The Ballad of Geoff the Troll
The Ballad of Geoff the Troll
[sung to the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies theme song]
Come and listen to a story 'bout a troll named Geoff Junior operator just getting' used to theft Then one day Geoff had nothin' else to do, The boss man called said I got a job for you! (Deceit that is, masquerades, conspiracy) Well the next thing you know old Geoff's blowin' air ChromaDex investors yellin' "Get away from there!" Said Rikers Island is the place you oughta be But Geoff just laughed and started pounding on the keys (Lies that is, a tangled web, contradictions)
While Geoff was busy trumping up the litigation
Elysium newsletter caused a consternation
Geoff freaked out as the controversy swirled
Said Elysium's advisors were the smartest in the world
(objectively speaking that is, investors would want to know)
Before we get started, remember the allegations in ChromaDex's complaint against Elysium:
Elysium’s pattern of behavior with respect to ChromaDex reflects a nefariously conceived plan to damage and/or steal ChromaDex’s NR, reputation, employees, goodwill, and stature in the industry, as well as its customer opportunities. Elysium’s marketing falsely “borrows” ChromaDex’s research and regulatory achievements to endorse Elysium’s new product, and Elysium has maliciously targeted ChromaDex, its employees, and its commercial relationships by disseminating falsehoods about ChromaDex and refusing to pay for large orders – all with the intent of undermining ChromaDex’s viability and ability to compete. On information and belief, Elysium falsely disseminated untrue information to investors about ChromaDex’s financial health to further interfere with ChromaDex’s ability to raise money and defend itself against Elysium’s multi-front litigation and deceptive advertising war. And, on further information and belief, Elysium and/or its agents are associated with or responsible for stock “short attacks” intended to drive the share value of ChromaDex down, making it a more accessible take-over target. (emphasis added)
In other words, part of the "nefariously conceived plan" involved disseminating "untrue information to investors.'
The battle of the big short attack of June 2016 is history But is the war still being waged?
Background: Retail Investor Discussion Boards
There are three boards where investors discuss ChromaDex: Seeking Alpha, InvestorsHub, and Yahoo Finance. For a variety of reasons, ChromaDex investors have migrated to Yahoo as the least-bad of the three options.
On most days, the discussion board is home to a small community of retail investors who experienced the health benefits of Niagen first-hand, and decided to invest in the company. Sometimes using colorful pseudonyms like "Marshmallow," "Oblique," "Driver," "EdoubleE," and "Peanut Butter Jelly Time," -- and sometimes less colorful pseudonyms, like "Mike," 'Anne," and "WilliamW" -- these friends debate all aspects of ChromaDex's strategy, and share news about the company.
No punches are pulled. Some of the retail investors are extremely critical of management, some are supportive. Some are extremely critical of ChromaDex's recent marketing efforts, some are enthusiastic. Some like to follow the litigation; others think it is a distraction.
What they share in common, though, are (1) a hope that the company does well, and (2) a desire to educate themselves and each other about the underlying dynamics of the company, the market, and the industry.
A Note About Trolls
However, just as ChromaDex has been under regular assault from lawyers and short sellers, so has the discussion board been subject to repeated infiltration by trolls who disrupt the community. They do not appear to be investors in the company, although they may claim otherwise.
The tradition has been to "mute" trolls, which makes them invisible to the person who muted them.
Muting trolls is not a satisfactory solution, however, because the muted trolls may continue to disrupt the community, and invisibly dissuade new members from joining the community.
We do not know where the trolls come from.
The common assumptions are that:
(1) The trolls are short-sellers who inexplicably believe that conversations on a small retail investor discussion board could somehow help drive the share price down; or
(2) The trolls are agents of Elysium Health who inexplicably believe that they can advance Elysium's cause by disrupting its competitor's small retail investor discussion board.
Neither theory makes sense, because ChromaDex's market capitalization is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, and the retail investors resemble nothing so much as a group of rowdy fans in the bleachers complaining about the umpire's calls and the manager's decisions. The retail investors command little respect, and even less capital.
In fact, a share of ChromaDex costs LESS than a bleacher seat in any major league stadium.
And yet the trolls persist.
And there does not seem to be an easy way to defeat the trolls, because even if a troll were universally muted or banned, the troll could simply "reincarnate" with a new user ID and continue the disrupting where they left off.
ACT 1 -- Geoff The Troll Appears
Our story begins around February 5, 2018, when a particularly disruptive troll appeared, using the alias "Geoff." This was Geoff's first post:
Geoff's first post would not be his last. As of last week Geoff remained active, and has contributed 167 comments -- on average more than five comments per day for 30 days.
We pegged Geoff as a troll right from the start.
You can see above that his first post had nothing but downvotes, and the comments on that post were critical, because (1) Real investors were feeling pretty good about the patents, and (2) Real investors who are worried either ask questions or sell their stock; they don't ostentatiously fret in public.
Here are some of the skeptical comments Geoff received at his debut -- comments like, "Must be a short seller working for Elysium":
After that, Geoff tended to agree with those who challenged ChromaDex, and he challenged those who agreed with ChromaDex, while raising additional concerns.
One of the most notorious trolls plaguing our community went by the name "Mr. Wonders." Shortly after Geoff appeared, Marshmallow asked Anne whether Geoff might simply BE Mr. Wonders, reincarnated:
If we had been a little more attentive early on, we might have noticed that Geoff declared that he was a "long term holder," but did not say what stock he held -- a clever piece of sophistry by which you seem to say something without actually saying it.
In other posts Geoff said, "I love NR and feel that things are not going the way that they should," and "I love the NAD story and just want it to be handled by the right people."
Both of these statements make Geoff seem like a ChromaDex shareholder, but both statements are in fact equally consistent with an Elysium affiliation. One might dare to call this kind of precise language use "lawyerly."
If you look backwards in time, you can see that Geoff's first post appeared within a day of when I published "The Riddle of the Skadden," which was a pointed suggestion that Skadden's attorneys were engaged in sophistry. My post ended thus:
"I am quite certain that these Skadden lawyers, except in private moments of self-doubt, actually believe that they are advancing the interests of the legal system through zealous representation. But that's bullshit. They should be clarifying the situation, not confusing it. Hey Skadden, if your argument is any good, how come you can't state it as clearly as I just did?"
That language practically called for a response.
And if you look at the Geoff's posting history, not only do I get singled out for abuse earlier and more frequently than others, but he once even referred bitterly to my most obscure post -- which mentioned an apparently inconsequential change to Cooley's legal team -- the kind of thing that really would only be interesting to another attorney.
Geoff purported to have read all my legal analysis and to have kept score of my legal predictions. According to Geoff, I did not score well. In fact, I was "dead wrong the majority of the time" and "wrong pretty much every time."
Geoff said that if I were a good lawyer I "would be working for either Cooley or Skadden and wouldn't have time to write these novels."
But Geoff does have time to read these novels that I write -- in fact, he says above that he reads all the legal materials on his own, which makes him "more nervous than ever."
Not only does Geoff have time to read my novels and the underlyling materials, but he also has time to post 167 comments in a month on our board, as well as time to read the extensive comments to which he is often responding.
I can affirm from experience that it's time-consuming. But it is a vocation that makes sense for me, as a shareholder. I certainly wouldn't attempt to publicly review and analyze all the litigation for just any company.
So this kind of commitment of time and attention is almost inconceivable for someone who isn't involved in the stock. That's why we can pretty safely conclude that Geoff is either a shareholder, a short-seller, or billing his time.
Geoff claims he did not go to law school:
But that comment might be just as reliable as his other suggestions that his participation on our discussion board is as a ChromaDex shareholder, rather than as an Elysium agent.
The suggestions to which I refer may be found in Geoff's subsequent language, in which he was much less equivocal about his commitment to ChromaDex. For example, "We are all in the same boat. Was just hoping the boom would hold up...I am/We are down 20% over the past month...I want nothing more than for this stock to go up..."
But at the same time, Geoff gave the appearance of doing research about ChromaDex and discovering disturbing facts:
Geoff continued to concern-troll ChromaDex management based on innuendo and old associations:
Which prompted this response from one community member:
Over time, Geoff's posts became either less-credible or more-reckless, depending on how you look at it. Here he suggests that he has never heard of "the short attack:"
It is hard to imagine that a "long term holder and lurker" would be unfamiliar with the short attack, and harder still to believe that searching for information about the short attack wouldn't yield much.
When I run a pretty obvious Google search -- ChromaDex Short Attack -- the first item in the list addresses it, and there are plenty more hits in the first two pages, including material from TheStreet, ThomsonReuters, and SeekingAlpha:
And so it continued with Geoff. Geoff attacked my blog's legal analysis, raised doubts about the company and ChromaDex's legal position, challenged those who challenged Elysium, and accused his accusers of being ChromaDex plants.
Community members grew ever-more-suspicious:
But Geoff's activity did not abate. If anything, it intensified.
ACT 2 -- Geoff the Troll Goes Berserk
As a former customer of Elysium Health, I still receive Elysium's newsletter. The most recent one arrived on February 28th, and I decided to offer the ChromaDex investor community a few critiques. Whether Elysium Health is well-run is indirectly relevant to the ongoing litigation between the companies, which is in turn relevant to the share price and, of course, to my ongoing citizen journalism project providing free public coverage of the litigation and related federal administrative proceedings in California, New York, and Washington DC.
I found much to mock in the newsletter.
The first article discusses Dr. Daniel Kahneman's joining the scientific advisory board. Dr. Kahneman is, according to the article,
"a professor of psychology and public affairs...renowned for his work at the intersection of economics and psychology, particularly in the areas of judgment and decision-making, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. This work paved the way for a discipline recognized today as behavioral economics, the study of how people make economic decisions, accounting for predictable human errors and biases..."
What economics and psychology has to do with longevity is beyond me, and how someone with that background could help Elysium develop anti-aging products is beyond me. They might as well have added a car mechanic or a cirque-du-soleil dancer to their scientific advisory board, as far as I'm concerned.
Elysium's Nobel Prize Winning Scientific Advisory Board Member Thomas C. Südhof is a Stanford University neurophysiologist, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is quoted in Longevity as saying that Elysium's Scientific Advisory Board:
“...does NOT endorse the products of Elysium. Its sole role is to advise Elysium on the development and testing of its compounds.” (emphasis added)
How a professor of Behavior Economics is supposed to advise Elysium on the development and testing of its biochemical compounds is a mystery to me.
But I left that alone.
The second article focuses on Gary Gottlieb's joining Elysium's board of directors. According to the article, Gottlieb is a health care CEO and a psychiatry professor. I don't have any opinion about Elysium's board of directors.
The third article discusses Time Magazine's cover piece on anti-aging technology that for some reason prominently mentions Elysium and Basis in its discussion of nicotinamide riboside without mentioning that ChromaDex developed NR, and has the patents -- and indeed, Elysium has been accused (big lawsuit complaint, paragraph 2, bullets 8 & 9), of misleadingly suggesting that Elysium, not ChromaDex or Dr. Brenner, is responsible for inventing the ingredients in Basis. That issue was extensively discussed on the investor board, and I had no further comments.
Next came some recommended books and articles about aging.
And finally, at the end of the newsletter, a marketing piece that really surprised me. It was a contest that urged Elysium's customers to upload photos of their Basis jars to Instagram, and mentioned in passing that 10% of Elysium's customers are physicians. Here's the marketing piece:
I thought the contest was potentially worthy of ridicule, because Basis users are almost certainly 40+ years old, and more often 50+, because if you are a young person then you are probably not running short on NAD.
Instagram, by contrast, is a platform overwhelmingly favored by young people. So Basis and Instagram are the ultimate mismatch, and the idea of uploading photos of one's products struck me as most likely to happen among young customers, of which there should be few or none for Basis. (So far, most of the Instagram photos tagged #BasisForLife have been posted by Elysium itself.)
My post mocked the contest, and suggested that we watch the #BasisForLife hashtag on Instagram to see what happened, either as a measure of Elysium's customer base if a lot of photos were posted; or, if few photos showed up, a measure of Elysium's marketers.
I also noted that it was surprising to learn that 10% of Elysium's customers were physicians. I have never found a physician that has even heard of NR (small sample, I concede), and so it seemed to me that either Elysium has recruited large numbers of physicians outside of Sonoma County, or Elysium's customer base isn't that large.
A better critique would have been to point out that there are about a million physicians in the United States, out of a population of 300 million. So if physicians make up 10% of Elysium's customers, instead of 0.3%, then physicians are over-represented by something like 30x -- 3,000 percent -- which suggests that either Elysium is ferociously marketing at physicians -- maybe giving away free or discounted product and counting those as sales? -- or Elysium has been spectacularly unsuccessful at penetrating the consumer market.
This critique of the newsletter really set off Geoff. He defended the newsletter and attacked my critique. After some hours, I noticed that my post critiquing the newsletter had been deleted.
I posted a note alerting the community that I did not delete the post. But Geoff had noticed the deletion before I did, and he attacked me for it:
Geoff's complaint was that I had mocked one article in the newsletter without acknowledging all of positive information that Elysium had circulated about itself.
But Geoff showed his true colors when he said that the two new Elysium board members were "the world's best thinker(s)" and "two of the smartest people in the world," and "two of the most prominent people you could ever have join any company."
Those characterizations struck me as insanely effusive. Was he drunk? No rational person would ever talk this way about Elysium's advisory board, I think. Certainly no ChromaDex shareholder would. Here is how one ChromaDex shareholder responded to Geoff's outrage:
That's what a real ChromaDex investor sounds like.
And it's what normal people sound like, too:
Longevity put a pretty fine point on it, quoting former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier as saying,
“Some of these people may think that they’re being asked to [join Eysium's Scientific Advisory Board] because of their deep insights. That’s the part that’s a joke. They’re not. They are part of a marketing scheme where their names and reputations are being used.”
Apparently Dean Flier did not EVEN believe that the then-current Nobel advisors were providing a significant service in their only role, which is to advise on the development and testing of compounds.
Given how the board has recently expanded to include a professor of behavior economics who most likely knows nothing about the testing of biochemical compounds, Dean Flier's opinion would appear to have been vindicated by the newsletter.
But Geoff was on a rampage. He called me a "scam," and a "paid troll," and a "fake lawyer" or unethical. He said I was "beyond shady," and "should be banned." He called me "beyond ridiculous" and said I should go back to my "troll hole." He referred to me as a 'lawyer' [in quotes], and a "terrible lawyer," and questioned whether I had really gone to law school. And he said that "clearly" I "do not adhere" to the ethical responsibility of a lawyer.
He even called me "some bottom of the barrel lawyer who either doesn't know what he's talking about or has some hidden agenda."
Really? I got good grades at UCLA Law School, and had a brief-but-distinguished career working in-house for a Fortune 50 corporation's law department. UCLAW is a top-20 school. In fact, UCLAW graduates land jobs at places like Skadden and Cooley.
Dare I mention that one of the six Skadden attorneys assigned to the ChromaDex Litigation is a UCLAW grad?
Well this was very annoying and disruptive.
But the most annoying and disruptive part was that my content got deleted. Even if my station in life be low -- I am merely a journalist reporting on and analyzing judicial and government agency proceedings of great public interest from an office that is NOT perched atop some morally precarious glass tower-of-thieves -- I am still a kind of writer, and I hate when my content gets deleted.
I was pretty sure that Geoff had reported my post as abusive -- because the post cast a bad light on Elysium -- and then he accused me of deleting my own post, thereby simultaneously rehabilitating Elysium and discrediting me. That was my guess, anyway.
So for me, trolls are more than a small annoyance. They are significant attempts to disrupt a community, and the purpose of that disruption, it seems to me, might not even be legal, let alone moral.
Troll Eradication Program (ACT 3)
However, I am not a securities lawyer, so I don't know the legal issues associated with pump-and-dump, or short-and-distort. I don't know what constitutes securities fraud. I don't whether lying about oneself on a message board, or impersonating a shareholder, in the hope of influencing a stock's share price or disrupting a shareholder community is any type of fraud, or just bad etiquette, or a breach professional ethics (should the person who trolled the community or directed the trolling have any duties of professional ethics).
I don't know, and I'm not going to figure it out.
Instead, I am gong to be doubly vigilant at identifying trolls, and hopefully defeating their intentions enough that they stop reincarnating and simply leave us be.
1. Troll Patrol
One way to achieve this will be for all of the community members to be on the lookout for trolls. We might develop some tell-tale criteria for identifying trolls. Then, we might all report every troll post as abusive.
2. Alternate Forum
I have also enabled the Comments capability for this blog -- see the new COMMENTS box at the bottom of each post; it looks like this:
Previously I have resisted allowing comments because comments features attract spam, which I don't want to manage.
However, managing spam is less odious than having one's legitimate posts deleted because they were critical of Elysium Health (and then being falsely accused of deleting those posts). So Right of Assembly is now a safe place for ChromaDex shareholders to discuss the stock.
Trolls will be dispatched, and legitimate posts will not be deleted either by manipulators or by Yahoo's seemingly random admin policy.
There could also be other benefits.
For example, it is possible to upload images at Right of Assembly, unlike at Yahoo, which twice last week auto-deleted a great meme I created for nhadar:
I don't know whether it's a good idea to move the discussion to another forum that has better troll defenses. Maybe not, but at least it is now an option.
Rooting Out the Next Troll
Geoff has been blessedly quiet since his newsletter temper tantrum, which hopefully means that he has been reassigned by the home office.
However, perhaps-not-coincidentally, our newest troll may have ALREADY re-appeared and suddenly become very active. This troll goes by the name of "look m," and has 67 transactions in the past year, 9 in the past 24 hours.
look m advises us that Elysium is not just a problem for ChromaDex, but a "huge problem:"
That is certainly not the consensus view on the board, and we have been discussing it for months or years.
Perhaps the question warrants additional discussion, but NOT at the behest of a troll.
How do we know for sure that look m is a troll?
Here are look m's first three posts on our board. They are from more than a year ago:
Someone who shows up to tell us that ChromaDex is "a scam," and is "Scam City," and who mocks ChromaDex investors with a "lol," is not an investor. Instead, he is a troll who is about to pick up where the last troll left off and try to disrupt our community.
look m certainly does not appear to have become an investor since he first appeared. This is from earlier today:
Maybe I'm misreading this -- please chime in! -- but I would recommend that look m's posts be reported as abusive until he goes away, and we should be vigilant for similar noise.