— Russian troll factory-linked news site USA Really is struggling to reach American social media users in time for 2020 election
For the second time in less than two years, Twitter has suspended an account run by Russian propaganda website USA Really, which cybersecurity experts say has ties to the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory. It’s the latest setback in a series of misplaced attempts by the site to connect with American voters using social media.
USA Really was launched in May last year as an English-language adjunct of the Federal News Agency, one of multiple Russian news outlets allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s Cook.” But despite some deep pockets, the site struggled to find an audience.
In July last year, the site was banned from almost every major U.S. social media platform after California-based cybersecurity firm FireEye traced the site back to the IRA. Later that year, the site 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” among American voters 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 several of the site’s American contributors fled in fear of incurring financial penalties, Malkevich resigned his editorship, seemingly heralding the end of the project. Yet the site refused to die. Under new editor Leonid Savin — who previously edited the pro-Putin think tank Katehon — the site has continued to publish the same kind of politically contentious content peddled by the IRA during the 2016 election.
Leonid Savin (source)
In July, the site quietly relaunched its Twitter and Reddit profiles 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.
The purposefully offensive comments, written in broken English, 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.”
Among the site’s main targets of ridicule was 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,” usaUNreally wrote. “…you can hear Tlaib shouting ‘You guys are crazy!’, And someone behind the camera says ‘You’re an animal, get a job!’ – Thats fun.”
Last month, usaUNreally struck again when someone on the r/Conservative subreddit asked why nobody had opened a sexual misconduct investigation into Tlaib’s colleague, Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
“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 to xenophobic claims that illegal immigrants had secretly invaded a Californian town using a fleet of buses.
“Democrats,” usaUNreally replied, “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!”
In a race-baiting rant on the r/PublicFreakout subreddit, usaUNreally stopped just short of using a racist expletive.
“the question is as old as the sea,” usaUNreally wrote, mulling a question seemingly nobody asked. “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)?”
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.”
Strangely, the two topics usaUNreally most zealously argued against were 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”).
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, the end goal remained the same.
“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.
Meanwhile, usaUNreally continues to actively post on Reddit. One recent comment on the r/ANormalDayInRussia subreddit, which highlights the unique strangeness of Russia, was so conspicuous it risked giving the game away.
“Where are matrioshka doll and vodka?” usaUNreally joked, commenting on a photo of a Russian bear operating a camera.