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 the Biden administration for spreading Kremlin propaganda. Here’s a round-up of my reporting from 2019–2020 about his global campaign to free Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley from a Libyan prison, which successfully weaponised Charlie Sheen, Maria Butina, and the Washington Post.

Poster for 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.” Further research shows that Ivanov is, in fact, an advisor to Valery Zakharov, who is Vladmir Putin’s national security advisor to Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic.

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.

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.

Charlie Sheen Thanked After Accused Russian Troll is Released From Libyan Prison

A U.S.-sanctioned Kremlin policy adviser has thanked Sheen after the star was seemingly paid $400 to record a video in support of Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, now free after spending 18 months in a Tripoli prison.

The video, addressed to Shugaley, was posted on YouTube in September by an obscure Russian channel named “Интер Сторис” (Russian for “Inter Stories”).

Here’s a copy of the video I uploaded to Vimeo after it was removed from YouTube:

The video was part of a lengthy campaign to free Shugaley and his interpreter, who were arrested in May 2019 and accused of being involved in a Kremlin-backed plot to help elect Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

As detailed in a recent story I co-bylined with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon:

Sheen, alongside actors Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren, seems to have been unwittingly recruited to record messages of support for Shugaley through the pay-for-videos website Cameo. [After this story published, a fourth video from “Machete” star Danny Trejo was released by troll factory-linked news site Riafan.ru.]

The videos are just the latest twist in an increasingly bizarre international campaign to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention. So far, that has included his election to a local council in Russia, two feature films, an advertorial in the Washington Post, a mixed martial arts tournament, and a one-woman picket in front of the Libyan Embassy in Moscow by Maria Butina, the gun-loving Russian who spent 15 months in prison in the United States after being convicted for conspiring to act as a foreign agent.

The campaign was spearheaded by Alexander Malkevich, a Kremlin media policy advisor whose former role as editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really led to him being sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2018.

Here is Malkevich with a gift given to him by Russian state-backed TV network RT (formerly Russia Today), consisting of alcoholic cocktails made to resemble military cartridges and grenades:

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Malkevich says he employed Shugaley to conduct sociological research in Tripoli on behalf of his Moscow thinktank, the Foundation for National Values Protection. He denies allegations by Libyan prosecutors that Shugaley was working for Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, widely believed to be the mastermind behind Russia’s attempts to interfere with U.S. elections.

Yesterday, I sent Malkevich an email asking if he took credit for Shugaley’s release, and if he wanted to thank Sheen for getting involved.

“Yes and yes,” Malkevich replied.

Cambridge Analytica-Linked Data Company Behind Trump Phone-Canvassing Campaign

GOP-funded websites managed by data-mining firm Bridgetree, Inc. allowed users to canvass for Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania.

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In an effort to rally support for incumbent Donald J. Trump in the lead-up to election day, the Republican National Committee hired a data-harvesting firm whose services were once sought by Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced U.K. political consulting company behind Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign.

Bridgetree, Inc., based in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has been driving votes for Trump in battleground states going back as far as April this year, via the websites TrumpTalk.gop and TrumpTalk20.gop. The sites allowed users to “make calls to Americans across our great country” by “[turning] your computer into a anonymous phone system,” according to a Facebook post by Edwin Boyette, Vice Chair of Communications for the Hawaii Republican Party.

Once logged in, users were given access to a database of voter information (including full names, phone numbers, and addresses), then instructed to call voters to ask them to vote for Trump using scripted questions, such as “can President Trump […] count on you to vote early?” and “will you commit [to] vote absentee for President Trump?” Calls could be placed automatically from one voter to the next using the communications system LiveVox, with seemingly no oversight.

The sites were “Paid for by the Republican National Committee,” and directed users to “please contact us at gophelp@bridgetree.com.”

Here is a video tutorial by Bridgetree explaining the process for calling voters:

Bridgetree’s association with the two Trump Talk sites was first highlighted in a Twitter thread by disinformation researcher @DivestTrump. Bridgetree’s “advertised focus,” @DivestTrump notes, was “Operation Keystone,” a “massive grassroots […] phone-banking effort” in which “the fate of Pennsylvania” was said to “[hang] between the raging forces of good and the evil communists,” according to a pseudonymous post on TheDonald.win, named after the recently banned subreddit.

As of publication, Biden is leading in Pennsylvania with a clear path to the presidency.

Services listed on Bridgetree’s site include “NextGen microtargeting” and “data acquisition,” which involves “[multi-sourcing, combining and scraping data] in a unique manner that delivers the most accurate, robust and relevant information to deliver optimal results.” “Operation Keystone” is not listed among the site’s case studies.

A poorly reviewed app version of the Trump Talk service is currently available to download on the Google Play store. The app’s developers are listed as Bridgetree and Advantage, Inc., a Republican strategy firm based in Alexandria, VA, which has published an instruction manual on how to use the Trump Talk service.

Here are promotional screenshots of the app in action:

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Bridgetree’s association with Cambridge Analytica was brought to light in emails leaked by Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s former business development director. In one email dated February 2, 2016, Bridgetree’s business development manager Tom Boschwitz told Cambridge Analytica he could provide data scraped from Facebook and other sources in service of Ted Cruz’s 2016 failed presidential bid. The recipient of that email, Matt Oczkowski — then Cambridge Analytica’s head of product — joined Trump’s 2020 campaign earlier this year.

Cambridge Analytica’s shady tactics in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign were exposed in an undercover investigation by Britain’s Channel 4, which determined that the company had scraped data from millions of profiles without users’ consent. The company later pleaded guilty to violating U.K. data laws.

39 Satirical Images of Indian PM Scrubbed From Buzzfeed

Two BuzzFeed listicles poking fun at Indian prime minister Narendra Modi have been scrubbed following a 2018 legal threat.

Update, October 16, 2020: In a comment, BuzzFeed said that the most recent removals were not the result of further legal threats from Mumbai police, but the result of updates to BuzzFeed’s old content. Here is BuzzFeed’s comment:

“The removals last month did not have to do with legal threats–they are part of a broader systematic process we’ve been going through. For context, the rules around image usage on the Internet have vastly changed over time, so for the last few months we’ve been working to bring our posts from the early days of BuzzFeed up to the editorial standards of today. In certain cases, images that didn’t need to be removed have been swept up in the process, so we’ve also ended up restoring a number of images brought to our attention by former employees as improperly removed.”

Since Feb. 2018, I’ve been documenting heavy-handed legal attempts by Mumbai police to scrub photoshopped images of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi from the Internet.

Notable examples include forcing BuzzFeed to remove a doctored image of Modi embracing his right-hand man Rajnath Singh on an idyllic beach, plus two unsuccessful attempts to remove the same image from this blog.

In case you missed it the first time:

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The offending image was originally included in a Jan. 4, 2016 BuzzFeed listicle, “18 Modi Photoshops That Should’ve Never Fucking Happened,” by BuzzFeed India contributor Imaan Sheikh. The image was removed following a legal threat from Mumbai police alleging defamation, according to a BuzzFeed spokesperson. The removal served to highlight Modi’s taste for censorship and, incidentally, his party’s poor record on gay rights.

Last month, Sheikh’s post was updated yet again, this time removing all 17 of the remaining images. Here’s a snapshot of what the article looks like now:

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Another article by Sheikh, “21 Of The Most Awkward Modi Moments Of 2015,” which documented Modi’s “social awkwardness” in 21 images, has also been scrubbed of all of its content. The article was also removed from BuzzFeed’s “BestofIndia2015” list.

A cache of the “BestofIndia2015” list shows that BuzzFeed last month scrubbed content from at least ten other articles about India.

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I’ve asked BuzzFeed for comment.

The Wikipedia Whitewash That Cleared the Way for Trump Tower Moscow

As he was chasing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow, Trump associate Felix Sater — or someone working on behalf of Sater — was working hard to whitewash Trump’s Wikipedia biography.

Felix Sater — the Russian-American real estate developer and former adviser to President Donald J. Trump — is back in the news, following a new report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee, published Tuesday.

The report details, in part, Sater’s ill-fated efforts to help Trump build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 U.S. presidential election — namely, Sater’s “high-level outreach to Russian businessmen and officials that Sater claimed to have undertaken related to the deal.”

From the report:

In September 2015, Trump authorized [former Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen] to pursue a deal in Russia through Felix Sater, a longtime business associate of Trump. By early November 2015, Trump and a Russia-based developer signed a Letter of Intent laying out the main terms of a licensing deal that promised to provide the Trump Organization millions of dollars upon the signing of a deal, and hundreds of millions of dollars if the project advanced to completion.

(U) Cohen kept Trump updated on the progress of the deal. While these negotiations were ongoing, Trump made positive public comments about Putin in connection with his presidential campaign. Cohen and Sater sought to leverage Trump’s comments, and subsequent comments about Trump by Putin, to advance the deal.

…the Committee found that Sater did, in fact, have significant senior-level ties to a number of Russian businessmen and former government officials, and was in a position, through intermediaries, to reach individuals close to Putin.

What the report doesn’t mention is that, shortly before Trump gave Cohen the go-ahead on the Moscow deal, Sater — or someone working on behalf of Sater — launched a surreptitious effort to scrub Sater’s convictions for racketeering and assault from Wikipedia.

The eight-month timeline of edits closely correlates with the Trump Tower Moscow timeline and suggests that Sater anticipated and may have sought to preempt any negative responses to his involvement.

Felix Sater (centre) with Donald Trump (source)

As I covered in a previous post (before information about the Moscow deal became widely known), the Wikipedia editing campaign began in August 2015, when someone using the handle “591J” made repeated attempts to edit Trump’s biography to whitewash the aspiring candidate’s business ties to Sater and delete references to Sater’s alleged “mafia and Russian criminal ties.”

591J appeared to reveal their true identity in January 2015, when the user admitted owning three websites that had been registered using Sater’s name, physical address, email address, and phone number.

Sater has not yet replied to any of my requests for comment.

591J’s first three edits to Trump’s biography were made as Sater was busy negotiating the preliminaries of the Moscow deal with Cohen. These edits removed details of a 2013 BBC Panorama interview that Trump cut short after being asked about Sater by British investigative journalist John Sweeney.

Here’s a clip:

And here’s one of 591J’s attempts to remove a reference to the interview:

August 25, 2015 edit of Trump’s Wikipedia entry by user 591J (source)

When that information was later reinstated, 591J created Sater’s current biography, in which 591J described Sater as a “prolific senior advisor” to The Trump Organization, boasted about his various real estate deals, and, inexplicably, claimed that Trump’s mother and father were Sater’s own biological parents.

This first draft also included an explicit warning to other Wikipedia editors atop the page: “DO NOT REMOVE prior to the result of the Presidential election.”

Over the course of three months starting February 2016, 591J obsessively revised the page, adding details of Sater’s “major role” in the development of the Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan (since renamed The Dominick) and attempting to roll back what the user claimed were “illegitimate” references to his 1993 assault conviction and 1998 stock fraud conviction.

591J stopped editing in April 2016, shortly before 591J and four associated accounts were banned from Wikipedia following an investigation by the site’s administrators. (In 2018, Sater hired a third-party content writing company to edit his biography to add reporting from BuzzFeed News about his undercover work for the FBI, according to an admission on Wikipedia’s talk pages.)

By then, Sater’s Trump Tower Moscow dream was quickly unraveling, with Cohen angrily berating him for failing to find a viable Russian bank to finance the project.

“After almost two months of waiting you send me some bullshit letter from a third-tier bank and you think I’m going to walk into the boss’s office and tell him I’m going there for this?” Cohen wrote in a series of late-2015 text messages. “Tell them no thank you and I will take it from here.”

Cohen later claimed he’d told Trump in January 2016 that the deal was dead, according to BuzzFeed News’ “definitive” reporting on the subject. However, Sater and Cohen continued to message each other about new developments as late as June 2016.

As Sater told BuzzFeed News, he knew the deal was toast on July 26, 2016, when Trump tweeted: “For the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.”

“Fuck me, I thought to myself. All that work for nothing,” Sater told BuzzFeed News.

New Action Film “Shugalei” is Propaganda for Putin’s Cook

The film credits election-meddling Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin as copyright holder. Yet the film’s co-financier, Alexander Malkevich, claims he was “not aware Prigozhin took any part in the creation of the film.”

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As Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord wrests back control of Tripoli from Khalifa Haftar, the renegade leader of the Libyan National Army, a bizarre new propaganda-feature film is claiming to tell “the harrowing yet true story” of two Russian prisoners said to be at the center of it all.

Via “How Two Russians Got Caught Up in Libya’s War, Now an Action Movie” by Andrew Higgins and Declan Walsh, The New York Times, June 18, 2020:

[Maxim Shugalei and Samer Hassan Ali Seifan’s] Libyan misadventure began in March last year with what their Russian employer described as a “research project,” which quickly landed them in a notorious jail on charges of visa violations and meddling in Libyan politics. [Note: A third Russian, Alexander Prokofiev, accompanied the two men to Libya, but managed to return home unscathed.]

As part of a campaign to get the Russians freed, their employer, a shadowy private Russian foundation [the Foundation for National Values Protection] helped finance a feature-length movie [titled Shugalei] that premiered on Russian state television last month.

The Times’ story notes that “Shugalei’s trip appeared to be part of a push for influence by a St. Petersburg businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin,” who spearheaded Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and has been sending mercenaries from his private militia in Russia, the Wagner Group, to support Haftar in his failed campaign to gain control of Tripoli.

What the story doesn’t mention is that the copyright to the film belongs to Aurum LLC, a film company founded by Prigozhin in 2017. There is little information available about Aurum online, and the company’s business address leads to a random apartment building in St. Petersburg.

Aurum’s involvement appears to contradict statements given to the Times by “Shugalei’s employer, [Alexander Malkevich, who] said his foundation had no ties to Mr. Prigozhin.”

Malkevich rose to prominence in mid-2018, when he attempted to organize a flash mob at the White House to celebrate the launch of USA Really, a clumsy Russian propaganda site aimed at an American audience. That December, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference” in connection with Prigozhin’s infamous troll farm.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Last week, I e-mailed Malkevich to ask him about his involvement in the film and whether he’d met with Prigozhin. He told me that despite consulting with the film’s writers and director, he was “not aware that Yevgeny Prigozhin took any part in the creation of the film.”

I also asked him about allegations by Libyan prosecutors that his employees helped plan the election campaign of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of the deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi, as part of a Kremlin-backed plot that included helping Russia to secure a military base in Libya, as Bloomberg reports.

Here’s what he sent me:

I have not seen the official charges. As far as I know, no one at all has seen them. All the charges are still only in words and have not been converted into a legal document 13 months after. All the so-called charges are replicated in the press, appearing primarily in the US, but maybe they know better. In answer to your question, Seifan was hired as a translator on the eve of the trip by the Foundation for National Values Protection. Shugaley was also approved for the project. So they both worked for the Foundation. About Gaddafi: what kind of election campaign could we be talking about if no election was scheduled, there is no Constitution and as a result, no electoral law?! And as you know, one of our sociologists left a few days before the kidnapping of Maxim and Samer who were supposed to leave 2 hours after him. No long-term work of any kind was planned.

GUARD A MILITARY BASE??? The two of us? Does Russia have a military base in Libya? and I want to remind you that Samer is diabetic, and Maxim has suffered a stroke. What kind of security of a military base are you talking about? are they hobbits from Middle-earth? Have the eagles flown Prokofiev out of Libya yet? Let’s have a serious conversation. Election campaign without the election, protection of a military base without the military base (!!!) by people with health problems.

We conducted a sociological study, a complete one, not hiding from anyone. It had questionnaires, focus groups and expert interviews. Nothing more was planned or discussed.

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The film’s storyline corresponds closely with Malkevich’s version of events, depicting Shugalei and Seifan as intrepid sociologists who uncover “explosive evidence” that threatens to undermine Libya’s “puppet” government, for which they are imprisoned and sadistically tortured.

Throughout it all, the devil-may-care film version of Shugalei, played by 51-year-old Russian character actor Kiril Polukhin (doing his best Bruce Willis impersonation), spouts witty dialogue, drinks whiskey straight from the bottle, and, above all, “[does] not lose a sense of humor despite the challenging times.”

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Although not the main focus of the film, Haftar plays a key role, mounting a daring but entirely fictional rescue that undermines the film’s claim of documentary-level accuracy. Meanwhile, Prigozhin, a central figure of the real story, is never mentioned.

The film is “a very powerful propaganda tool,” said Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan disinformation expert. She said that in addition to whitewashing the allegations against Shugalei and Seifan, the film feeds into an already existing narrative that most Libyans preferred living under Gadhafi’s dictatorial regime and view the 2011 revolution as a curse.

“The movie pushes a lot of points I’ve seen online in Arab media — that revolutions lead to chaos, that terrorism and violence follow,” Ramali told me. “It tries to paint Tripoli as this place overrun by militias (which it is) but in a way that fits in with [Haftar’s] narrative.”

It’s not the first time Malkevich has sought to manipulate the narrative around Libya’s civil conflict to his own advantage. In January, he placed an advertorial on The Washington Post’s site — seemingly in violation of U.S. government sanctions — pleading his employees’ innocence and calling on Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj to set them free.

Asked if he feels any guilt over his employees’ current situation, Malkevich said he is “certainly concerned for both of our colleagues, Maxim and Samer” but that “it is not my fault” and that “all the blame lies with the so-called Government of National Accord, as well as with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj personally.”

al-Sarraj’s office did not return a request for comment.

Shugalei is currently available to watch on two separate YouTube channels run by Russian state-funded news network, Russia Today. As of publication, the film has been viewed nearly 700,000 times.