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.

Round-Up 2020: A Pandemic of False Information

My top stories of 2020, from Kelly Brogan’s coronavirus conspiracies to Charlie Sheen’s unwitting involvement in a bizarre Russian propaganda campaign.

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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 saw an explosion of false information. On social media, purveyors of pseudoscience like David “Avocado” Wolfe, who claims that gravity is a toxin that can be combated by hanging upside down, peddled baseless conspiracy theories to their millions of followers. Meanwhile, Trump actively sowed distrust of science by pandering to the most irrational impulses of his supporters, even encouraging them to “rise up” against lockdown measures.

In other words, lots to write about.

One of 2020’s loudest coronavirus conspiracists was Dr. Kelly Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist associated with Goop, the pseudoscience company founded by actor Gwyneth Paltrow. I wrote about Brogan for The Daily Beast in March after she posted a video online falsely claiming, among other things, that the virus potentially does not exist. She is currently being investigated by the New York Department of Health related to those claims.

2020 also saw a widespread effort by the Chinese Communist Party to downplay its initial failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak, including running paid advertorials in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that pushed the party line. I scooped the story for BuzzFeed News in April, after which the Telegraph cut ties with the two Chinese state-funded news outlets that ran the ads.

Elsewhere, I co-reported my personal favourite story of the year with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon, published an exclusive in the Daily Beast, was the target of a Russian disinformation campaign, and saw my reporting cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, a joint Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory report on Russian disinformation, and an MIT-published book about Wikipedia’s first 20 years.

You can find links to all of the above-mentioned stories (and more) via the round-up below.

A big thank you to everyone who worked hard to make me look good and keep me out of trouble, including (but not limited to): zen master blogger/independent reporter Peter M. Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman; BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman; BuzzFeed News deputy tech editor Scott Lucas; Foreign Policy global geopolitics correspondent Keith Johnson; Foreign Policy national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon; Daily Beast senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern; and Guardian media editor Jim Waterson.

1. “How Russia Tried to Weaponize Charlie Sheen,” co-byline with Amy Mackinnon for Foreign Policy, September 23, 2020:

Russian headline touting Sheen’s video (source)

Do not give up, freedom will come,” said one-time sitcom actor Charlie Sheen, standing in what appeared to be his kitchen, jabbing his finger at the camera. “Freedom is, is, is, is in your future, on your horizon,” he stammered.

His audience? Maxim Shugaley, a Russian political consultant and operative who has been imprisoned in Libya for over a year, accused of meddling in the country’s chaotic internal conflict—a fight that Russia is very much in the thick of. 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.

This story was listed in Foreign Policy’s top five Russia stories of 2020 (click here to read), and was cited in a joint report by Graphika/Stanford Internet Observatory, published December 15, 2020 (click here to read).

2. “A British Newspaper Has Given Chinese Coronavirus Propaganda A Direct Line To The UK,” via BuzzFeed News, April 1, 2020:

Now-deleted People’s Daily Online feature via the Telegraph (source)

When medical authorities in China claimed they’d cured more than 750 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, using pseudoscience, one major British newspaper made sure there was space for China’s party line on the story.

“Traditional Chinese medicine ‘helps fight coronavirus,’” declared the March 3 headline, in the online version of the Daily Telegraph. Without any evidence, the article claimed that the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine had tested an unidentified “prescription” on 804 patients, and that “by the end of 14 February,” it had proven “effective in 94 per cent of the cases.”

The article was published in a section of the Telegraph’s site called People’s Daily Online […] the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.

Shortly after publication, this story was updated to reflect that “the Telegraph appeared to have removed the People’s Daily Online site in its entirety” and “also appeared to have removed China Daily’s China Watch feature.”

3. “Daily Telegraph stops publishing section paid for by China,” co-byline with Jim Waterson for The Guardian, April 14, 2020:

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The Daily Telegraph has stopped publishing paid-for propaganda on behalf of Chinese state media, amid growing scrutiny of how Beijing is using the pandemic to grow its influence in English-language media aimed at western audiences.

The long-running China Watch section, funded by the government-controlled China Daily news outlet, has appeared in the Telegraph for more than a decade. The content, written by Chinese state journalists, presents relentlessly upbeat views on China’s standing in the world in both print supplements and on a branded section of the Telegraph’s website.

However, in recent days the dedicated content has been wiped from the Telegraph’s website along with another section that reproduced material from China’s People’s Daily Online – the official outlet of the country’s ruling communist party.

This story was cited in a U.S. Senate report on China, published November 18, 2020 (click here to read).

4. “The Gwyneth Paltrow-Approved Doctor Pushing Wacky Coronavirus Conspiracies,” via The Daily Beast, March 25, 2020:

Kelly Brogan’s website (source)

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “modern lifestyle brand” Goop announced it was closing stores in the U.S. and U.K. to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, Paltrow’s psychiatrist-associate Kelly Brogan, a high-profile Goop contributor, has racked up tens of thousands of views on social media spreading discredited pseudoscientific claims that the coronavirus might not even exist, and that symptoms attributed to the virus are likely being caused by widespread fear.

The claims were made in a widely shared video posted on Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), and Vimeo last week by Brogan, a New York State-licensed psychiatrist, New York Times bestselling author, AIDS denialist, anti-vaxxer, and, according to Goop, a “trusted expert” and recent contributor to its site and live events…

In a March 22 letter shared with The Daily Beast, [medical fraud researcher Peter M. Heimlich] asked the Office of Professional Medical Conduct [OPMC], which is a branch of the New York State Department of Health, to determine whether Brogan misrepresented her board certifications online.

This story made international headlines, with coverage in BBC News, The New York Post, The Independent, the Evening Standard, Business Insider, and more. Shortly after publication, Brogan removed all three claimed board certifications from her site. Goop has since scrubbed all of Brogan’s content from its site and the OPMC has opened an investigation of her psychiatry license.

5. “A Russian Propagandist Ran An Ad In The Washington Post — And Then Ran Victory Laps In Russian Media,” via BuzzFeed News, February 6, 2020:

Malkevich’s ad in the Washington Post (source)

The Washington Post may have violated US government sanctions when it ran an ad online from Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich — and handed a propaganda coup to a man who appears to have been part of Russia’s interference with the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and has been pushing false information to sow political chaos across the globe.

Malkevich, the chair of the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP), a Moscow-based think tank, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he paid for the ad posted on Jan. 30, an open letter addressed to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, calling on him to release two Russian nationals…

The United States currently forbids business transactions with Malkevich after he was sanctioned in 2018 for “attempted election interference” while working as the editor of the Russian propaganda site USA Really (he has since left the site).

This story was cited in the above-mentioned Graphika/Stanford report. It was also the subject of controversy in Russia, making headlines on news sites controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin. As reported by BBC Monitoring (click here to read), Malkevich falsely accused me of taking orders from the U.S. government. “The death of American journalism,” read one of the Russian headlines.

6. “How a Playboy Model Exposed an Online Child-Porn Scam,” via the Daily Beast, May 6, 2020:

Leng Yein (source)

Earlier this year, Malaysian DJ and Playboy model Leng Yein began receiving messages from young and underage female fans begging her for help. They said they were victims of an elaborate scam orchestrated by users on Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, and other popular social media platforms.

Posing as modeling agents, friends, and ex-lovers, among other fake and stolen identities, the perpetrators falsely promised money and prizes, such as iPhones, in exchange for nude photos and videos, which were later sold and published online without victims’ consent…

Yein’s fans are victims of a massive, highly organized online porn ring, according to Internet Removals, an Australian reputation management and takedown company. Since February, the company has worked with Yein […] to remove more than 136,000 of the offending photos and videos from Mega, the New Zealand hosting site.

This story was picked-up by The Sun and Inside Hook, available to read by clicking here and here.

7. “The Economist Disappears ‘Advertisement Feature’ Paid for by Chinese State-Backed Paper,” via this blog, August 10, 2020:

Now-deleted Beijing Review feature via the Economist (source)

…The Economist, the international weekly newspaper, has disappeared an “advertisement feature” on its site paid for by the CCP-backed Beijing Review.

The section, dubbed “China Focus,” included titles such as “Western Take on Coronavirus: Schadenfreude, Xenophobia and Racism” by Beijing Review associate executive editor Liu Yunyun. Her article claimed that “Accusations [by western news and media outlets] of the [Chinese] government hiding the scope of the disease” are based on “Rumors, misinformation and fears,” and that “Global readers are largely kept in the dark” about how “China is sacrificing its own economy to keep the world safe.”

That article, and others like it, were previously available via the subdomain, chinafocus.economist.com. But now when you click on that link, you’re directed to an HTTP 503 error page…

The 503 error page went up shortly after I emailed The Economist’s global communications SVP Lauren Hackett on April 16 asking her to comment on a petition by British non-profit advocacy group Free Tibet, calling on western media outlets to “STOP SPREADING CCP PROPAGANDA…”

Hackett and The Economist did not reply to multiple follow-up emails I sent asking the paper to clarify whether it had cut ties with the Beijing Review.

This story was covered by Radio Free America’s Tibetan service, which interviewed me for my first-and-only video interview (complete with shaggy coronavirus-lockdown hair):

8. “Rupert Murdoch-Owned Tabloid Retracts Article That Shamed NY Paramedic For Selling Nude Photos During Pandemic,” via this blog, December 14, 2020:

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

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

The Sun deleted its article — a re-reporting of an equally salacious New York Post story — after the Post was accused of shaming Kwei for (her words) “just trying to make ends meet…”

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

This story was picked-up by The Wrap and Mediaite, available to read by clicking here and here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a screenshot of the now-deleted ads:

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

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

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

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The Economist Disappears “Advertisement Feature” Paid for by Chinese State-Backed Paper

Paid content from the Beijing Review included an article attacking western news outlets and defending China’s botched response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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In April, I bylined a story in BuzzFeed News about how during the pandemic, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph continued to sell advertising space on its site to the People’s Daily Online, the official newspaper and mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), enabling it to publish state propaganda and medical disinformation aimed at a British audience.

As reported in another story I co-bylined with Jim Waterson for The Guardian later that month, The Daily Telegraph subsequently cut ties with the People’s Daily Online and another China-backed newspaper, China Daily, which for more than a decade reportedly paid the Telegraph £750,000 annually to carry a supplement called China Watch.

Now it appears that The Economist, the international weekly newspaper, has disappeared an “advertisement feature” on its site paid for by the CCP-backed Beijing Review.

The section, dubbed “China Focus,” included titles such as “Western Take on Coronavirus: Schadenfreude, Xenophobia and Racism” by Beijing Review associate executive editor Liu Yunyun. Her article claimed that “Accusations [by western news and media outlets] of the [Chinese] government hiding the scope of the disease” are based on “Rumors, misinformation and fears,” and that “Global readers are largely kept in the dark” about how “China is sacrificing its own economy to keep the world safe.”

That article, and others like it, were previously available via the subdomain, chinafocus.economist.com. But now when you click on that link, you’re directed to an HTTP 503 error page, which occurs whenever a server is “unable to handle the request due to a temporary overloading or maintenance of the server,” according to the World Wide Web Consortium, founded in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee.

Site information for chinafocus.economist.com states that its security certificate expired on July 26. A message reads: “This certificate has expired or is not yet valid.”

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The 503 error page went up shortly after I emailed The Economist’s global communications SVP Lauren Hackett on April 16 asking her to comment on a petition by British non-profit advocacy group Free Tibet, calling on western media outlets to “STOP SPREADING CCP PROPAGANDA.”

Here’s her April 17 reply email:

Dear Dean – Thank you for reaching out on this. I’ll have to look into it. Can you let me know who you are writing for and the focus of your story. Kind regards, Lauren

Hackett and The Economist did not reply to multiple follow-up emails I sent asking the paper to clarify whether it had cut ties with the Beijing Review. But here’s what Free Tibet’s campaign manager John Jones sent me when I asked him for comment:

We have been following China Watch and its presence in papers like The Telegraph for a couple of years now with a mixture of despair and grim fascination. Some of the articles last year on “60 years of democracy in Tibet” were particularly appalling, with articles titled “Tibet marks 60th anniversary of democratic reform” and “Memorial Hall built to commemorate freed Tibetan slaves” appearing in The Telegraph. This anniversary and alleged freeing of slaves is actually a reference to what Tibetans know as the Tibetan Uprising, when thousands of Tibetans in the capital, Lhasa, gave their lives to protest against the Chinese occupation of their country. Since then, occupied Tibet has become an increasingly repressive place. Freedom House, a think tank that compares the openness of different societies around the world, has for the past five years ranked Tibet as the second worst place in the world for political freedoms and civil rights, ahead of only Syria (some of their analysis is here in their latest report: https://freedomhouse.org/country/tibet/freedom-world/2020). For media outlets in free societies to be running material praising the dire state of affairs in Tibet is truly shocking.

Our hope for this new campaign action is that the editors of The Economist and Wall Street Journal drop content that is nothing more or less than Chinese government backed propaganda from their publications. It does seem that the coronavirus and some of the nonsense reporting on it by Chinese state media has sent a signal to several newspaper editors that these puff pieces can be dangerous in the falsehoods that they spread, not just for the billion people under CCP rule but also for their own readers. There is a backlash against disinformation around the pandemic and neither of these newspapers will want to be associated with that in any way. We hope that this will have set off alarms in their minds that it really is not ethical to run features that ultimately are the product of a dictatorial government and that what we need at the moment is scrutiny of the CCP – scrutiny of their handling of the pandemic and their silencing of whistleblowers, but also scrutiny of their treatment of the Uyghurs and scrutiny of their repressive rule in Tibet. If the readers of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal make it clear that they do not want to see this content then there is a great chance that these two outlets could follow in the footsteps of The Telegraph, The New York Times and The Washington Post and scrap these propaganda sections.

It’s unclear whether the print edition of The Economist is still carrying the Beijing Review material, as U.S. news site the Washington Free Beacon reported in March. To anyone who knows the answer, please get in touch by leaving a comment below, or by clicking here.