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.

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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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.

Danny Trejo Recruited in Russian Propaganda Campaign

Trejo is the latest Hollywood celebrity to make headlines in Russia after recording a video in support of a notorious Russian political operative. The celebrities are seemingly being recruited through the pay-for-videos site Cameo.

Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Vinnie Jones appeared in their first ever film together last month, when an obscure Russian YouTube channel posted a suspicious video compilation in which they each expressed support for Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, currently being detained in Libya on election interference charges.

The videos, seemingly commissioned by an unknown client through the celebrity video-sharing site Cameo, quickly made headlines on Russian news sites associated with Putin-linked catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin — the man accused of hiring Shugaley — as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign to raise his employee’s profile in Russia. (Click here to read more about the “increasingly bizarre” campaign, via me and Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon.)

Now actor Danny Trejo has joined the growing list of unwitting surrogate propagandists, telling Shugaley to “stay strong” in a video published last month by Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), one of the sites associated with Prigozhin.

“Machete don’t text, but […] I’ll text you homie,” Trejo says in the video.

Here’s a screenshot of the FAN’s reporting, which made no mention of Cameo or any pay-to-play services. Via Google Translate:

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And here’s a screenshot of Trejo’s Cameo profile, where he currently charges $125 to record personalised videos in exactly the same format as the video published by the FAN:

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I was unable to reach Trejo for comment.

Alexander Malkevich, who insists that he, not Prigozhin, hired Shugaley to conduct harmless sociological research in Libya, has denied paying for any of the videos. Malkevich previously ran the clumsy Russian propaganda site USA Really, a subsidiary of the FAN.

Malkevich, Prigozhin and the FAN are all subject to U.S. government sanctions that prohibit them from doing business with U.S. individuals and entities.

I’ve contacted Prigozhin and the FAN for comment.

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.

 

Tommy Robinson Praises Putin, Slams “British Presstitutes” During Whirlwind Tour of Russian Media

The anti-Islam activist pandered to pro-Kremlin media, mingled with a U.S.-sanctioned propagandist, and had some choice words for the British press.

RIA FAN headline (source)

Tommy Robinson, the co-founder and former leader of the anti-Islam English Defence League (EDL), landed in St. Petersburg last week for a whirlwind tour of Russian media, during which he praised Russia’s president, obfuscated Russia’s role in the 2018 poisoning of an ex-KGB agent, mingled with a U.S.-sanctioned propagandist, floated the idea of hosting his own show on Russian TV, and slammed the British press.

Robinson is a controversial figure in Britain. In addition to co-founding the EDL, Robinson has criminal convictions for mortgage fraud, instigating a football riot, assaulting an off-duty police officer, and illegally entering the U.S. using someone else’s passport, among other offences. He also seemingly has a deep affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, naming him “the strongest man in the West” in an interview last Friday with Russian newspaper Evening Moscow. It’s unclear if the feeling is mutual.

Evening Moscow headline (source)

In the same interview, Robinson said that, if the opportunity arose, he would ask Putin to help him fight anti-Russian “censorship and propaganda,” and envisioned a scenario in which Putin let him host his own TV show. Robinson also denied that Russia was responsible for the 2018 poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia, and said if Russia had wanted to “take out” the Skripals, they would have done so quietly without using chemical weapons.

Robinson’s other engagements last week included a speaking gig at a meeting of the Libertarian Party of Russia, a bumpy interview on Russian state-backed TV network Russia Today, and a press conference at the headquarters of Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), a pro-Kremlin tabloid that once suggested that the U.S. orchestrated the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.

At the KP conference, Robinson gave a presentation titled “Rape of Britain,” in which he claimed that “migrants attack young girls or adopt girls and turn them into prostitutes” (possibly referring to a recent report in the Independent). That’s according to the Federal News Agency (FAN), a Russian news site that U.S. prosecutors have linked to Russia’s efforts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

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“This is not just about one-off crimes by individuals but about gangs of migrants raping underage British girls,” the FAN quoted Robinson as saying (translation courtesy of Byline Times). “You can’t believe the British media!” he continued. “I’ve seen their manipulations, how they make up lies about me […] That’s why I’m here! Because all these issues are relevant in Russia.”

Robinson shared the stage with, among others, Alexander Malkevich, the former editor of the FAN’s English-language subsidiary USA Really, which is responsible for such false, misleading, and purposefully offensive content as the anti-Semitic “Star of David Spotted Amidst Migrant Caravan: Who’s Behind the Invasion?” Malkevich currently chairs the Civic Chamber Commission on mass media, from which he advises the Russian government on media policy and has called for “information war” in America and Europe.

Malkevich and Robinson (source)

In December 2018, Malkevich, USA Really, and the FAN were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference.” An accompanying statement cited USA Really’s error-ridden, politically divisive content, as well as Malkevich’s calamitous attempts to stage a flash mob at the White House on Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday (the statement mirrored information first reported by this blog). Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the event — which originally included a symphony orchestra — after applying for the wrong permit. USA Really later blamed the error on a deep state conspiracy.

Malkevich returned to the States in November 2018 as a journalist covering the U.S. midterms for the FAN. During that trip, he gatecrashed a November 6 election night party at Washington D.C.’s National Press Club, from which he spuriously reported that he’d been accosted by security for Trump nemesis/Nike blackmail lawyer Michael Avenatti. Malkevich was later briefly detained and questioned by the FBI.

On Friday, Malkevich posted on Russian social media that he is acting as Robinson’s “producer,” and is “ready to consider offers” for Robinson to “become a host on Russian TV.” He also said that he and Robinson planned to launch the “StopTwitter international public initiative,” aimed at fighting against “Internet monopolists” (both men have been banned by various social media platforms, including Twitter). The post included a photo of the two men shaking hands at the KP event.

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Robinson didn’t return a request for comment. Instead, he posted a screenshot of tweets by me and Brendan Cox — husband of murdered British politician Jo Cox — on his recently launched Telegram account. In an accompanying comment, he called us “British Presstitutes” and denied any suggestion that he’d made money from his various engagements in Russia.

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BBC Monitoring: Russian “Troll Factory” Cries Foul Over U.S. Ad Removal

I wrote this story for BuzzFeed News, then I was targeted by a Russian disinfo campaign. BBC Monitoring reports

Earlier this month, I bylined a story in BuzzFeed News, “A Russian Propagandist Ran An Ad In The Washington Post — And Then Ran Victory Laps In Russian Media.”

After that story was published, a bunch of Russian news sites — including members of Patriot Media Group, which is run by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal chef — ran what appeared to be a coordinated disinformation campaign in a seeming effort to discredit my reporting.

Via “Russian ‘troll factory’ cries foul over US advert removal” by Olga Robinson, BBC Monitoring, February 21, 2020:

Russian news outlets with links to a St Petersburg “troll factory” have accused US media of “censorship” after the Washington Post removed a controversial pro-Kremlin advert that briefly appeared on its website.

The advert — written in the form of an open letter — was placed in late January by Alexander Malkevich, the former editor of the English-language USA Really site, which has been linked by the US Treasury to Russia’s troll operation.

It called for the release of political strategist Maxim Shugalei, who was arrested along with his interpreter, Samer Hassan Ali Seifan, in Libya last year, on suspicion of trying to influence upcoming elections in the country…

The removal of the advert hit the headlines of at least three dozen sensationalist and pro-Kremlin Russian news websites, including USA Really and at least four other outlets that have links to the troll factory…

The Russian websites also hit back at another US publication, BuzzFeed News, over its reporting of the story. They quoted Malkevich as saying that the US security services interfered with the BuzzFeed reporting of the ad controversy and forced its journalists to twist his comments.

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“BuzzFeed has confirmed that ahead of the publication of the article about censorship in the US media, employees of the security services approached the editorial office and strongly recommended that the essence of the article be changed,” the RIA FAN article said.

As a result, RIA FAN added, the report became a “powerful anti-Russian article in which Malkevich was described as a propagandist”.

Speaking to the BBC, the author of the Buzzfeed story, Dean Sterling Jones, denied the allegations. “In reality, I was never contacted by US security agents and all comments attributed to Malkevich are exactly as he provided,” he said.

When contacted by BuzzFeed, Malkevich “spuriously claimed that the US National Security Agency had forced the Washington Post to pull his ad”, Sterling Jones added.

“BuzzFeed News chose not to publish that claim because we didn’t want to give him a platform to spread false information…”

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[Malkevich] has a history of spreading conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated claims about the West in Russian media. Earlier this year, he claimed — without any evidence — that the Ukrainian Boeing shot down by Iran may have been downed by a US drone and accused the West of spreading fake news about the new coronavirus.

“This is just another attempt by Malkevich to, in his words, wage ‘information war,’ seemingly in order to pollute the narrative and stir up anti-American feelings back home,” said Sterling Jones, commenting on Malkevich’s latest allegations about the US media.

Click here to read the full story.

Round-Up 2019: Creating a Buzz

Hackers, backlinks, and Russian trolls. Revisiting my scoopiest stories of 2019

First up, a perennial thanks to zen master blogger Peter Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman, BuzzFeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman, EIC Ben Smith, and online disinfo chronicler extraordinaire Jane Lytvynenko, Daily Beast EIC Noah Shachtman, reporters Lachlan Markay, Lachlan Cartwright, and Asawin Suebsaeng, Truth or Fiction? Managing Editor Brooke Binkowski, Volokh Conspiracy (via Reason.com) co-founder Eugene Volokh, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing, Foreign Policy reporter Amy Mackinnon, investigative reporter Casey Michel, FoodMed.net editor Marika Sboros, journalist/author Nina Teicholz, online disinfo researcher DivestTrump, and the many editors, copy editors, and lawyers who work hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble.

Big thanks also to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, which in 2019 denied three frivolous legal requests to remove content on this blog, including from the Indian government (click here and here to read Eugene Volokh’s coverage of those requests).

After co-bylining a series of investigative stories for The Daily Beast in 2018, in April I started freelancing for BuzzFeed News. But not before co-bylining one last story with DB’s Lachlan Markay. An update to the Forrest Gumpian saga of Kremlin media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich — who has a knack for popping up in unexpected (and not-so-unexpected) places — the story chronicled Malkevich’s attempts to navigate US Treasury Department sanctions placed on him and his now-infamous Russian propaganda site USA Really in late 2018.

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Alexander Malkevich (source)

Via “Google Yanks Services From Russian Propaganda Site” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, February 07, 2019:

Tech giant Google has cut off a sanctioned Russian propaganda website from popular tools that allowed the site to track and collect extensive data on the site’s readers.

The website, USA Really, has been barred from using Google Analytics, the company told The Daily Beast last week, depriving the site of reporting data on readers’ countries of origin, time of visit, pages visited, referring websites, IP addresses, and types of operating systems. The information is typically used for search engine optimization and marketing purposes.

It’s the latest setback for USA Really, which has seen multiple other tech firms cut ties with the site after its parent company, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), was hit with U.S. sanctions in December. Federal authorities accuse FAN of complicity in a widespread, Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta…”

Sanctions against FAN also have USA Really’s American contributors reconsidering their own involvement, given the possibility that any payments for their writing might run afoul of prohibitions on business dealings with the site.

“Our authors continue to cooperate with us,” Malkevich told The Daily Beast. “They write about their thoughts, about the problems of American society…”

Asked about the future of USA Really, he said he is currently exploring ways to navigate the new sanctions while waiting for federal authorities to confirm whether or not he has the right to continue operating in the United States.

“WHY I HAVE THE RIGHT TO RUN MY SITE??????????????,” he replied when asked to elaborate. “1. IT IS MY OWN PROJECT 2. I REALLY LOVE TO WRITE 3. US DIDN’T SUGGEST ME ANYTHING ONLY SANCTIONS NO COMMUNICATION NO LETTERS NO ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS NO COOPERATION.

“I AM REALLY UPSET BECAUSE OF ALL THESE THINGS,” he added. “AND NOW YOU WANT TO CONSRUCT [sic] SOME THEORY OF PLOT AGAINST US?

“WITCH HUNT 2019? ALL ANERICANS [sic] CAN WRITE ANYTHING FOR US.”

Click here to read the full story.

Despite a glowing review of our story by one of USA Really’s American contributors, Malkevich subsequently quit the site to lead the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), a self-described “small non-government organisation” that purportedly conducts sociological research to sell to “businessmen” and “other people who are in need of them.” At FPNV, Malkevich spent the rest of 2019 fending off allegations (including criminal charges against two of FPNV’s employees) that he was involved in Kremlin-backed efforts to interfere in African elections.

In March, I scooped The Atlantic to a story about Alexander Ionov, a gun-toting Russian lawyer, businessman, and financial supporter of fringe secessionist movements across the globe, and who in 2018 launched a fundraising site to help pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills.

Maria Butina (source)

Via “The Enigmatic Russian Paying Maria Butina’s Legal Bills” by Natasha Bertrand, The Atlantic, March 20, 2019:

Maria Butina, the first Russian to plead guilty to seeking to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election, remains somewhat of a mystery. But her prosecution in Washington, D.C., last year shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. New revelations about Butina’s legal-defense fund in Russia shows that one of her backers has been trying to promote fringe separatist movements in the U.S. since well before 2016.

In 2018, Alexander Ionov, the founder of the NGO, called the Anti-Globalization Movement, began raising money for Butina through a fundraising website that says all proceeds will be “used to finance legal protection and to improve the conditions of Maria’s detention in prison.” The website was first discovered by freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones. To date, Ionov has raised about 2 million rubles (approximately $30,000) to help pay her legal fees, he told me in a recent interview. The Russian embassy, which has been advocating for Butina’s release, did not return a request for comment.

Click here to read the full story.

May spawned an unexpected marriage of the above-mentioned stories when Malkevich — whose involvement in USA Really I’d scooped in 2018 (click here for The Daily Beast’s follow up to my story) — told me he’d been paying Butina’s legal bills through Ionov in order to circumvent the financial restrictions that come with being sanctioned. Investigative reporter Casey Michel also wrote about this via his perch at ThinkProgress.

Alexander Ionov (source)

Ionov and Butina’s American attorney Robert Driscoll did not return requests for comment. But at a press conference held in Moscow the following month, Ionov appeared to comment on the two stories by Michel and me, falsely claiming that we had launched a campaign to block the transfer of money.

Via “In Russia, it is Necessary to Create a Fund to Support Compatriots” by Alexander Malkevich, FPNV, July 4, 2019:

Alexander Ionov said that the task now is to do everything possible so that the legal interests and rights of Maria Butina are respected, and this requires the work of lawyers. He hopes that the support provided will help shorten the term of the Russians in prison.

At the same time, he noted that now in the USA psychological pressure is being put on them, including from a number of American media.

“When they saw that there were citizens concerned about the situation, funds transferring money, they began a campaign to counteract the receipt of money by lawyers, so that they would refuse protection,” said Alexander Ionov [emphasis added].

When Butina eventually returned to Moscow, Ionov and Malkevich (holding a bouquet of flowers) were waiting for her at the airport. Butina later penned an article for FPNV headlined “Oh Please, Make Me a Tool of American Propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system.

In April, I wrote my first story for BuzzFeed News, “How A Popular Women’s Website Became A Pay-To-Play Nightmare,” detailing the weird but not-so-wonderful afterlife of once-popular women’s site The Frisky (the story was later cited by the New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review).

On first glance, the Frisky appears to be a thriving women’s entertainment and lifestyle website. Founded in 2008 “for women, by women,” the site currently attracts over 1 million pageviews per month.

But beneath the surface, the site is filled with a strange mix of awkwardly written celebrity clickbait, articles promoting floorcare and acupuncture, and a post that attacks Long Island attorney Frederick Oberlander, a nemesis of onetime Trump business partner Felix Sater. The bylines of the site’s original authors have also been scrubbed and replaced by pseudonyms and stolen profile photos.

The Frisky as it once existed is gone. Today it’s a vampire website feeding off the property’s former popularity and brand name to sell pay-for-play articles in order to influence search engine rankings. The site is one of a growing number of once-lucrative web domains that are taken over and then milked for every last drop of search engine optimization value before they are inevitably downranked for shady practices.

Click here to read the full story.

In July, I wrote my second deep dive into the often murky world of SEO, “There’s An Underground Economy Selling Links From The New York Times, BBC, CNN, And Other Big News Sites,” about digital marketers who find dead links on mainstream news sites and redirect them to their clients’ sites in order to manipulate Google search results (the story was subsequently translated and republished on BuzzFeed Japan).

In 2012, the Hollywood Reporter published a glowing obituary for Patricia Disney, the first wife of former Walt Disney executive Roy Disney. In tribute to her philanthropic work, the obituary included a link to WeLovePatty.com, a memorial site where readers could donate to charities in her honor. But if you click on the link to that memorial site today, you’ll be taken to blaze4days.com, a cannabis blog offering content such as “Videos to Watch When High (Best of 2019).”

At some point, her family took down WeLovePatty.com and stopped paying for the domain name. That enabled it to be hijacked by parasitic digital marketers who trick readers into visiting sites that sometimes sell sketchy products and services. Search engine optimization consultants buy expired URLs that have been linked to by prominent news websites and redirect these domains to their clients’ sites in a bid to game search results.

Click here to read the full story.

In December, I proudly shared my final BuzzFeed News byline of 2019 with the site’s media editor Craig Silverman, a leading authority on online mis/disinformation and author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech (based on the blog of the same name). Our story, “Hackers Are Breaking Into Websites And Adding Links To Game Google,” investigated hackers who break into sites in order to sell backlinks and — yes — manipulate search results.

…Websites of all types and sizes, and especially those that use the open-source version of WordPress, are hacked to inject links to manipulate search engine results. A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals how injected links are sold by global networks of online marketplaces and black hat SEO consultants who offer customers the ability to have links placed on compromised websites.

Among those affected are journalists, celebrities, churches, charities, veterans organizations, and the managing director of Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm. Injected backlinks on these compromised sites quickly improve the search engine rankings of customers’ web properties by exploiting Google’s preference for sites that receive a high quantity of links from authoritative sites. That in turn helps the customer sites attract more traffic, and in some cases, increase sales.

BuzzFeed News obtained lists of more than 20,000 websites where backlinks can allegedly be added for a fee, and confirmed multiple cases where links were added to these and other sites without the owner’s knowledge…

Click here to read the full story.
Click here for a list of sites not included in our story.

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.

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Equally unsurprising 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.