson concocted a false dispute with Clayton concerning a meme that Clayton had posted to his US Uncut Facebook site,” Clayton’s court filing states. “Though there were established protocols on removing impermissible posts from the Facebook site, which administrators of the site were allowed to do, the removal of posting privileges and administrator access was impermissible. Accordingly, in essence, Provost and Gibson kicked Clayton out of the organization that he had started, and wrongfully took control of Clayton’s Facebook site.”

Around the same time, Gifford discovered her privileges also had been stripped. Watching U.S. Uncut from the outside, she said she remembers seeing it start to change.

The first shift occurred later that year, when Gibson and Provost purchased the usuncut.com domain name from a fan of their work. Gibson had spent years writing stories for outlets such as The Huffington Post and The Guardian, and now he wanted to do that same kind of work for something he owned. U.S. Uncut was about to get into the news business.

***

It took about a year for the articles to roll out. When they did, traffic went gangbusters.

In March 2016, U.S. Uncut’s articles got more total engagement than more mainstream publishers such as Vox or NPR. With content living on its own site instead of Facebook, U.S. Uncut now was generating revenue through advertising.

While Mark Provost was ecstatic about the organization’s new direction, Joanne Gifford was ambivalent. She believed it was becoming more sensational, leveraging the hard work of its early activists for financial gain.

“I felt like sometimes stuff that was getting posted was, I won’t call it misleading, but I didn’t feel like it was maybe as objective as it could be,” she said. “But at that point, there was nothing I could do about it.”

U.S. Uncut’s embrace of clickbait headlines represents a constant in its history: The Facebook algorithm played a role in everything it did.

When U.S. Uncut began in early 2011, Facebook was ideal for its mission of coordinating geographically far-flung activists, said Brandon Doyle, CEO of the digital marketing firm Wallaroo Media. Today, people who follow a Facebook page see only a small fraction of its posts – unless the page’s owners pay to boost a post’s reach. In 2011, however, Facebook would show each post to 60 or 70 percent of a page’s followers, allowing more U.S. Uncut activists to see where and when to show up for the next protest.

Timing was consistently on U.S. Uncut’s side. When the group started producing memes in late 2012, Facebook began prioritizing visual content after buying the photo-sharing social network Instagram earlier that year for $1 billion. In 2014, when U.S. Uncut began planning its transition to online journalism, Facebook was refocusing its news feed to favor articles posted by media publishers. It was part of a strategy to push those publishers to pay Facebook to boost the reach of those articles.

In July, Ryan Clayton filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on “US Uncut,” indicating it was for “news reporting services, namely, providing news in the nature of current event reporting; providing news, information, and commentary through a website, electronic newsletter, and social media in the nature of current events relating to politics, the economy, and human rights.”

Ten days after filing the application, the usuncut.news domain name was registered by a user who paid extra to have the hosting service conceal his or her identity.

Around this time, Clayton filed a request with Facebook to regain administrative access to the page he had created.

Facebook declined to comment on this specific case or, more generally, how the company adjudicates such disputes. However, court documents filed by Clayton’s legal team indicate that in August, “Facebook restored Clayton as an administrator of his US Uncut Facebook site, and granted him explicit permission to ‘assign Page roles to the members of your team.’ ”

“Clayton immediately removed (Carl) Gibson as an administrator of his site, revoked the credentials of Provost to post content to his site,” the documents continue, “and removed additional Facebook accounts that Gibson had assigned page roles to since June 2014.”

At first, Provost and Gibson had no idea who had taken control of the Facebook page. Usuncut.news includes no way to contact the site’s operators, and none of the articles include bylines.

Then, Gibson noticed on Facebook that his former colleague, Clayton, had commented on a political discussion asking if he could post a screenshot of that discussion on a “large-ish page.”

A screenshot of a Facebook conversation shows Ryan Clayton asking to post a copy to “a large-ish fb page.” Credit: U.S. District Court records Credit: U.S. District Court records

Soon, Gibson saw that same screenshot pop up on the U.S. Uncut Facebook page.

Another screenshot of the Facebook conversation later appeared on the U.S. Uncut Facebook page. Credit: U.S. District Court records Credit: U.S. District Court records

Provost wrote a blog post titled, “The US Uncut Facebook page has been hijacked.” But without a Facebook page to distribute the post to the site’s core audience, it drew little notice.

Under the new operators, the page’s content changed. With Gibson and Provost, U.S. Uncut had been fastened to the presidential bandwagon of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and largely skeptical of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a progressive standard-bearer.

“By attempting to turn the Democratic primary into a coronation for Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party leaders have shown they aren’t interested in cultivating new leaders or increasing engagement among younger voters,” one article asserted. Another meme blasted comedian Sarah Silverman for chiding Sanders supporters during a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

In contrast, the new U.S. Uncut was considerably more friendly to Clinton. It shared a story that opened: “There are two types of people in this world, those who talk and those who do, Hillary Clinton is the latter. And she’ll do what needs to be done despite criticism, necessary or not, because the job still needs to be done.”

The demarcation point between U.S. Uncut’s new and old owners can be difficult for outsiders to discern. The lean is still to the left, and headlines still rely heavily on a clickbaity curiosity gap.

On Aug. 15, Provost and Gibson sued Clayton in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire. The page’s new operators, Gibson and Provost discovered as the suit progressed, also are part of a group that operates a handful of other large, progressive-leaning online publishers such as Addicting Info, New Century Times and Bipartisan Report. Members of this coalition did not respond to requests for comment.

After months of legal wrangling, both sides reached an agreement in December. Provost declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, but court documents indicate the Facebook page will remain in the hands of its current operators, and Clayton will have to abandon his trademark application on the U.S. Uncut name.

While Gifford hadn’t been directly involved in U.S. Uncut for years, she still kept an eye on the group. She was surprised not only by the acrimony over the Facebook page, but also by the ultimate state of an organization originally founded to fight corporate power.

“I was frankly a little shocked to find out … it had morphed into something that was paying somebody’s bills,” she said.

Since the settlement, Clayton has kept himself busy sparring with right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe and making headlines by tricking attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference into waving Russian flags emblazoned with the word “Trump.”

For their part, Provost and Gibson have found new avenues of distribution, partnering with other Facebook pages to share their content. Provost insists they’re doing well, but not where they could have been had they not lost the Facebook page. He’s in the process of starting a new project, called Resistance Report, which won’t rely so heavily on a single Facebook page.

Provost sees his personal experience in a larger context, illustrating how much control companies using Facebook for their business have unwittingly surrendered to the platform.

“There’s a terrifying power and there’s a tyrannical power in it,” he said. “The absoluteness of it, the spread of it, the fact that how deep it is in people’s lives and how I think going forward, it’s going to be even more of an exclusive source of information for people and how they experience the world.”

Aaron Sankin is a reporter for Reveal covering online extremism, election administration and technology policy. Before joining Reveal, he was a founding editor of The Huffington Post's San Francisco vertical and a senior staff writer on The Daily Dot's politics team. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Time, The Motley Fool, Mashable, Business Insider, San Francisco magazine and The Onion. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Sankin studied history and sociology at Rice University. His work at The Daily Dot was a finalist in Digiday's 2015 publisher of the year award, and a story he wrote about a Midwestern family being terrorized by a teenage hacker was labeled by The Atlantic as an essential piece of journalism for 2015. Sankin is based in Seattle.