Russia’s Latest Troll Site is a Total Failure

THE FOUNDATION TO BATTLE INJUSTICE claims to be a human rights organisation for victims of state violence in predominantly English-speaking countries.

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Dubbed the “Russian FBI” in its home country, the organisation is, in fact, the latest project of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was recently added to the American FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for allegedly organising online disinformation campaigns on behalf of the Kremlin.

Prigozhin announced the project on March 23 via Russian social media platform VK, from which he publicly answers questions from journalists. The foundation’s official site, launched on the same day, describes its founder as a “Russian entrepreneur” and lists “providing legal […] financial” and “media support for victims of police” among its purported goals.

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The site follows in the recent tradition of Russian troll sites like USA Really and Peacedata, which published in English and were primarily aimed at a U.S. audience. However, neither of those sites openly declared their Russian origins.

Asked for his take, transnational Russian crime expert Mark Galeotti said the site was “likely a bit of obvious trolling more than a serious attempt to set up a fake HRO that might pass muster.”

To date, the organisation has received no media coverage in the English-speaking press and its Twitter account has just two followers.

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The organisation has fared better in Russia, where Prigozhin has the advantage of chairing of his own media conglomerate, Patriot Media Group, which oversees at least nine pro-Kremlin news sites. Via these sites, Prigozhin recently published dozens of stories touting his foundation’s purported efforts to investigate alleged police misconduct in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Russian FBI investigates case of brutal detention of African American in Ohio,” read one headline by the Federal News Agency, which noted that Prigozhin’s foundation has “asked US President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland for clarification on the current case.”

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In an attempt to better understand Prigozhin’s latest venture, I sent journalistic inquiries to the site’s “info@” email address and Alexey Kochargin, who is listed as a contact on the foundation’s VK account. Neither responded.

I also sent questions to people publicly associated with the site including Alexander Malkevich, who is twice-sanctioned by the U.S. government for his ties to Prigozhin, and who recently commented favourably about the foundation’s work in Russian media. Here is his reply:

You are a very stubborn person in all that concerns conspiracy and inventions about me. Read attentively. I gave a comment about what I think about such a project. And today I gave a commentary about Elon Musk and his words about Russia. Do you think I work for him?

Alexander Ionov, a self-proclaimed human rights activist who recently appealed to Prigozhin’s foundation for help, sent a similar response:

Hi Dean, you’re always writing nonsense […] Why do you write to me if you later come up with articles about me and don’t include my comments? And your questions are not exactly strange but idiotic.
write whatever you want if your CIA fee depends on an interview with me. tell your boss that you’ve done it all.

Don’t bother me with any more stupid questions that have nothing to do with me.

If you want to know why the two Alexanders are so angry with me, you can read my recent reporting about them by clicking here, here, and here.

Got a tip? Send it to me via the comments or the contact form on my “About” page.

“Putin’s Cook” Behind New Russian Action Film “Tourist”

THE FILM marks Yevgeny Prigozhin’s third foray into film-making — and the arrival of a reality-bending new species of Russian propaganda.

Website for action-propaganda film Tourist (source)

On Wednesday, a trailer for upcoming Russian action film, ТУРИСТ (“Tourist”), dropped on YouTube. The film ostensibly tells the true story of Russia’s involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR), and, according to promotional materials, depicts Russian soldiers heroically fighting unnamed “terrorists” seeking to throw the country into turmoil.

Per an accompanying synopsis of the film:

“Tourist” is a film about political intrigue, chases and shootings, about the fight against terrorists – even if they threaten not your home and not even your country. A dramatic and dynamic action movie about people who are ready at the cost of their lives to protect the legal order and the lives of civilians of the Central African Republic – simply because they cannot indifferently watch how innocent people are dying.

The reality is more complicated. For example, U.N. peacekeepers recently accused mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group of “grave human rights abuses,” ranging from “attacks on humanitarian actors” to “mass summary executions,” in support of CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s efforts to quash rebel forces. (Click here for the Guardian’s broad-context reporting on Russia’s activities in CAR.)

The trailer omits another important detail: the film is seemingly owned/funded by Wagner’s titular head Yevgevy Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Cook.” That’s according to domain information for the film’s promotional website, whose registrant is identified as “Aurum, LLC.”

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Update, May 19, 2021: Aurum is also listed as copyright holder in the film’s end credits, per this screenshot:

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As Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and I co-reported last year, Aurum is a film company founded by Prigozhin in 2017. The company’s previous titles include Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which claim to tell the true story of Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, depicted in both films as an innocent sociologist. Per our reporting, the films were part of a year-long Russian propaganda campaign that sought to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison, where he was detained in May 2019 on espionage charges (he was eventually freed last December and currently runs a U.S.-sanctioned think tank that recently sent operatives to CAR).

The promotional site for Tourist seeks to put a similar spin on Russia’s involvement in CAR, describing the film as “a story told by ordinary people.”

While the site does not mask its association with Prigozhin or the Russian government (which is included in a list of acknowledgements), it does keep its distance from Wagner and, in turn, any alleged human rights abuses it may have committed. For example, the site’s only mention of Wagner comes from a brief excerpt of a Russian news report, which states that the film’s poster was designed by an unnamed “28-year-old girl from Vladivostok” who publishes “popular posters on the theme of PMC Wagner” on social media using the pseudonym “Merry Fox.”

It’s unclear if Fox exists and her Instagram page, currently set to “private,” has zero followers. But here’s a sample of her Wagner fan art:

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From the ICYMI Files: The Bizarre Campaign to Free a Notorious Russian Political Operative (Now With U.S. Sanctions!)

ALEXANDER MALKEVICH has been sanctioned by Biden admin for spreading Kremlin propaganda. Here’s a round-up of my reporting from 2019/2020 about his global campaign to free a Russian operative from a Libyan prison.

Still from action-propaganda film Shugaley (source)

Alexander Malkevich will likely be familiar to readers of this blog. Throughout 2018, I gleefully documented his misadventures as editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really — for which he was sanctioned later that year in connection with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Robert Mueller-indicted Russian oligarch behind St. Petersburg’s infamous troll farm.

I continued to follow Malkevich’s efforts to wage Russia’s “information war” (his words) after he left the site in February 2019 in order to start a new company based in Moscow, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP). This eventually led me to Libya, where in May 2019 one of Malkevich’s employees, Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a Kremlin-backed plot to install the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Since then, my reporting via this blog, BuzzFeed News, and Foreign Policy (joined by FP’s national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon), has shown that:

Malkevich and Prigozhin used a shell company to co-finance two big-budget action-propaganda films, Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which depict their namesake as an innocent but no-nonsense sociologist who brawls, spouts witty one-liners, and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle.

— Malkevich may have paid Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, and Danny Trejo to record video messages of support for Shugaley through the American pay-for-videos app Cameo (Malkevich denies this).

— Malkevich placed a now-deleted advertorial on the Washington Post’s site, calling on Libya’s president to free Shugaley.

— Two of FNVP’s senior consultants, Mikhail Potepkin and Petr Bychkov, advised Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir on ways to quell anti-government protests prior to a violent crackdown in 2018.

On the heels of that reporting, the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Malkevich for a second time, accusing him and his foundation of having “facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019.” (The announcement further states that Bychkov, FPNV’s consultant, has been sanctioned for leading Prigozhin’s “Africa back office.”)

Per the Treasury’s Apr. 15 announcement:

Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took sweeping action against 16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government…

Russian national Alexander Malkevich (Malkevich) and his company, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), have facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019. Malkevich, who was previously designated in 2018 pursuant to E.O. 13694 for directing USAReally, another designated Prigozhin-financed influence entity, has continued to support Prigozhin’s disinformation operations. Malkevich runs the FZNC website. Malkevich utilized the FZNC website along with other Prigozhin operatives to spread messages on behalf of Prigozhin […] Malkevich and the FZNC were designated pursuant to E.O.s 13848, 13694, and 13661 for supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations. FZNC was also designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by Malkevich.

When I asked Malkevich for his response to the above allegations, this was his reply:

It is difficult for me to comment on the actions of American bureaucrats. Everyone knows that I have been working for the fourth month as the head of a large TV channel in St. Petersburg. In addition, all my civil society activities over the past two years have been absolutely public and open. And there was nothing wrong and criminal in them […] As for my work at the foundation, I repeat that it has not taken any hostile actions against America. What does the activity of this organization have to do with the life of the United States of America?))

The full scope of FNVP’s activities in Africa is not known. In my interviews with Malkevich throughout 2019 and 2020, he denied any wrongdoing and insisted that FNVP’s sole enterprise is conducting sociological research to later sell to “businessmen and for other people who are in need of them.” (FNVP’s research is routinely published on its site free-of-charge.)

Shugaley — who was made FNVP’s president shortly after his release from prison in December — did not return multiple requests for comment.

If he’d answered my emails, I would have asked him about his relationship to Alexander Ivanov, who recently attended a meeting of FNVP’s “African debating club” during which there appeared to be discussion of a UN report published last month that accused Russian mercenaries of committing “grave human rights abuses” in the Central African Republic.

Ivanov is listed online as “director general” of the Officers Union for International Security, a self-proclaimed “association of people advocating for peace and stability.”

A video of the meeting was livestreamed on YouTube by the Coordinating Council of Russian NGOs, whose chairman, Anton Tsvetkov, also chairs the pro-Putin “Strong Russia” movement.

Shugaley and Ivanov have both published open letters addressed to the UN demanding that it produce evidence for its claims. Meanwhile, studies published on FNVP’s site indicate that the foundation recently sent Russian operatives to the Central African Republic. It’s unclear what they’re doing there.

Notes from the cutting room floor

— Maria Butina, convicted in 2018 of being an unregistered foreign agent of Russia, has been added to the FNVP’s website as an “expert.” Malkevich donated money to Butina’s fundraising campaign in 2019, paying her U.S. lawyers through a third-party Russian NGO in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions preventing him from paying them directly. Butina later penned an article on the foundation’s site titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. Here’s her newly added bio on the foundation’s site:

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— FNVP is using pirated software to prepare PDF versions of studies published on its site, per a review of the associated metadata.

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— The Officers Union for International Security site has not been properly secured, enabling visitors to browse files uploaded to the site’s WordPress library.

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Here is the (Now-Suspended) Twitter Account of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” Russian Troll

He’s wanted by the FBI, but you won’t find him on Twitter.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian catering oligarch widely believed to be behind St. Petersburg’s infamous troll farm, was booted off Twitter late-January — one month after joining the site — for a series of trollish tweets that veered drunkenly into self-parody.

Here are some of those tweets, in which he defends the motherland, pushes popular right-wing talking points, and complains about censorship by U.S. social media platforms.

1. In his deceptively cheerful first tweet, he wishes a “Happy New Year to Twitter!” before declaring that “Social media [is] full of slander and lies about Russia & Russians.”

2. In this ironic and drippingly sarcastic tweet, he lectures Americans on the “need to hold fair elections.” Alternatively, he suggests appointing “[Mark] Zuckerberg and [George] Soros as ‘King and Queen of the US.’ Let them figure out themselves who is a boy and who is a girl.”

3. Another slam at U.S. social media platforms and their CEOs. This time he equates getting banned from Facebook and Twitter to being impaled and having your tongue cut out by the Spanish inquisition.

4. In this tweet, he unconvincingly argues that Russia didn’t try to interfere with U.S. elections, instead accusing “Democratic politicians and the sluttish liberal media” of having “deceived the world and stolen everything.”

5. Traditional values? Is he running for office or something?

6. This one’s self-explanatory.

Prigozhin claimed ownership of the account in a rambling January 27 post on Russian social media platform VK, from which he answers questions from journalists. Archived snapshots show that he had fewer than 400 followers at the time of his suspension.

The FBI is currently offering a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to Prigozhin’s arrest, citing “his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the United States Department of Justice, and the United States Department of State.”

H/T to the Wayback Machine and archive.today, which allowed me to archive Prigozhin’s account shortly before it got pulled.

The Atlantic Stole My Work

The publication refuses to credit me after copying whole sentences and paragraphs from a freelance pitch I sent to reporter Natasha Bertrand.

This item was edited by Atlanta, GA investigative blogger Peter M. Heimlich.

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Here’s an excerpt from Bertrand’s article, “The Enigmatic Russian Paying Maria Butina’s Legal Bills,” published March 20, 2019 on the Atlantic’s website:

Ionov runs Ionov Transcontinental (IT), which provides access to Russian government agencies by helping clients “realize the potential opportunities of their business through its participation in political activities,” according to its website. There is no evidence that Ionov works directly for the Kremlin. (IT’s vice president is Roman Khudyakov, a former Russian government official and a member of the Right to Bear Arms.)

And here’s an excerpt from a draft of the story I sent Bertrand earlier that month:

In addition to his legal and advocacy work, Ionov runs Ionov Transcontinental (IT), which […] provides access to Russian government agencies by helping clients “realize the potential of opportunities of [their] business through its participation in political activities.” IT’s Vice President is Roman Khudyakov, former deputy of Russia’s 6th State Duma and a member of Butina’s Russian gun lobby group, the Right to Bear Arms.

By my count, Bertrand’s article contains at least six unequivocal examples of direct copying and revisions of my work. (Bertrand, now at Politico, declined to comment on-the-record for this item.)

On November 1, 2020, I compiled and sent detailed supporting evidence to the Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, asking him for a co-byline credit and freelance fee. After a month, Goldberg had still not replied, so I forwarded my request to Atlantic Media’s vice chairman Peter Lattman.

Here is Lattman’s December 17 reply:

Hi Dean, Thanks for the follow-up. I forwarded this to the appropriate people and I know they’re looking into it. PTL

As of publication, I have still not heard anything from the Atlantic and Lattman has not replied to my subsequent inquiries.

Jeffrey Goldberg (source)

It’s unclear how my writing made it into Bertrand’s article. But here’s a timeline of our correspondence:

• On March 8, 2019, I sent Bertrand an email pitching the story and requesting that I receive a co-byline credit. She expressed interest and conveyed that she’d talk to her editors.

• On March 11, 2019, Bertrand sent me an email stating that a “co-byline won’t be a problem.” That same day, I gave her access to a draft of the story I’d written on Google Docs containing all of my research. I also helped put her in contact with the subject of the story, Russian businessman Alexander Ionov, who’d agreed to speak with me on-the-record.

• On March 20, 2019, Bertrand sent me an email stating:

So my editor in chief isn’t comfortable doing cobylines with people who don’t write full time for the Atlantic, and told me that since the Russian fundraising website is publicly available online and therefore open source, it wouldn’t be the Atlantic’s policy to note a tip in the piece itself […] I’m really sorry about this […] I haven’t used your writing that you sent me in the google doc—I’ve just framed the piece around the fact that the fundraising website exists, which I can hat tip you for on Twitter.

The story was published later that day without my byline, although the Atlantic did eventually agree to credit me within the text of the article (albeit reluctantly and without offering an apology or an explanation for axing me from the story). I didn’t realise my work had been lifted until October 2020, when I was inspired to reinvestigate by the Atlantic magazine’s 800-word correction — and subsequent retraction — of a story by freelance journalist/serial fabricator Ruth Shalit Barrett.

As I told Bertrand in an email, the Atlantic’s refusal to add my byline to the story hurts both of us. I lost out on a writing credit and freelance fee; as a result, her name now sits atop an article that contains copied material.

Being a freelance journalist has its ups and downs, but getting stomped on by a big publication like the Atlantic deserves to be called out, hence this item.

Any other writers out there with similar stories? Feel free to drop me a line at stm1989@protonmail.com.

Duped Hollywood Celebrities Back in the News After Russian Disinformation Report

A Russian propaganda campaign that recruited famous actors through pay-for-videos site Cameo is the subject of a new article by Business Insider.

The article follows on the heels of a joint report published last week by Graphika and Stanford Internet Observatory. Both pieces cited an article I co-bylined, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon in September.

Via “Russian trolls used Facebook, Cameo to help free alleged spy in Libya” by Kevin Shalvey, Business Insider, December 19, 2020:

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After 18 months in Libyan prisons, alleged Russian spy Maxim Shugaley this month walked free, boarded a plane, and was greeted in Moscow as a returning hero.

During his long absence, Russia Today had aired an action thriller called “Shugaley” that dramatized his arrest, complete with explosions, gunfights, and torture scenes…

A roster of Hollywood actors also had recorded short supportive messages for him via the Cameo app. “Wall Street” star Charlie Sheen did one, speaking to Shugaley from the sparsely decorated kitchen where he did many of his Cameo videos […] according to last week’s report from Stanford researchers, who cited previous reporting on Shugaley and the IRA from The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and BBC Africa

Sheen was just one of a few high-profile Hollywood names that sent warm wishes to Shugaley. “Snatch” actor Vinnie Jones and “Rocky IV” star Dolph Lundgren each recorded their own videos, which were later posted on vk.com. “Machete” star Danny Trejo shot one, too, as first captured on Shooting the Messenger.

Click here to read the original story as first reported by Foreign Policy.

Click here to read the Stanford/Graphika report, which covers a larger-context disinformation operation targeting Libya, Syria, and Sudan.

Update, December 28, 2020: Gizmodo, Haaretz, and Inside Hook have also picked-up the story.

Via “Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Danny Trejo All Spread Russian Propaganda on Cameo: Report” by Tom McKay, Gizmodo, December 23, 2020:

News of the actors’ involvement in the odd campaign to free Shugaley was first broken by Foreign Policy, which noted that other efforts to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention by Libyan authorities included the suspected agent’s election “to the regional parliament in the Komi republic in northwestern Russia.” Foreign Policy detailed numerous other suspicious incidents casting doubts on the Russian government’s claim he was a mere academic, including his alleged involvement in a purported plot to interfere in Madagascar’s 2018 elections. The magazine also contacted several celebrities involved in the Cameo campaign; an agent for one of them, English actor Vinnie Jones, told Foreign Policy that the $300 payment for the video was from an anonymous client.

The Haaretz and Inside Hook pieces, which do not credit Foreign Policy’s reporting, can be read here and here.

New York State Medical Agency Opens Investigation Into Goop’s COVID-Denying “Trusted Expert” Kelly Brogan

The NYS Office of Professional Medical Conduct (a branch of the NY Department of Health) is investigating Dr. Brogan, a licensed psychiatrist, relating to her claims that the coronavirus potentially does not exist, and for potentially misleading about her board certifications.

Kelly Brogan (source)

Via my Atlanta, GA reporter friend Peter M. Heimlich, who requested the investigation:

You can read more about Brogan’s COVID-denialism via “The Gwyneth Paltrow-Approved Doctor Pushing Wacky Coronavirus Conspiracies,” a story I wrote for The Daily Beast in March.

Goop has since cut ties with Brogan, having scrubbed all of her content from its website. Brogan continues to spew disinformation about the virus on “alt-right [social media platform] Telegram,” according to the Beast.

Russian Parliament Votes to Exclude Bloggers From Bill Branding Foreign News Outlets as “Foreign Agents”

The controversial proposal was devised by Alexander Malkevich, the U.S. government-sanctioned former editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Via Malkevich’s Telegram earlier today (courtesy of Google Translate):

I’ll be honest: I’m upset; I personally voted in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation against softening the bill on foreign agents.

And this is what happens now: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4617311

The requirement to indicate the status of a foreign agent in their materials will apply only to the media. Regular citizens and bloggers won’t need to do this.

“We propose more clearly to establish that the marking of materials about a foreign agent in messages and materials belongs to the exclusive competence or responsibility of the media,” said Vasily Piskarev, head of the State Duma Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption. My position on foreign agents is stated here.

I noted that the legislation on non-profit organizations and public associations contains a number of unregulated norms that allow non-profit organizations that receive assistance from foreign sources to operate, but are not registered in the register of foreign agents.

Accordingly, it is necessary to legislatively expand the conditions for the recognition of non-profit organizations, individuals, the media and public associations as foreign agents on the territory of the Russian Federation.

In addition, foreign media outlets (Radio Liberty / Present Time / Voice of America) should be prohibited at the legislative level from campaigning at their sites during the election campaign.

For violation – fines and, as a tougher measure – temporary blocking of resources by Roskomnadzor. If they do not want to comply with the legislation of our country, it means that they will be temporarily blocked for the period of the election campaign.

Legislatively establish the obligation of an individual-foreign agent in the media / Internet to publicly notify the audience about his status.

But, as you can see, their lobby is serious.

It’s unclear what is motivating Malkevich’s dislike of foreign bloggers. But one factor might be my reporting documenting his ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin-linked oligarch widely believed to be behind Russia’s infamous election interference campaigns. Since 2018, I’ve received numerous hostile messages from Malkevich in response to that reporting.

For example, in June 2018 I received the following comment from someone claiming to work for USA Really, the Russian propaganda site for which Malkevich was sanctioned later that year. The comment came in response to a blog post I wrote detailing Malkevich and Prigozhin’s involvement in the site.

Are you semicrazy person? 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.You always do a pretty good job with data gathering (easy as pie).

However, Dude, WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation? Shame on all media who use your talks as actual facts. Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.

Wanna real info about usareally.com write directly to us, we will gladly provide you THE FACTS, not this half-backed-shit. Actually, if you are a good journalist, you will never use someone esle info, especially you would avoid info from some anonymous dude from the internet, who is pushing his own agenda… And it’s not like usareally.com is closed for contacts. It’s wide open. Feel free to write us. Wanna come? Come. Wanna interview? Contact us. DO NOT USE this man thoughts as facts. They are not. And they will never be facts…

Earlier this year, Malkevich falsely accused me of taking orders from the U.S. National Security Agency, claiming that I’d “violated all the principles of objective [journalism],” and comparing me unfavourably with Washington Post duo Woodward and Bernstein. That was for a story I wrote for BuzzFeed News, about a now-deleted ad Malkevich had placed on the Post’s site.

In interviews with Russian media, Malkevich said my reporting heralded the “death of American journalism.”

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You can read more about Malkevich’s attempts to smear me via “Russian ‘troll factory’ cries foul over US advert removal,” by BBC Monitoring’s Russian disinformation specialist Olga Robinson.

Facebook Removes Kremlin-Linked Accounts That Pushed For Release of Russian Operative Maxim Shugaley

The accounts were part of a successful campaign to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison after he was arrested on election-meddling charges.

Now-deleted Facebook page for Russian feature film Shugaley 2 (source)

Via “Stoking Conflict by Keystroke: An Operation Run by IRA-Linked Individuals Targeting Libya, Sudan, and Syria” by Shelby Grossman, Khadeja Ramali, Renée DiResta, Lucas Beissner, Samantha Bradshaw, William Healzer, and Ira Hubert, Stanford Internet Observatory/Graphika, December 15, 2020:

The takedown included a Facebook Page (primarily in Arabic) and Instagram account (primarily in Russian) devoted to a film recounting Russia’s version of the circumstances surrounding the arrest and imprisonment of Russian sociologist Maksim Shugalei (Максим Шугалей) and his translator Samir Seifan in Libya in July 2019. In the “action thriller” film version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were in Libya on a research mission sponsored by the Foundation for National Values Protection when they uncovered “inconvenient” truths. Because they knew too much, they were arrested, tortured, and thrown in jail by a “puppet government” on completely false charges of meddling in the Libyan election.

In the Western press and the GNA’s version of events, Shugalei and his interpreter were working for people linked to the very same Russian troll farm to which the operations in this takedown have been attributed. Shugalei is a political strategist, a “gun for hire” (per the BBC) who has worked on multiple elections in Russia and achieved some prior media notoriety in 2002 when he ate documents rather than hand them over to a judge during an election dispute. He was, the Libyan government claims, in Libya as part of a Russia-linked operation to promote the political rise of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The Foundation for National Values Protection, which is helmed by Alexander Malkievich, head of the IRA and RIA-FAN-linked “news” organization USAReally, fundraised to produce the film. Reporting has found that the copyright for the film is held by Aurum LLC, one of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s many endeavors, which have additionally included founding, funding, owning, or being generally involved with the IRA, RIA-FAN, and the Wagner Group. Shugalei aired on Russian state media property RT’s documentary channel. The film, promoted in the Facebook and Instagram Pages bearing its name, was one of numerous made-for-media moments intended to call attention to Shugalei’s plight; others included having him elected in absentia to a regional parliament seat in Russia (the campaign was reportedly funded by Prigozhin), placing sponsored content about the situation in the Washington Post, having Maria Butina (who pled guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States) run a one-woman protest outside of the Libyan embassy in Russia, and having Charlie Sheen and other duped American actors record messages of support for Shugalei via the paid app Cameo.

The Instagram and Facebook Pages related to Shugalei were primarily marketing communications for the film, and for its sequel, Shugalei-2. Both parts are presently available, including English-dubbed versions, on YouTube. Part 1 of the dubbed version, “Shugalei | A harrowing yet true story of Russian researchers imprisoned by terrorists” has received 748,305 views, and Part 2, “Shugalei-2 | Russian sociologists got involved in the Libyan government’s political game” has received 1,008,796. The Instagram account primarily posted images from the film; there was a promotional hashtag campaign associated with the film in which individuals, and influencers, photographed themselves wearing t-shirts depicting a still from the film. The Facebook Page had 103 posts overall, and included regular updates detailing Malkievich and the Foundation’s efforts to pressure Libya into releasing Shugalei and Seifan, as well as quotes about the matter from prominent Russian figures such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin.

The removals were part of a larger crackdown on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” by foreign government-linked entities, as Facebook announced in a separate statement on its site yesterday (Twitter also removed roughly 30 accounts that participated in the Shugaley campaign, according to Stanford’s report):

Today we removed three separate networks for violating our policy against foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on behalf of a foreign or government entity. These networks originated in France and Russia and targeted multiple countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

In each case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing, and that was the basis for our action…

1. We removed 84 Facebook accounts, 6 Pages, 9 Groups and 14 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. This activity originated in France and targeted primarily the Central African Republic and Mali, and to a lesser extent Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad…

2. We also removed 63 Facebook accounts, 29 Pages, 7 Groups and 1 Instagram account for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on the Central African Republic (CAR), and to a lesser extent on Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the CAR diaspora in France…

3. We also removed 211 Facebook accounts, 126 Page, 16 Groups and 17 Instagram accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior. This network originated in Russia and focused primarily on Libya, Sudan and Syria.

In September, Facebook appeared to remove two paid ads for the Shugaley sequel from its platform and from the Instagram account mentioned in Stanford’s report.

Here is a screenshot of the now-deleted ads:

The ads were removed after I contacted Facebook while researching a story I co-authored with Foreign Policy’s National Security and Intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon, “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” also cited in Stanford’s report.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson told me that any individuals associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency are banned from Facebook as part of its coordinated inauthentic behaviour enforcement. The spokesperson declined to share the names and contact information of the person or entity who placed the ads, citing privacy reasons.

The Russian-language Facebook page for the Shugaley film is still online. Facebook’s “Page transparency” feature states that two people from Russia currently manage the page.

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Rupert Murdoch-Owned Tabloid Retracts Article That Shamed NY Paramedic For Selling Nude Photos During Pandemic

“HEARTS RACING: Paramedic is ‘making ends meet’ by sharing XXX-rated pics on OnlyFans,” read the now-deleted Dec. 12 headline, published on The Sun’s website.

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The article, by reporter Danielle Cinone, detailed the online exploits of 23-year-old Lauren Caitlyn Kwei, a paramedic from New York who began selling nude photos on subscription content website OnlyFans to supplement her income during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sun deleted its article — a re-reporting of an equally salacious New York Post story — after the Post was accused of shaming Kwei for (her words) “just trying to make ends meet.” Per my Atlanta, GA reporter friend Peter M. Heimlich, Britain’s independent press regulator IPSO allows member publishers, including The Sun, to pull content without explanation.

Here’s what you’ll see if you try to access the article on the U.K. version of The Sun’s website:

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And here’s what you’ll see if you try to access the same on the U.S. version of the site. Note that the words “legal removal” appear in the URL, suggesting the article was removed for legal reasons:

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The Post and The Sun are owned by News Corp, a U.S. media conglomerate founded in 2012 by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Both publications used titillating language to sensationalise Kwei’s story, while failing to properly address the larger story identified by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in this tweet reflecting the broad response to the article:

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If you can’t read Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet, it says:

“Leave her alone. The actual scandalous headline here is ‘Medics in the United States need two jobs to survive.'”

On Sunday, Kwei accused Post staff reporter Dean Balsamini of jeopardising her job, an allegation bolstered by the Post’s own reporting. The gory details are included in a message posted by Kwei on fundraising website GoFundMe:

Most of the quotes in that article are me defending myself to this reporter. He did not include that I begged him to remain anonymous (which was never agreed to) and that I told him my safety and job were going to be at risk if he posted this article. He truly did not care. He went on to call my employer and my mother. As some of you may know, I’ve been home with my family in WV following my father going into cardiac arrest last week. I have not been able to speak with my employer because of this and I still do not know what they are going to do. As of right now, I do still have a job but I will probably find out tomorrow if I don’t.”

As of publication, the Post’s version of the story is still available online.

I’ve asked The Sun for comment.

Update, December 18, 2020: This story got some pick-up.

Via “NY Post Won’t Pull Story About Paramedic With OnlyFans Account – But Murdoch’s UK Sun Just Did” by Lindsey Ellefson, The Wrap, December 14, 2020:

On Monday, the Sun, a U.K.-based tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, pulled its version of a controversial story about a New York City paramedic with an OnlyFans account. The story originally ran on Saturday in the New York Post, also a News Corp property.

As of Monday evening, the story was still up on the Post’s site, while Sun readers were met with a generic landing page where the story once was, as first noted by the Shooting the Messenger blog. The landing page reads, “Sorry, page unavailable. We can’t seem to find what you’re looking for. Try our search below or return to our homepage.”

A representative for the Post did not immediately respond when asked if the American tabloid will follow suit, and a representative for the Sun did not respond to a request for elaboration on the story’s deletion. Investigative blogger Peter Heimlich — whose reporting revealed that Britain’s independent press regulator IPSO allows member publishers to pull content without explanation — pointed TheWrap to his previous comments that the practice “puts the authority of editors above the public’s right to know” and “leaves open the door to countless opportunities for misconduct.”

Via “Murdoch-Owned Tabloid The Sun Silently Deletes New York City Medic OnlyFans Story From Site” by Zachary Petrizzo, Mediaite, December 15, 2020:

The UK-based tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, The Sun U.K., silently deleted an article from their website on Monday. The now-deleted story was an aggregation of a New York Post article which revealed that a New York City paramedic also worked as an OnlyFans model to supplement her income…

Journalist Dean Sterling Jones of the blog Shooting the Messenger first noticed the now-deleted post from The Sun.