Twitter and Reddit Suspend Accounts Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Russian Propaganda Site

Russian troll factory-linked news site USA Really is struggling to connect with American voters ahead of 2020 election

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For the second year in a row, Twitter and Reddit have suspended accounts belonging to sanctioned Russian propaganda website USA Really, one of a number of shady news outlets allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s Cook.”

It’s the latest setback in a series of misplaced attempts by the site to cultivate an American audience.

Launched in May last year as a U.S.-facing adjunct of Russia’s Federal News Agency, the site initially presented itself as a homegrown, independent news and storytelling platform. However, the site quickly gained notoriety when its calamitous efforts to stage a flash mob at the White House fell flat.

In December, the site, its parent company, and its founder, bumbling Kremlin policy adviser Alexander Malkevich, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in connection with Project Lakhta, a massive social media influence campaign that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Under Malkevich’s leadership, USA Really “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies,” the Treasury Department said in an accompanying statement, which mirrored reporting first published by this blog.

In February, as U.S. tech companies severed ties with USA Really and the site’s American contributors fled, Malkevich resigned his editorship. Under current editor Leonid Savin — who previously edited the pro-Putin think tank Katehon — the site has continued to publish politically contentious content.

Leonid Savin (source)

In July, the site quietly registered new Twitter and Reddit accounts in a seeming attempt to mount a second social media influence campaign ahead of the upcoming 2020 election. The site’s reappearance highlights how propagandists and other bad actors are easily able to thwart even the most vigilant of social media platforms.

Asked to comment, Twitter quickly suspended the new account, which USA Really had been using primarily to post links back to its site.

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After multiple inquiries, Reddit also removed USA Really from its platform, putting an end to a racist, sexist, and homophobic commenting campaign that appeared to follow Russian troll factory directives for posting online.

“The account in question has been banned in accordance with our site-wide policies,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement.

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The intentionally offensive comments were posted across at least 25 different hot-button subreddits, including r/progun, r/republicans, r/SandersForPresident, r/conspiracy, r/WikiLeaks, r/Feminism, r/MensRights, and even r/gaybros, a support group for “those of us who are gay and trying to leave the parTy scene.”

In other words, exactly what you might expect from a Russian troll account.

Surprisingly, the issues USA Really argued over most vehemently weren’t guns or politics, but climate change (“What is the essence of this whining about melted ice?”), and — stranger still — the legalisation of topless bathing (“We can only imagine how many lawsuits will be directed against men who, not knowing the age of a minor, but an adult looking, will look at her bare breasts”).

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Less surprising was the site’s targeting of Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, known for her advocacy of progressive policies such as the Green New Deal.

In July, someone posted a video of Tlaib heckling Donald Trump on the r/republicans subreddit. The video soon caught the attention of USA Really, who, using the handle “usaUNreally,” wasted no time firing off a disparaging comment.

“She need a better bra,” wrote usaUNreally, in perhaps one of the most childish examples of professional trolling ever published to the Internet.

Last month, usaUNreally struck again when a commenter on the r/Conservative subreddit asked why the House of Representatives had not opened a sexual misconduct investigation into Tlaib’s friend and colleague, Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

“[It’s] because she is only capable of incest,” replied usaUNreally, alluding to an unfounded rumour that she’d married her brother.

Ilhan Omar (source)

On the r/Conspiracy subreddit, usaUNreally turned to the topic of immigration, playing up xenophobic claims that illegal immigrants had secretly invaded a Californian town on a fleet of buses.

“Democrats,” wrote usaUNreally, “buy votes, but insolently bring ‘electorate’ from abroad. What we have in line … Reparations, bribery of Jewish communities, satisfaction of other ethnic minorities, gay voices will be valued twice as much as a heterosexual white man. Welcome aboard!”

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In a race-baiting rant on the r/PublicFreakout subreddit, usaUNreally just stopped short of using a racist expletive.

“the question is as old as the sea,” usaUNreally pontificated. “but explain why white people shouldn’t call African-Americans a n-word (they always say this to each other), but black can use the word “white” (snow white)?”

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Elsewhere, usaUNreally defended using violence against women.

“I’m not protecting this exact guy,” explained usaUNreally, referring to a video in which an alleged batterer gets his comeuppance. “But sometimes women behave as men, so if they demands the same attitude to themselves they should handle what they deserve.”

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DivestTrump, an online disinformation researcher who outed USA Really’s attempts to infiltrate r/The_Donald subreddit last year (as reported by Newsweek, BuzzFeed News, and NBC News), said that despite the site’s lack of success this time around, the end goal remained the same.

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“Their traffic plummeted after the previous bans and they’re clearly trying to rebuild an audience,” DivestTrump tweeted from an undisclosed location. “Their endgame hasn’t changed. They exist to heighten divisions, sow distrust in our own government, and push a Russian agenda in America.”

USA Really’s editor did not reply to a request for comment.

Journalism 404

Don’t miss this Columbia Journalism Review Q&A with former editors of The Frisky, whose transformation from popular women’s site to pay-to-play nightmare I documented for BuzzFeed News

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Earlier this year, I wrote an investigative story for BuzzFeed News about how a Serbian music producer had purchased The Frisky — once one of the most popular women’s sites in America — and turned it into a parasitic digital marketing platform that recycled the site’s old content using a host of fake bylines. In an interview this month for Columbia Journalism Review, two former editors of The Frisky discussed the site’s strange but not-so-wonderful afterlife.

Via “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives,” by Tiffany Stevens, Columbia Journalism Review, November 5, 2019:

Jessica Wakeman, women’s issues journalist with work in Bustle, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times

I wrote and edited for The Frisky for six years, which is a sizeable chunk of my career and also a very important period of my life. During that time I developed a lot as a thinker and as a feminist and as a human being. It’s disappointing and even a little painful when the record of that time disappears without my choice. Going to search for an old article that I wrote is a jarring way to find out that something is not online.

All of us had our bylines replaced with somebody else’s name. It’s just dummy bylines. At the very bottom of the story, it would say, “Original by Jessica Wakeman.” All of a sudden, things that I wrote were now being attributed to another person. As time has gone on, I haven’t been able to find pieces that I wrote.

I feel really cynical about digital-media ownership and the priorities of people who own websites and blogs. So, as disappointed as I am, I’m also not surprised by it. I think the current status quo for many owners is that the work isn’t valuable. Content that currently gains traffic is what they care about.

I started writing for a local newspaper when I was 15. My first job out of college was at a newspaper. I spent many years physically cutting out all of my articles and putting them in my binder. I can remember in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, applying to jobs and having a physical binder as my calling card. This is a new problem, but the answer might be that we as writers have to save every single thing we write as a PDF or that we have to print it out and put it in a binder and go the analog route, which seems crazy.

All of that being said, there’s a certain amount of relief that maybe some of the pieces I wrote are no longer accessible, because I wrote them between the ages of 24 and 29, and I don’t hold all the same viewpoints or use the same words. Which is the thinnest silver lining on this whole thing.

Amelia McDonnell-Parry, independent journalist whose work has appeared in Undisclosed

There were a couple of people who wrote for [The Frisky] that were like, “Is there a way for us to buy it?” And I was like, “Listen, more power to you, but I don’t got it in me anymore.” In a way, it’s kind of freeing to just have it go. I was running the site, I got hired when I was 28, and I left the site when I was 36 or 37, and I’m about to turn 40. You change a lot.

The things that I got that were valuable to me, I still have. But there was something oddly freeing about it, I have to say. And I also just knew I didn’t have any power over it.

I still get Google alerts for my name. Every few days, I’ll get a Google alert, and it’ll be for The Frisky, but it’ll be something I wrote seven years ago. A personal essay, or some strident opinion piece on something that I’m like, “I don’t think I even have an opinion on that anymore.” Or, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that really sucked.” And it’s presented by this person who’s not me — it has a fake byline — but then my name is still at the bottom.

I’ve been doing mostly audio stuff lately. That’s stuff’s preserved. And for quite a bit of time I was writing for Rolling Stone’s website. I don’t expect Rolling Stone to go anywhere anytime soon. But seeing what happened [at The Frisky] did sort of remind me it’s a good idea to save actual, physical copies of your work in some sort of way. PDFs. You can’t rely on Archive.org to have everything and you never know when shit might disappear. And you don’t know when it might reappear again in some bizarro environment with someone else’s name on it.

Click here to read the full article.
Click here for my BuzzFeed News story on The Frisky.

Maria Butina Pens Article for Russian Think Tank Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Kremlin Policy Adviser

The article appears to be the first in a regular column published by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, an obscure Russian think tank run by sanctioned Kremlin mass media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich

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Maria Butina is teaming up with a Russian think tank whose founder allegedly has close ties to the Kremlin’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In collaboration with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), Butina has penned an article titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. The article, which claims to mark the beginning of a broader collaboration, comes just a few weeks after Butina was released from the Tallahassee Federal Correction Institution, where she served a 15-month sentence for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin.

Recounting an interview she gave 60 Minutes while still in prison, Butina described her sentence as “a shameful deal for the US prosecutor’s office, with an investigation in which they had to recognize my legitimate status as a student, apologize for sexist charges and, in order not to hit the dirt in the face and justify the money spent by American taxpayers on me, appoint me a prison term ?!”

Maria Butina (source)

The most scathing comments, however, were saved for interviewer Lesley Stahl, whose “little dry American face,” Butina wrote, “doubled in the grimace of surprise and clear misunderstanding of my words.”

On returning to Russia, Butina claimed she “was barely alive from lack of sleep and stress,” but nevertheless “remained true to my promise to the women who sat with me, still imprisoned in the mortal arms of the American penitentiary system … not to be silent about all violations of their rights…”

Butina went on to thank FPNV founder Alexander Malkevich, who, “having experienced the bullying of American law enforcement officers himself,” had “systematically helped” her during her prison term.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Readers of this blog will remember Malkevich as the former editor of USA Really, a Russian propaganda site allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s cook.” Both Malkevich and Prigozhin are currently under U.S. sanctions for their alleged involvement in Project Laktha, a massive social media influence operation that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the American political system in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

At least four of Malkevich’s current employees — three of whom he reportedly shares with Prigozhin’s infamous troll factory — were recently accused of attempting to meddle in African elections. Malkevich has denied the claims.

In May, Malkevich launched a crowdfunding effort in Russia to help pay Butina’s legal bills. In an interview with this blog, he said he intended to pay the money through a third-party in Moscow in order to circumvent financial restrictions placed on him by the U.S. Treasury Department.

“Of course I am not paying [Butina’s lawyers] directly because I am under sanctions,” he told Shooting the Messenger at the time. “But I am the producer of this crowdfunding.”

Malkevich with Butina (source)

When Butina returned to Moscow last month, Malkevich met her at the airport with a bouquet of flowers. Following that appearance, I again asked Malkevich about his involvement with Butina. This time he said he’d made an offer for Butina to work for FPNV as its vice president.

“Yes, I offered Maria Butina to become a part of our foundation for national values protection, and I will be happy if she will agree to become a vice president of our fund, of our foundation,” Malkevich said in an audio recording. “About her possible acceptance, you know that I heard that she expressed interest in our joint work. But you know that nowadays she is in Barnaul in her native city in Altai region, and I think that for week or maybe for two weeks she has to have a rest among her family, with her father, her mother, with her friends. So we are not in a hurry. We are not in a hurry.”

Butina did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

I also asked Malkevich if he was excited to see himself back in the American press.

I can’t say that I was excited to see myself on CNN because a lot of American media wrote about me and are still writing something about me,” he said. “Maybe that first time I was a little bit excited when I found myself in New York Times, and really big article with photo about me and so on.”

He added that his next project will involve compiling the various definitions western news outlets have used to describe him and his activities. You can learn more about that project via the SoundCloud link below.