Sanctioned Kremlin Propagandist Alexander Malkevich Denies Allegations He Tried to Meddle in African Elections

“What does it mean – ‘the files lead to the trolls factory’? It’s a bunch of words,” said Malkevich, who is accused of orchestrating election interference campaigns in Africa

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Recently, reports have emerged of a new Kremlin-backed strategy to influence African elections.

In April, BBC News reported that dozens of Russian nationals masquerading as “tourists” and election “observers” had been spotted in Madagascar. Later that same month, CNN reported on an “insidious” Russian strategy to quell anti-government protests in Sudan. Then in July, Bloomberg reported that authorities in Libya had arrested two men for allegedly carrying out a Russian plot to influence African elections.

All three stories identified Russian catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s cook” as the man pulling the strings. But there’s another notable Kremlin-linked figure whose seeming involvement has largely gone unreported.

Readers of this blog will remember Alexander Malkevich as the former editor of Russian propaganda website USA Really, but “whose fumbling misadventures in American media have,” according to the New York Times, “made him seem more like a Sacha Baron Cohen character than a sinister propagandist.”

Malkevich exited USA Really in February shortly after the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him for “attempted election interference.” Since then, he’s been heading up the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), a self-described “small non-government organisation” that conducts sociological research in various countries to sell to “businessmen and for other people who are in need of them.”

FPNV recently made headlines after Malkevich announced the company was raising money to pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills.

Maria Butina (source)

On FPNV’s site, Malkevich boasts that the two men detained in Libya — Russian political strategist Maxim Shugaley and his interpreter, Samer Hassan Seifan — currently work for FPNV. According to Bloomberg, information gleaned from laptops and memory sticks have further identified the two men as working for the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory.

Reached by e-mail, Malkevich confirmed that Shugaley and Seifan currently work for FPNV, but dismissed all other charges as a meaningless “bunch of words,” insisting that the men were merely conducting “routine field research.”

“What does it mean – ‘the files lead to the trolls factory’? it’s a bunch of words,” Malkevich told Shooting the Messenger. “They had nothing criminal. Abstracts, transcripts of conversations, photos, videos and other multimedia files, on the basis of which our research was made. And the part of it is already absolutely openly published on our site!”

It’s not the first time Malkevich has admitted to employing prominent members of Prigozhin’s infamous troll factory.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (source)

In April, CNN reported on an “insidious strategy” to quell protests against Sudan’s dictatorial former president Omar al-Bashir late last year. The strategy — allegedly orchestrated by a mysterious St. Petersburg mining company named M-Invest with support from a military construction firm co-owned by Prigozhin — involved “spreading misinformation on social media, blaming Israel for fomenting the unrest, and even carrying out public executions to make an example of ‘looters,’” according to CNN’s sources.

Documents obtained by the London-based Dossier Center show that M-Invest’s presence in Sudan was facilitated by Mikhail Potepkin, a St. Petersburg press agent and, allegedly, a prominent member of Prigozhin’s troll factory.

Shortly after CNN’s report — which made no mention of Malkevich or FPNV — Malkevich published a statement on FPNV’s site in which he freely admitted that Potepkin and his colleague, Russian political strategist Petr Bychkov, traveled to Sudan on behalf of the company last year to carry out sociological research, advise al-Bashir’s government on ways to “[avoid] mass casualties among the civilian population,” and ensure “the bloodless transfer of power” in the country.

In an e-mail, Malkevich retracted his previous claim that Potepkin and Bychkov secretly worked for FPNV in 2018, but confirmed that the two men do currently work as consultants to its research in Africa.

“Several people in Africa worked as researchers for many months before the appearance of our foundation,” Malkevich explained in an audio recording. “In spring, it was easy and it was useful for me and for us to establish some working relationship, working negotiations with them because they do have special and deep experience in this field.”

Malkevich added that he “[knows] nothing about side projects of Petr and Mikhail” and denied having any connection to Prigozhin.

Mikhail Potepkin (source)

Online information about Potepkin is scarce, although his Facebook page states that he works as a press officer at the Russian state-owned “Fuel and Energy Complex of Saint-Petersburg.” He’s also identified in several news articles as a member of the Nashi movement, a Russian anti-fascist group.

Potepkin’s name also pops up in connection with another company co-owned by data analyst Anna Bogacheva, who along with Prigozhin was one of 13 Russian nationals indicted last year in connection with IRA interference efforts.

Malkevich denied having any knowledge of Bogacheva.

Petr Bychkov (source)

Bychkov is perhaps best known in the west for his attempts to meddle in South Africa’s general election earlier this year. According to South African newspaper the Daily Maverick, Bychkov, in coordination with yet another Prigozhin-linked NGO based in Russia, secretly campaigned to re-elect the ruling African National Congress party (ANC) by spreading disinformation about ANC’s political opponents.

The Daily Maverick’s exclusive does not mention Malkevich or FPNV, and Malkevich has not yet publicly addressed the article. Meanwhile, FPNV continues to publish research on its site while appearing to implicate itself in news stories about Russian interference in Africa.

You can listen to Malkevich’s full statement via the Soundcloud link below.

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Head of Russian Disinfo Website Sanctioned by U.S. Treasury

— In June I scooped a story about attempts by Russian government media adviser Alexander Malkevich to set up a troll factory-linked propaganda website in Washington, D.C. Yesterday Malkevich was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for “attempted election interference”

Since April, I’ve been doing original reporting on USA Really, a now-infamous disinformation website aimed at U.S. readers.

USA Really was created by Moscow’s Federal News Agency (FAN), which U.S. federal prosecutors recently linked to election interference campaigns carried out by the Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory.

USA Really EIC Alexander Malkevich (source)

In a press release yesterday, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned USA Really and its Editor-in-Chief Alexander Malkevich for their alleged involvement in Project Lakhta, a Kremlin-backed social media influence campaign which, according to prosecutors, aimed “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system,” and which both FAN and the IRA allegedly participated in.

From the press release:

Today, [OFAC] designated several entities and individuals related to Project Lakhta, a broad Russian effort that includes the IRA, designated previously under E.O. 13694, as amended, which has sought to interfere in political and electoral systems worldwide…

Within weeks after the designation of the IRA, the Federal News Agency LLC — an entity utilized by Project Lakhta to obscure its activities that was also designated today — announced that it was creating a new Russian-funded, English-language website called USA Really. USA Really, which is operated by Alexander Aleksandrovich Malkevich (Malkevich), engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies. In June 2018, USA Really attempted to hold a political rally in the United States, though its efforts were unsuccessful. As of June 2018, Malkevich was a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, which serves in a consultative role to the Russian government. Based on this activity, USA Really was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for being owned or controlled by the Federal News Agency LLC, while Malkevich was designated pursuant to E.O. 13694, as amended, for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, USA Really.

The press release mirrors my earlier reporting on USA Really and Malkevich. You can read more about that via my 2018 round-up by clicking here.

Update, December 22, 2018: The Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has denounced the “illegal” sanctions in a statement in support of FAN and USA Really.

BuzzFeed Unearths Recruitment Ads for Russian Troll Factory

— The notorious troll factory posted ads on Russian job websites in mid-2014 and 2015 while allegedly engaged in operations to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election

Yesterday, I blogged that the recently indicted Russian troll factory, Internet Research Agency (IRA), recruited its U.S. election-meddling troll army of “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

Today, BuzzFeed picked-up the story.

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Via “Here Are Some Job Ads For The Russian Troll Factory” by Jane Lytvynenko, BuzzFeed News, February 22, 2018:

The Internet Research Agency, now commonly known as the Russian troll factory, has gained international fame for its work during the 2016 US election, and the resulting indictments of 13 people announced by the Department of Justice last week.

Job ads from the IRA posted before the election give a sense of the kind of person the agency was looking for and how it helped weed out candidates. The ads were posted on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015 and the address listed in them matches the known location of the IRA’s headquarters. The blog Shooting the Messenger first posted some of the job ads.

One ad posting was for a social media specialist, offering a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles, or about $700.

The responsibilities included preparing “thematic posts,” publishing content, growing social audiences, and monitoring social media, blogs, and groups.

When it came to skills, the IRA wanted candidates he knew how to write “informational texts” and create an online community. It also asked for applicants with a sense of responsibility, initiative, and an “active life position.”

[…]

One uniting factor for all of these ads is a desire for energetic applicants. The ads also sought out people with “active life position,” “vigor,” “perseverance,” “ambition,” and the “ability to clearly and structurally express their thoughts.”

But with job postings come job reviews, and one reviewed by BuzzFeed News was not positive about work at the troll factory.

The review, from 2014, complained about being asked to do unpaid work for two days before being hired.

“The company invites you for the content manager for a vacancy, they give you a test task, when you do it, they invite you to an internship, 2 days for 8 hours. When you try to hint that it’s already full-time work and it would be nice to negotiate the terms of the employment contract, you hear ‘I’m sorry, you’re not a good fit’ in return,” the reviewer wrote said.

They wrote that that the other candidates doing the “internship” were largely between 18 and 20 years.

Read the full article by clicking here.

Update, via “Job ads reveal work of Russian troll farm employees” by Max Greenwood, The Hill, February 22, 2018:

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Job postings for the Russian troll factory that allegedly meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election sought prospective employees with coding and social media skills and promised work on “interesting projects.”

The job listings for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency were placed on Russian employment websites in 2014 and 2015, BuzzFeed News reported Thursday. Some of the listings first surfaced on a blog Wednesday.

One listing for a social media specialist position advertised a monthly salary of 40,000 rubles – about $700 – and said the job would require composing “thematic posts,” monitoring social media and growing social followings, according to BuzzFeed.

Another listing for a web programmer job offered prospective employees 60,000 rubles per month, or about $1,060, and advertised that the successful candidate would be part of a “friendly team” and work on “interesting projects.”

Read the full article by clicking here.

Russian Election Trolls Were Recruited via Online Job Posts

— Russian troll factory recruited “kremlebots” via conspicuous online job ads, allegedly expected applicants to work for free

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice released the latest round of indictments in the federal investigation into alleged election meddling.

The indictments name 13 Russian nationals who allegedly “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” on behalf of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious pro-Putin “troll farm” based in Saint Petersburg.

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According to the indictments, IRA trolls purchased “political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities,” organised “political rallies inside the United States…while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons,” and “without revealing their Russian association,” even “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

It would appear that members of IRA’s so-called troll army were carefully selected-and-vetted masters of political subterfuge.

However, archived job posts show the company recruited staff by placing conspicuous-sounding ads on Russian job websites, then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

The ads for “Social Networking Specialist,” “Media Monitoring Specialist,” and “Content Manager,” among otherswere placed mid-2014, around the same time it’s alleged that IRA began operations to interfere in the 2016 election.

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Via Google Translate:

LLC Internet Research

St. Petersburg

Required work experience: 1-3 years

Full time, full day

SMM Manager / Social Networking Specialist / SMM Specialist

Duties:

Conducting projects in social networks
Preparation of thematic posts
Content placement
Work with reviews
Development and implementation of mechanisms to attract the audience of social networks
Conducting groups in social networks: filling with information content, links, surveys
Monitoring company mentions on the network
Monitoring of target groups
Monitoring social networks and the blogosphere

Requirements:

Knowledge of the basics of SMM / SMO
Competent Russian language
Experience of successful work with social networks (content and attracting the audience)
Creativity of thinking
The ability to write information texts
Confident PC user Responsibility, dedication, active life position, initiative, diligence, ability to work in a team
The experience of creating a community (launching and maintaining discussions)
Own active blog or group in social networks

Conditions:

Opportunity for professional growth and career development
Work in a young and friendly team
Working hours: 5/2
Wages up to 40,000 rubles
Staraya Derevnya, m. Chernaya Rechka
Full time in the employer’s territory

According to a post by a former IRA intern on another Russian job website that allows employees to review their employers, a revolving door of “very young adolescent 18-20-year-old” applicants were expected to work for free at the behest of the “ubiquitous aunt Tatyana”—presumably referring to Tatyana Kazakbayeva, who according to Business Insider used to work at the company.

In 2015, IRA was sued by a former employee, St. Petersburg resident Lyudmila Savchuk, for non-payment of wages and for failing to give employees proper working contracts.

Savchuck received symbolic damages of one rouble after reaching an agreement with her former employer.