USA Really Implicated in Russian Troll Indictment

Russian accountant Elena Khusyaynova was just indicted for allegedly assisting attempts to interfere in US elections. Now US-Russian news organisation USA Really says Khusyaynova is its chief financial officer

A US-Russian media venture flagged by cybersecurity experts earlier this year has been implicated in the indictment of Russian national Elena Khusyaynova, who is accused of assisting attempts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election and 2018 US midterm elections.

USA Really, a Moscow-based news website headed by Russian government media adviser Alexander Malkevich, has drawn significant scrutiny since its launch in May, including close comparisons to the Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency, better known as the Russian troll factory.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Articles on the USA Really website highlight hot-button social, cultural, and political issues using charged language, including reporting about Donald Trump, the Mueller probe, US elections, neo-confederate movements, and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. For example, last month an article with the title “New Shocking Facts About Michelle Obama’s Gender” recycled bogus claims originated by InfoWars founder Alex Jones—once described by New York Magazine as “America’s leading conspiracy theorist”—that former first lady Michelle Obama was born a man.

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USA Really is overseen by the Federal News Agency (FAN), a pro-Kremlin news agency identified by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as belonging to a network of Russian entities allegedly controlled by “Putin’s chef,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russian nationals indicted in February in connection with the now-infamous troll factory.

In an indictment released yesterday, Khusyaynova is accused of helping to manage and obscure payments to FAN and other entities allegedly involved in Project Lakhta, a political and electoral influence campaign waged on US social media networks going back to 2014.

Malkevich has previously dismissed questions about who funds USA Really, even claiming the existence of a deep state conspiracy to falsely link the website to Russian troll operations. Those claims reemerged in two anonymously penned articles published earlier today on the USA Really website, which described Khusyaynova as the victim of a “Big American Witch Hunt” perpetrated by the DOJ in cooperation with Facebook and Twitter.

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“There are just two weeks left before the election, so all the dirtiest political techniques are being used,” Malkevich is quoted as saying in one of the articles.

A second article tagged as an “Exclusive” made no attempts to conceal Khusyaynova’s relationship to USA Really, even claiming that the indicted accountant currently works as USA Really’s chief financial officer—information not mentioned anywhere in the DOJ’s indictment.

“The truth is that Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova is CFO of the USA Really news agency and its parent organization, Federal News Agency,” the article explained, before launching into a stream-of-consciousness diatribe describing the indictment as a “disgusting, monstrous octopus stretching its arms to choke free speech and independent journalism panicked upon hearing USA Really’s voice of truth that it tries to hush up through the hegemony of conventional American media.”

The tirade ended with an appeal to readers, including agents of the US federal government, to submit evidence of US interference in other countries via a writing contest on the USA Really website, which includes an award named The Pepe The Frog “Best Meme” Award. Pepe the Frog is a comic book character created by Matt Furie that was recently adopted as a mascot by white nationalist groups.

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It’s unclear if Malkevich or USA Really will be named in any future indictments. A spokesperson for the National Security Division of the DOJ declined to comment.

Why Did This Florida Takedown Lawyer Try to Suppress Negative Reviews for InventHelp?

— InventHelp is currently being sued for allegedly scamming aspiring inventors. Two years ago, Florida takedown lawyer Zachary Sloan tried to suppress those allegations

InventHelp is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company that claims to help aspiring inventors patent and market their inventions.

From its inception in 1984, InventHelp has cultivated a slick image. For example, since 2014 legendary former boxer turned small appliance pitchman George Foreman has been spokesman for the company, appearing in upbeat, “you can do it” promotional videos.

Despite that image, in recent years InventHelp has faced allegations of fraud.

Recently, some of InventHelp’s former clients filed a $108 million class action lawsuit against the company, claiming, among other allegations, that the company had failed to follow through on its promises, that it preyed upon low income people, and that it also “fraudulently targets minorities and women through the use of misleading websites, including www.black-inventor.com and www.women-inventor.com.”

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In April 2016, someone named Zachary Sloan—who according to ZacharySloan.com appears to be a defamation lawyer in Boca Raton, Florida—sent Google four identical de-indexing requests targeting InventHelp’s profile on PissedConsumer.com, an online forum that allows consumers to write reviews of companies.

(Sloan previously represented online reputation management company Profile Defenders, which is currently facing scrutiny for allegedly filing fraudulent lawsuits in order to get negative reviews de-indexed from Google’s search results).

“How to get your money back from an invention scam!” wrote one anonymous reviewer, who provided a step-by-step guide on how to force InventHelp into offering a refund. “1) send out your complaint letter, 2) contact an attorney, and 3) call an investigative journalists (like “7 On Your Side”) – this will keep up the pressure. The last thing the invention company wants is to be scrutinized by Attorney General’s, the Federal Trade Commission, lawyers and reporters.”

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Citing a court order he claimed he’d obtained from an unidentified court in Canada, Sloan requested that Google de-index four PissedConsumer.com pages from its search results, including the above review, which Sloan claimed contained defamatory information about InventHelp.

“We are requesting these links be deindexed from Google.CA specifically per the details of the attached court order that calls for deindexing from all of Google Domains, specifically Google.CA,” Sloan wrote. “This Plaintiff is a US and Canadian business, but most of its customers are Canadian and find Plaintiff’s website and reputation via searching Google.ca. However, these postings which have been ruled as defamation and admitted by the Defendant to posting them, and are severely impacting the Plaintiff and its ability to acquire new customers.”

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It’s unclear if Google capitulated to his de-indexing request, and multiple attempts to contact Sloan went unanswered. However, it appears that InventHelp, or someone working on behalf of InventHelp, did succeed in obscuring the Pissed Consumer reviews.

Now when consumers try to access InventHelp’s profile at Invent-Help.PissedConsumer.com, instead of being directed to a page of negative reviews and accusations of fraud, they’re quickly redirected to a second, privately registered domain, InventHelp.reviews, where they’re shown a page of glowing testimonials.

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Although the negative reviews are still available to view via that second domain, most have been moved to the back of the website, while many others, including the anonymous review quoted above, are only available to view by clicking a drop-down option below InventHelp’s own, more prominently positioned replies to the reviews.

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InventHelp and Pissed Consumer did not reply to requests for comment. However, Pissed Consumer’s page of Frequently Asked Questions states that the website will remove reviews upon receiving a U.S. court order. The website also provides a dispute resolution service.

Emboldened by Trump, Alt-Right Gloats Over Death of John McCain

— A white nationalist, a professional provocateur, a former revenge pornographer, and a big basket of deplorables

On August 14, 2017, Unite the Right rally organiser Richard Spencer held a press conference at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, where he spoke at length about the alt-right’s affinity for US president Donald Trump.

“We were connected with Trump on this kind of psychic level,” Spencer explained. “He was the first true, authentic nationalist in my lifetime…and in that sense we were connected with him in a way that the conservative movement wasn’t.”

Richard Spencer (source)

The rally in nearby Charlottesville had turned violent when two days earlier, James Alex Fields Jr., an outspoken neo-Nazi sympathiser, crashed his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer.

Signalling his own affinity for the alt-right, Trump refused to denounce the marchers, who’d mobbed the city carrying tiki torches and chanting Nazi-era slogans—even arguing that there “were very fine people on both sides.”

Unite the Right marchers (source)

The president’s response contrasted sharply with statements by another prominent Republican, Senator John McCain.

“White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” said McCain, who died late last month after a year-long struggle with cancer.

It wasn’t the first or last time McCain publicly clashed with Trump; the two men seemed to fight each other at every turn, often over basic American principles.

Trump/McCain (source)

At the outset of Trump’s campaign, McCain denounced the unlikely candidate’s inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric, and refused to attend an early MAGA rally in Phoenix, Arizona—McCain’s home state. When Trump subsequently took the stage to ridicule McCain before an audience of 15,000 ardent supporters, McCain accused him of having “fired up the crazies.”

The war of words escalated at an event in Iowa the following week, when Trump disparaged McCain’s service in Vietnam.

“He’s not a war hero,” said Trump, who was deferred from the draft no fewer than five times. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Amid the glowing eulogies following news of McCain’s death, Trump did not appear to waver from that opinion, initially vetoing an official White House statement praising the late senator. The episode hinted at deep divisions within the GOP, between the so-called “principled conservatism” espoused by McCain, and a radically new brand of conservatism, unconstrained by the normal parameters of American politics and decorum.

It also demonstrated the extent to which Trump’s presidency has emboldened previously unseen elements of the far-right fringe, who appeared to be taking cues from Trump in echoing some of his most flagrantly disparaging comments about McCain.

“Is it okay to be glad when a vindictive old bastard dies?” asked Milo Yiannapolous in an article published on his website, Dangerous, where the alt-right provocateur confessed to only being “a little ashamed of the warm feeling in my stomach” upon hearing about McCain’s death.

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The vitriol continued to pile up on Gab, a social media platform associated with the alt-right, where users celebrated McCain’s death using the pro-Trump hashtags #MAGA,  #DrainTheSwamp, and #NotAWarHero.

On Twitter, Richard Spencer rehashed old conspiracy theories that McCain was responsible for starting a deadly fire aboard a naval aircraft carrier in 1967, and that in 2013 McCain met and had his photograph taken with the leader of Islamic terrorist group ISIS. Both claims were previously debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes.

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Meanwhile in McCain’s home state of Arizona, Craig Brittain, a lesser-known member of the alt-right, has been running a one-man campaign against McCain.

Brittain found infamy in 2013, when he was busted by the Federal Trade Commission for engaging in “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” via his now-defunct revenge porn website, IsAnybodyDown?

On that website, Brittain facilitated and encouraged the publication of non-consensual nude photos—along with victims’ full names, home addresses, and Facebook screenshots—then charged hundreds of dollars for removing victims’ profiles using a second business he also controlled under the alias David Blade III.

Earlier this year, Brittain ran for senate seeking to replace outgoing senator for Arizona Jeff Flake. When he failed to produce enough votes to make the ballot, Brittain filed a lawsuit against Arizona’s governor Doug Ducey and secretary of state Michelle Reagan in an attempt to force a second vote, and in a “frivolous” attempt to remove McCain from office.

“[A] reasonable person would conclude that McCain’s seat has been ‘vacant’ since his final Senate vote in December of 2017,” Brittain said in an e-mail. “This does not weigh on his qualifications but rather is a simple statement of fact. He wasn’t there; the seat was vacated, THE TRUTH IS THE TRUTH.”

Last year, an anonymous Gab account registered to Brittain’s personal phone number was used to post numerous disparaging comments about McCain’s cancer diagnosis.

“Maybe God does exist after all,” read one of the posts. “If so, good job, God. I’m rooting for the brain cancer – the best chance to replace John McCain as a US Senator.”

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When asked if he owned the account, Brittain said he’d never used Gab and suggested that the anonymous account holder was an impersonator.

Minutes later, the account was mysteriously deleted.

When asked again, Brittain suggested that “maybe the site administrator of Gab realized it was a fake account and deleted it.” He subsequently sent a lengthy, pro-Trump diatribe criticising the mainstream media, and speculating that Chelsea Clinton—who sits on the board of directors at IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast where I recently co-bylined a few stories—was personally involved in this article.

“Soon, President Trump will restore social media access (the loss of which crippled my campaign severely and left me vulnerable to impersonators) to people of all genders, races, creeds, origins, and beliefs,” Brittain railed. “That is when the current Mainstream News Media, which is Non-Representative, will be deleted. It will fade away and be classified as obsolete.”

*   *   *

In the end, Trump capitulated to mounting criticism over the White House’s “disastrous” response to McCain’s death, issuing a statement praising the late senator, and ordering that the flag be lowered to half-staff until after McCain’s interment.

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The gesture was arguably a big move for a president known for bearing grudges, yet it did little to appease his critics, or, for that matter, his supporters on the far-right.

“I love you, Mr. President. But this was a pussy move,” said one self-described “Middle aged conservative Odinist.”

It was just the latest reminder that within the alt-right, the only consistent principle is trumping your opponent.

Daily Beast: Pecker Pulls Back on Pro-Trump Coverage

— National Enquirer boss tiptoes away from his pal Trump, with an assist from Hollywood’s leading talent agency. Check out my latest byline at The Daily Beast

Via “National Enquirer Boss David Pecker Tiptoes Away From His Pal Trump as Scandal Swirls and Circulation Drops” by Lachlan Markay, Asawin Suebsaeng and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, August 02, 2018:

Shortly after the feds raided the office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s now estranged personal attorney and longtime enforcer, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker went into a state of calculated retreat.

For years, Pecker’s tabloid had promoted and puffed up Trump’s political rise and his presidency. But once a regular fixture on the cover of the National Enquirer, Trump hasn’t appeared on it since an issue dated early May. That appearance was for a cover story on the various scandals swirling around Cohen.

[…]

According to multiple sources familiar with the situation, Pecker and the Enquirer’s top brass made a conscious decision to pull back on their pro-Trump coverage, just as Pecker’s media empire found itself increasingly embroiled in Trumpworld’s legal and public-relations woes.

A month after the Enquirer’s last Trump cover, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal authorities had subpoenaed Pecker and other executives at American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the tabloid. They sought records related to allegations that the company purchased the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump, then killed the story for Trump’s benefit, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Prosecutors are exploring whether such an agreement may have constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign by AMI.

[…]

As Pecker and his team were distancing themselves from Trump publicly, a more surreptitious effort was underway to cleanse the public record of details of Pecker’s involvement in the McDougal scandal and the AMI boss’s relationship with the president.

Over the course of a week last month, an anonymous Wikipedia user repeatedly tried to scrub Pecker’s page of damaging information regarding his alleged links to the McDougal hush-money scandal, removing huge blocks of text describing Pecker’s and AMI’s roles in paying the model for her story. The edits also removed references to Pecker as “a close friend of Donald Trump” and a supporter of his 2016 presidential campaign in addition to scrubbing mention of a federal investigation of the payment that stemmed from the raid of Cohen’s office (In a recently-leaked tape, Trump told Cohen to make the payment “in cash” to “our friend David,” assumed to be Pecker.)

The origin of the edits was even more interesting. They were made by someone using an I.P. address associated with the high-powered Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor, according to publicly-available web database information. The same I.P. address has been used to edit pages for WME itself, the head of the agency’s literary division, and a number of WME clients.

Click here to read the full article.

The story was covered by MSNBC’s Katy Tur here, CNN’s Brian Stelter here, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Pete Vernon here, and Vox’s Jennie Neufeld here.

Update, August 10, 2018: The Wrap picked up the story.

Two people inside the offices of talent agency WME attempted to remove damning information from the Wikipedia pages of its Co-CEO Ari Emanuel and one of his parent company’s clients, American Media Incorporated, a new report says. [Note: It’s unclear how many people edited the pages].

In July, a user with an IP address originating from the agency’s New York headquarters attempted to scrub sections detailing AMI Chief Executive Officer David Pecker’s accused role in the scandal surrounding President Trump and Playboy model Karen McDougal, the Daily Beast reported late Friday.

The report said a second user also removed several blocks of text from Emanuel’s personal page about a 2008 sexual harassment case involving the agency. A spokesperson for Emanuel declined to comment on the matter.

Anyone with access to WME’s wireless internet network would be registered to their IP address, one individual familiar with the company told TheWrap (a similar sentiment was echoed in the Daily Beast). Wikipedia pages are edited by the site’s user community, so the attempted changes were all eventually undone. An AMI spokesperson did not return TheWrap’s request for comment on the report.

The effort to clean up Pecker’s profile, the Beast reported, was largely initiated to distance the media owner from President Trump. In addition to removing a section that referred to the men as “close friends,” it also stripped large chunks of backstory about Pecker and the alleged coverup of Trump’s accused affair with Playmate McDougal, the story said.

Click here to read the full article.

Sex, Lies and Wikipedia

— Who scrubbed the Wikipedia bio of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina? Read my latest at The Daily Beast, plus coverage of the story by The Rachel Maddow Show

Via “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it.

The edit campaign began in March when an anonymous Wikipedia user made a series of five edits to Butina’s page. The edits included adding details of her biography and noting the Russian spelling of Right to Bear Arms (Право на оружие), the non-profit gun rights group she founded in 2011 to “improve weapons culture” and provide gun owners with access to free legal advice.

The account’s only identifying information was an IP address traced to web servers at American University, the school where Butina studied from mid-2016 through the spring of 2018, and which federal prosecutors say she used to obtain a U.S. student visa. In April, another Wikipedia account sprouted up and made four edits to Butina’s page. That account also used an IP address associated with AU.

Click here to read the full article.

And via The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, July 24, 2018 (skip to 13:00):

Transcript: If you were intrigued by this information about Maria Butina and her alleged boyfriend and her being in jail awaiting charges and him being an alleged co-conspirator and potentially being the subject of another federal investigation, I mean, this is the collusion case, right? It might make you want to look up more information on these two characters.

Well, their Wikipedia pages have been scrubbed clean. “The Daily Beast” tonight has a great report up on this, detailing dozens of edits to both of the Wikipedia pages for Maria Butina and for Paul Erickson, dropping all information about allege ties to the Russian government, alleged efforts to broke her meetings between Trump and Putin during the campaign, reported criminal history, reported business history between them, references to investigative reporting about Russian money being potentially had funnelled through the NRA, all of that is gone, all removed.

And the beauty of something like Wikipedia is that Wikipedia has regenerative power once somebody mounts an effort to the make real information go away, other people are likely to reinstate thought real information. But there has been a diligent effort online to submarine all of that information about this accused Russian agent who tonight sits in jail, as well as the American who allegedly helped her.

“The Daily Beast” reports now that at least some of the edits to these Wikipedia pages were made from an account that was maintained on the Russian language version of Wikipedia.

Pro-Trump Bot Campaign Tries to Hijack Daily Beast Article About Pro-Trump Bot Campaign

— An online media campaign to obscure unflattering news articles about Donald Trump has targeted a Daily Beast article I co-authored about the campaign

Earlier today, Twitter purged tens of millions of fake and suspicious accounts in a seeming attempt to restore trust in the embattled social media platform, which had been exploited by Russian operatives allegedly in order to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election.

But while celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Oprah Winfrey lost millions of followers during the purge, fake accounts involved in an online media campaign to bury unflattering news articles about Donald Trump remain live and tweeting. In fact, they’ve found a shiny new target: an investigative piece I recently co-authored with The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay about the campaign itself.

In that article, we examined attempts by Indian and Indonesian reputation management companies to influence Google’s search results—including paid content published on fake websites, Facebook, and Twitter accounts—relating to Trump’s relationship with Russia-linked former Trump Organization business partners Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater.

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Ironically, when readers of The Daily Beast began tweeting about the campaign, they were deluged with messages from some of the same fake Twitter accounts mentioned in our article. The accounts appear to have been programmed to reply to iterations of Arif’s name. For example, here’s a quote from our article that was posted by Twitter user YourVoteYourVoice…

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…and here are replies that user received from some of the fake accounts, which linked to now-defunct dummy websites about Arif and Sater:

Although Twitter has not deleted the fake accounts, their posts are currently hidden by a content warning, indicating that Twitter is aware of them:

Byline at the Beast

— I just co-authored this investigative piece with The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay

Since late last year, I’ve been researching an online PR campaign seemingly intended to manipulate Google’s search results in order to obscure unflattering news articles about Donald Trump’s Russian business ties.

Yesterday, the story was published in The Daily Beast.

Via “Inside the Online Campaign to Whitewash the History of Donald Trump’s Russian Business Associates” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 5, 2018:

A mystery client has been paying bloggers in India and Indonesia to write articles distancing President Donald Trump from the legal travails of a mob-linked former business associate.

Spokespeople for online reputation management companies in the two countries confirmed that they had been paid to write articles attempting to whitewash Trump’s ties to Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who, with former Russian trade minister Tevfik Arif, collaborated with the Trump Organization on numerous real estate deals from New York to the former Soviet Union.

The campaign appears designed to influence Google search results pertaining to Trump’s relationship with Sater, Arif, and the Bayrock Group, a New York real estate firm that collaborated with Trump on a series of real estate deals, and recruited Russian investors for potential Trump deals in Moscow.

Sater—who once had an office at New York’s Trump Tower, Trump Organization business cards, and claims to have worked as a senior adviser to Trump—has recently emerged as a key figure in the federal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

[…]

The Daily Beast previously reported that a Pakistani blogger had been paid to write an article for the Huffington Post’s now-defunct contributor platform hailing the dismissal of [a civil tax fraud lawsuit against Sater]. That blogger, who went by the handle Waqas KH, said his client, whom he declined to name, had provided the text of the piece in full.

HuffPost is a prominent U.S. news source, but on more obscure platforms, used explicitly for search-engine optimization, over 50 other stories have popped up hyping the lawsuit’s dismissal and attempting to insulate Trump from controversy involving Sater and Bayrock. The articles were published over an eight-month period, from September 2017 through June 2018.

“Certainly now that Trump is President of the United States, there is not likely to be any further implications for him in this case,” declared a November article at a since-deleted website billing itself as a forum for a “business development specialist.” The article was written by Abhishek Chatterjee, who owns an Indian SEO business that offers to place articles on a network of 900 websites for $20 apiece.

Click here to read the full article.

The story was subsequently covered by The Washington Post, Politico, ABC News, and others.

Via “The Daily 202: 10 stories illuminate the Trump doctrine on foreign policy” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, July 5, 2018:

Via “POLITICO Playbook Power Briefing: Trade wars escalate as duties on some Chinese goods take effect at midnight” by Jake Sherman, Anna Palmer, Daniel Lippman, and Akela Lacy, Politico, July 6, 2018:

Via “The Note: For Trump, a week of big moves could have big blowback” by Rick Klein and Maryalice Parks, ABC News, July 6, 2018:

Being Alexander Malkevich

— When the head of Russia’s new disinformation campaign arrived in Washington DC this week, reporters for NBC News and Foreign Policy were there to meet him

Last week, I blogged an original story about Alexander Malkevich, a Russian government policy adviser and head of USA Really, a troll factory-linked propaganda organisation in Washington DC.

Shortly after I published my post, I received an unhinged comment from someone named Michael using a USA Really e-mail address, in a seeming attempt to persuade reporters to disregard what I’d written.

“Are you semicrazy person?” the comment read. “Please, go see a doctor help the society and yourself. May be you just have a vivid imagination. I’m not sure, but it looks like you took too much acid (aka LSD) in your childhood…Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.”

And so on.

Evidently, the dissuasion effort failed: the story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and covered by The Washington Post and Politico.

This week, Malkevich had scheduled a flash mob event to take place at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday, and a roundtable event at a WeWork office space opposite the White House to discuss fake news (WeWork is a company that rents private offices).

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Things did not go to plan.

Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the flash mob event—which originally included a symphony orchestra—after applying for the wrong permit. Then, according to Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is overseeing the USA Really project, Malkevich was removed and banned from re-entering the WeWork office space he’d rented. WeWork declined to comment for this item.

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Now NBC News and Foreign Policy have published profiles of Malkevich.

Via “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to” by Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich stood outside the White House on Thursday, braving the 85-degree heat in a skintight long-sleeve shirt with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on it. Thursday was flag day, as well as the birthdays of Malkevich, Che and President Donald Trump, and he was leading a very small political rally.

But this wasn’t one of the typical protests that crop up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malkevich sits on Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, an official arm of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was there to promote his new Russia-funded, English-language news site, USA Really. Wake Up Americans.

Like most of Russia’s efforts to manipulate U.S. politics, the website traffics in content on divisive issues such as promoting secessionist movements in the U.S. — the same kinds of activities that caused a furor when they were exposed as having influenced the 2016 presidential election.

Malkevich’s hopes of generating a similar furor now, two years later, seem to have degenerated into self-parody, however. Instead of actors with signs and musicians playing symphony music, as Malkevich had envisioned, he stood among tourists and “Free Tibet” protesters with only his business partner, Alex Dolgonos.

“It’s hot out here, but it’s much hotter in some of those rooms we’ve been kicked out of,” Malkevich said.

[…]

USA Really has a variety of links to Russia. The domain name for USA Really was registered privately from a Russian address, and promoted by the Federal News Agency, which is allegedly owned by “Putin’s Chef,” restaurateur oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their campaign to sow discord before the 2016 U.S. election. Since April, the jobs section of the Federal News Agency’s website has been recruiting English-speaking journalists for USA Really.

USA Really’s monthlong campaign in the U.S. has hit roadblocks in recent days, according to a statement of grievances from Malkevich posted on the Federal News Agency website. Facebook removed USA Really’s page, and according to Malkevich, Twitter has imposed restrictions on its account.

Malkevich repeatedly ignored or deflected questions about USA Really’s funding.

[…]

Malkevich told NBC News that he’s working on his English and that he’s staffing up for bureaus in New York and Washington. He also said USA Really wouldn’t repeat troll farm tactics of impersonating Americans on social media, while denying knowing anyone involved in the embroiled Internet Research Agency,

“We want to do everything legal,” he said.

Malkevich said he was enjoying his time in Washington, despite being disappointed at what he called “Red Scare” books in places like the gift shop of the Spy Museum about a half-mile from the White House.

“I see all of these stories about how 10 Russian hackers changed the election. Where is CIA? Where is FBI? They can’t stop 10 Russian hackers?” he said.

Malkevich chatted amiably about his venture. But under the unrelenting heat, he grew agitated when asked about the Internet Research Agency.

“I like America, but I keep getting into problems with all of these officials,” Malkevich said. “And now all of these people asking about the Russian trolls.”

Via “Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?” by Amy MacKinnon, Foreign Policy, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich might be the new face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subvert U.S. democracy. Or he might be a bumbling provocateur.

Malkevich, a Russian media executive with ties to the Kremlin, arrived in Washington this week to launch USA Really, an English-language news site that spreads the kind of disinformation and discord attributed to Russian trolls in a high-profile indictment earlier this year.

[…]

On Wednesday of this week, he showed up at a coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C., for his first interview with an American reporter. He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of the Russian foreign minister looking irritated and the phrase “debili blyat,” which roughly translates as “fucking morons.”

“This is my answer for these strange people that are frightened by us,” Malkevich said.

His new website is no less sophomoric. In the past few days, it has included stories headlined “Man Served His Friends Tacos Made From His Severed Limb” and “No Sex for Cops in Louisiana.”

Malkevich is a former manager of local TV and radio stations in Russia. He’s also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which advises the government on policymaking.

He says he was approached by a group of Russian journalists and businessmen to found USA Really after he gave a speech to the Russian Civic Chamber, a parliamentary advisory body, about the need to establish more media outlets abroad.

“We only have a few media working abroad. It’s so hard for them to stand against all this oppression,” he said.

[…]

“Now we see that there is real freedom of speech in Russia,” he said. “But a Russian media company cannot do anything in the USA.”

Social media websites, heavily criticized for serving as a megaphone for the Russian disinformation campaigns during the U.S. election campaign, have been aggressively policing USA Really.

Facebook shut down the website’s page within a day of its launch in May. On Twitter, USA Really has been prevented from posting direct links to its website, forcing it to route articles through Google Plus posts.

Malkevich said the site has been able to post photos on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but it is blocked from adding captions and hashtags.

The reasons for the crackdown are not totally clear. While the website is connected to individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions and indictments, through its affiliation with Federal News Agency, Malkevich is not included on either list and was able to enter the United States on a tourist visa.

[…]

Malkevich admitted that he’s had difficulty recruiting native English speakers to work for the publication, but he has high hopes for the project.

“I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Toward the end of the interview, an employee wiping down the table behind him splashed cleaning fluid on his phone.

“Spies from the FBI. Poison,” he joked.

“Of course, I am being sarcastic,” he added. “But there is still some concern.”

Beast from the East

— Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about a DC-based Russian disinformation media campaign headed by a Russian government policy adviser

Last week, I blogged an original story about a new Washington DC-based Russian disinformation campaign that was the culmination of over a month’s research.

The story was subsequently picked up by The Daily Beast and cited in The Washington Post and Politico daily round-ups.

Via “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, June 10, 2018:

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A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.

Malkevich sits on the Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media and communication. He is also running the show at USA Really, according to an FAN video on the project. The video features shots of a USA Really office space adorned with an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a framed “Make America Great Again” poster of President Donald Trump.

[…]

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

[…]

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, Jones received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Via “The Daily 202: North Korea summit prep encapsulates Trump’s winging-it presidency” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, June 11, 2018:

A Russian government adviser has launched a new media venture aimed at waging an “information war” in the United States and Europe. The outlet, called “USA Really,” attempted to hold a White House rally in protest of “growing political censorship … aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation,” but its permits were denied. (Daily Beast)

Via “Power Briefing: All eyes on Trump-Kim meeting” by Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, Daniel Lippman, and Zach Montellaro, Politico, June 11, 2018:

— “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.,” by The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay: “In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called ‘USA Really.’ Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of ‘growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.’

“At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.”

Trolling the Electorate

— A Russian troll factory-linked media campaign headed by a Putin-approved government consultant claims to have an office facing the White House 

For the past month, I’ve blogged extensively about “Wake up, America!”a mysterious “Russian ops” campaign that recently made headlines after it attempted to organise a flash mob event at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s upcoming 72nd birthday.

The event was advertised via USAReally.com, a disinformation website that called on “every patriot” to “come up to the White House on June 14th at 2:00 p.m. to congratulate America.”

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According to a press release published in April, USA Really was created by the Federal News Agency (FAN), a pro-Kremlin Russian media company that says it has an office “in the White House business center opposite the US president’s residence.”

Organisers appeared to cancel the event—which would have included a symphony orchestra—after mistakenly applying for a film permit instead of the proper rally permit, although an article published earlier this week on the FAN website claims the cancellation came as a result of a conspiracy by US authorities to censor its free speech rights (banners advertising the rally are still up on the USA Really website).

FAN has been digitally traced to the Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency (IRA)better known as the Russian troll factoryby US cyber-security firm FireEye and open-source researcher Lawrence Alexander, among others. In 2015, Adrian Chen of The New York Times even visited the IRA’s offices in St. Petersburg and found that FAN was operating out of the same building.

Now for the latest twist in the story: According to a video published Tuesday on FAN’s YouTube channel, the “Wake up, America!” campaign is being headed by the deputy chairman of the Russian government’s Commission on Mass Media and Mass Communications, Alexander Malkevich.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

The video appears to have been filmed from inside USA Really’s Russian office, which is adorned by US and Confederate flags, a colour-coded map of the US, and a framed picture of Donald Trump.

The Commission on Mass Media is a branch of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation (OPRF), which was created by Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2004 to facilitate “interaction between the federal government, the local governments, and the people of Russia in order to ensure that their interests are taken into account, and that their rights and freedoms are protected when creating and implementing government policy.”

The composition of the chamber was personally approved by Putin himself.

USA Really HQ? (source)

Despite OPRF’s claim that it helps “strengthen civil society institutions as democracy institutions,” the chamber has been described by Russian critics as a “smokescreen” intended to “distract the public’s attention from what is a real diminishment of democracy,” and “a calculated move to diminish the power of parliament and strengthen the Kremlin’s centralization of power.”

Yesterday, Malkevich used the OPRF website to publish an anti-US screed complaining about the negative attention “Wake up, America!” has received in the US, and demanding that the Russian government take legislative action against US news and social media platforms.

Here is his post in full (courtesy of Google Translate):

Our Commission has talked a lot about the discriminatory approach that applies to the Russian media in Europe and the United States. And we have repeatedly made proposals on this topic that Russia needs more mass media in order to fight back in the world information war.

In May, in a test mode, a group of enthusiasts launched the information resource “USA Really”. Objective media, young, sincere media. It was honestly and officially announced that he would work in the English-speaking zone, no media outlets violated any laws, only official information, proven materials, no fictions, open real journalism was published. And what happened?

After the site worked for several days in a test mode (ie without advertising campaigns and mass mailings about the opening of the resource, it was simply debugging work processes), the Facebook account was completely destroyed, Twitter introduced a number of restrictions: in fact, journalists can not He publish publications with direct links to his site.

But there was a blog in LiveJournal (I want to emphasize that this social network is run by a Russian company), which began to develop, Twitter missed direct links to LJ posts, but it did not last long, for a maximum of 24 hours, after which this blog was also blocked.

It is clear that this is illegal and this is arbitrary, since the administrators of the blog received no warning messages from the management of the social network. And this makes you ask a whole series of questions.

First, there is no vaunted democracy and freedom of speech in the US. The American authorities, without ceremony, without giving any reasons, clean out the information field from everything they disagree with and from all those who do not cuddle or crouch before them.

But, once again, why does the Russian company support US sanctions? A law on counter-sentences has been introduced, at the highest level, the introduction of criminal responsibility for those who are ready to support these sanctions on the territory of our country is being discussed.

Does this mean that the leadership of SUP media should go to jail for supporting the policy that the US authorities are leading against Russia?

With the so-called “freedom of the media” in America everything is clear, because it simply does not exist. But it is fully present in Russia – only in some perverted forms. On the territory of our country, not only the American media that regularly publish libel, but also their subsidiaries, who tell us very coolly and with a spark that Siberia should secede from Russia, that the Crimea is not Russian land and so on. They work in the Russian legal field, they quietly conduct their groups in Russian social networks, they are not blocked, although there is a violation on violation and violation drives.

It turns out that Americans can work for us quietly, but we do not. There is discrimination, and with this you need to do something at the highest governmental level. We, both as a journalistic community and as public figures, are certainly outraged by this imbalance – and we are asking the State Duma, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the Government to support the interests of the media, which are insolently flouted by American companies, and the US authorities, which dictate to them, and to all of us, thus, our will.

In a separate post, FAN’s editor-in-chief Yevgeny Zubarev called on Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor to censor “foreign social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.”

According to Russia’s business index, Zubarev is FAN’s founder and proprietor. He is also a key figure in Adrian Chen’s NY Times Magazine piece on the IRA, sending a photographer to follow Chen to his hotel and later publishing an article attempting to link Chen to Moscow neo-Nazis.

Although Zubarev refused to disclose the names of FAN’s investors, a 2017 investigation by Russian media group RBK found evidence that FAN might be funded by “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russian nationals indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February for allegedly attempting to interfere in the 2016 US election.

Prigozhin has hired lawyers and is fighting the charges in US court.

Update, June 10, 2018: USA Really is holding an event hosted by Alexander Malkevich at WeWork White House on June 15. The event is titled “’Fake News’ in the ‘Digital Technology Age.’ WeWork White House is located one block from the White House.

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