WaPo Cites Article I Co-Authored for The Daily Beast

— WaPo’s story, about the Wikipedia community, cited a July 2018 story I co-authored with Daily Beast political reporter Lachlan Markay

Via “Checking the Web on Hunter Biden? A 36-year-old physicist helps decide what you’ll see,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post, September 25, 2019:

Wikipedia’s rules of engagement have gradually accreted over the years. The guidelines are most stringent for living people, governed by three main principles: neutral point of view, verifiability and no original research.

Bots are employed to guard against basic disruption, and the automated software is responsible for as many as one-third of the edits to the site globally, and many more to its underlying data, according to a 2014 paper . A “recent changes patrol,” or RC patrol, is composed of individual users, who watch for more subtle intrusion and hash out disagreements about edits on a page’s “talk” section. Administrators oversee the process.

The setup has faced high-profile tests before. In the spring of 2018, anonymous editors detected suspect activity on a page for Maria Butina, a Russian woman accused of running a covert operation to gain influence with American conservatives. Some of the activity — an attempt to excise unflattering information — was traced to the university in Washington where Butina had been studying. The information was restored [emphasis added].

And here’s an excerpt from “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university [American University] where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it…

A spokesman for American University confirmed that the IP addresses were associated with the school’s network, but declined to comment further, citing student privacy concerns.

Maria Butina’s Russian Advocate Responds to News Coverage of His Latest Fundraising Efforts

— Alexander Ionov, who currently oversees convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal fund, claims U.S. journalists are putting “psychological pressure” on Butina’s lawyers

From left: Alexander Ionov, Valery Butin, and Alexander Malkevich (source)

Last week, I blogged a quick story re: Maria Butina’s recent fundraising efforts. Investigative reporter Casey Michel also wrote about this story via his perch at ThinkProgress (click here to read).

In my post, Russian journalist/propagandist Alexander Malkevich told me he recently paid Butina’s lawyers 5 million rubles (approximately $76,000) via a Moscow-based NGO named the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR) in order to circumvent sanctions imposed on him by the U.S. Treasury Department in December.

On Tuesday, Malkevich held a joint press conference with AGMR’s founder Alexander Ionov, in which Ionov appeared to comment on the two stories by me and Michel.

Via Malkevich’s advocacy website, The Foundation for the Protection of National Values:

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.

The human rights activist also said that the lawyers had already prepared documents for filing an appeal. 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 [emphasis added].

“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.

ThinkProgress Shout-out

— ThinkProgress cites Shooting the Messenger story re: Russian propaganda site

Yesterday, Shooting the Messenger and American news website ThinkProgress published stories about efforts by Russian propagandist Alexander Malkevich and others to help raise money for convicted Russian agent Maria Butina.

The ThinkProgress story, by investigative reporter Casey Michel, cited some of my previous work on Malkevich. Thanks Casey!

Via “Leading voices in Russian interference efforts rally to support Maria Butina” by Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, May 29, 2019:

An upcoming press conference in Moscow to support jailed Russian agent Maria Butina will bring together some of the most notable voices in Russian interference efforts over the past few years, from the leading figure organizing American secessionists to a sanctioned Russian social media operator.

The press conference, scheduled for next Tuesday, will be hosted by Alexander Malkevich, a sanctioned Russian disinformation operative who helps run the Russia-based Foundation for the Protection of National Values. The foundation describes itself as “a non-profit organization whose activities are aimed at protecting the national interests of the Russian Federation,” including the “preserv[ation] of traditional culture.”

Malkevich is best-known for helping create a disinformation site called “USA Really,” which has previously been linked to media operations led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a sanctioned Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef,” helped oversee Russia’s social media interference operations through 2016…

As the release announcing the sanctions read, Malkevich, via “USA Really,” was “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues.” Malkevich, as journalist Dean Sterling Jones has reported, has since left “USA Really,” but not before he decided to hang a Confederate flag on the office walls (as well as a flag in support of Russia-backed militants in eastern Ukraine).

Click here to read the full article

Sanctioned Russian Propagandist Alexander Malkevich Joins Maria Butina Fundraising Efforts

— Alexander Malkevich, who was sanctioned for “attempted election interference” last year, joins crowdfunding efforts to help pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills

— Malkevich “did not contribute personal funds!” says Butina’s designated fundraiser Alexander Ionov, who runs a Kremlin-backed NGO that helped promote U.S. separatist groups

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Alexander Malkevich, former editor-in-chief of sanctioned Russian propaganda website USA Really, has announced he is crowdfunding to help pay convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s legal bills.

The announcement was made last week via Malkevich’s non-profit advocacy organisation, The Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), which claims it has paid 5 million rubles (approximately $76,000) into a fund set up by Butina’s lawyers last year.

FPNV “​​intends to protect the rights of a compatriot who has become hostage to the US government,” reads a statement on the site. “Since [Butina was] detained in July 2018 [for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin], the US authorities used inhumane measures against her and violated her rights to obtain the necessary information and use them in the political sphere.”

Maria Butina (source)

In an e-mail, Malkevich said he is donating the raised money through the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR)—a Moscow-based NGO charged with overseeing Butina’s legal fund—in order to circumvent sanctions imposed on him by the U.S. Treasury Department in December.

“Of course I am not paying [Butina’s lawyers] directly because I am under sanctions,” he told Shooting the Messenger. “But I am the producer of this crowdfunding.”

AGMR was founded in 2012 by Russian lawyer and businessman Alexander Ionov, whose Kremlin-backed efforts to promote U.S. separatist groups received praise from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ionov got involved in Butina’s case in October with the launch of MariaButinaFund.ru, a Russian-language mirror of Butina’s American fundraising site, MariaButinaFund.com.

Alexander Ionov (source)

When asked about Malkevich’s crowdfunding efforts, Ionov said he “does not know about the amounts collected [by] Malkevich,” but that “to date, [the] Fund has received 5 million rubles from individuals and public organizations.”

He added that Malkevich “did not contribute personal funds!”

Butina’s personal lawyer Robert Driscoll did not return a request for comment.

Malkevich found fame last year as the founder of USA Really, a Russian propaganda site explicitly aimed at U.S. audiences. After crashing a November 6 election night party at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club, the Treasury Department accused him of “attempted election interference” and forbade U.S. individuals and businesses from transacting with him and his site. He exited the site in March to lead Russia’s Civic Chamber of Mass Media, from which he currently advises the Kremlin on media policy.

Malkevich and Ionov are scheduled to hold a joint press conference at the offices of Moscow’s Izvestia newspaper on June 4.

Round-Up: Maria Butina’s Russian Fundraiser

— Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about the Kremlin-backed company paying for Maria Butina’s legal expenses

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.

Via “New Details Revealed About a Mysterious Russian Who Funds Maria Butina’s Defense” by Tana Ganeva, Raw Story, March 20, 2019:

Maria Butina, the Russian woman who’s alleged to have infiltrated gun rights and conservative circles to sway the outcome of the 2016 election, is still in custody awaiting her sentencing. She’s been in jail since July. According the Washington Post, Butina is cooperating with authorities

Ionov is raising money for Butina’s defense through a group called the Anti-Globalization Movement. The website, peppered with glossy photos of Butina, purports to tell “Maria’s story.”

“Help me change my situation,” it reads in Russian.  Freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones first unearthed the site and detailed Ionov’s history and potential Kremlin ties.

Writing on his blog Shooting the Messenger, Jones observes that the group that’s hosting the site for Butina’s legal bills got a Russian presidential grant of 3.5 million rubles (approximately $53,000) to bring members of Texas and California secessionist groups to a Russian conference in September of 2016.

Click here to read the full story.

Investigate Russia and Law & Crime also picked up the story.

Update, via “Here are all the Russian interference efforts that didn’t make it into Barr’s letter” by Casey Michel, ThinkProgress, March 27, 2019:

Special counsel Robert Mueller may not have found the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but plenty of Americans — wittingly or otherwise — have helped Moscow’s election meddling efforts in recent years. Secessionists, Jill Stein and her campaign, and members of groups organized around gun rights and far-right Christian movements have spent the past few years cultivating ties with those close to the Kremlin and using their platforms to promote Russia-friendly ideas.

None of these groups were mentioned by Attorney General William Barr, who issued a letter on Sunday confirming that Russia conducted coordinated campaigns to interfere in America’s elections…

Russian cultivation of American secessionists — for example, groups who look back fondly on the days of the Confederacy or advocate for states separating from the U.S. to form their own country — date back to at least 2014, in the midst of the Kremlin’s attempts to disintegrate Ukraine. Multiple conferences held in Moscow in 2015 and 2016 brought separatists from places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico to Russia, gathering supporters with other secessionists from Italy and Spain. They were hosted and feted by Alexander Ionov, the head of an organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR)…

Ionov, meanwhile, has been busy. Not only has be apparently gained more cachet in Moscow — he recently had a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador — but as journalist Dean Sterling Jones recently uncovered, he’s been helping raise money for Russian agent Maria Butina.

SCOOP: Maria Butina’s Russian Fundraiser Hosted and Boasted U.S. Separatists Prior to 2016 Election

— The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia was paid by the Kremlin to fly Texas and California separatists to Moscow in September 2016

Maria Butina (source)

Maria Butina’s legal defense fund is being handled by a Kremlin-backed Russian company that hosted and boasted U.S. separatist groups shortly before the 2016 presidential election.

The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), which is accepting donations on Butina’s behalf through a fundraising website set up last year by her lawyers, received a Russian presidential grant of 3.5 million rubles (approximately $53,000) to fly the leaders of Texas and California secessionist movements to Moscow for a sovereign nation-building conference in September 2016.

The second annual Dialogue of Nations conference, financed by a charity overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin, brought together representatives from around a dozen self-styled national liberation movements including Nate Smith, executive director of the neo-confederate Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), and Louis J. Marinelli, co-founder of the Yes California Independence Campaign.

“[AGMR] supports the full sovereignty of nation-states including the sovereignty of Russia as an independent player on the political, economic and cultural world stage,” reads AGMR’s mission statement. “The movement aims to promote all aspects of the national security and traditional moral values. It opposes the attempts to impose a ‘new world order’ and the disastrous unification, which might result in the emergence of a single mega-totalitarian world state.”

The exact history of AGMR’s involvement with Butina—who in December pleaded guilty to engaging in a Kremlin-backed conspiracy to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America—is unclear. But according to domain registration records, AGMR began its fundraising efforts in October with the launch of MariaButinaFund.ru, a Russian language mirror of Butina’s U.S. fundraising site, MariaButinaFund.com, launched two months earlier.

“The Maria Butina Foundation was created by her lawyers to collect donations in order to ensure her best possible protection in court,” reads a message on the Russian version of the site, which includes payment details for AGMR’s Alfa Bank account in Moscow.

Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll, listed as the fund’s co-founder, declined to comment for this item.

Gregory M. Wade, an Alexandria, VA-based bankruptcy attorney listed as the administrator of both sites, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

AGMR was founded in 2012 by Alexander Ionov, a prolific Russian lawyer and businessman whose “work to strengthen friendship between peoples” has been commended by Putin himself. Ionov denies working at the behest of the Kremlin. However, a close look at his various pursuits, including a prominent position on the public council of Moscow’s interior ministry, suggests they enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.

Alexander Ionov (source)

Ionov’s involvement with TNM and Yes California, for instance, came shortly after both groups were reportedly approached by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory, to participate in a series of anti-Hillary Clinton rallies. Yes California later relocated its headquarters to AGMR’s offices in Moscow.

In 2017, Ionov represented Russian hackers Pyotr Levashov and Stanislav Lisov against claims by Spanish security services that they’d used fake social media accounts to promote Catalonia’s independence from Spain, a cause both AGMR and the IRA have also actively helped to promote. The pair were later extradited to the U.S. where they pleaded guilty to various cyber crimes.

In December, Ionov even attempted to visit Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen currently being detained in Moscow on spying charges. Experts in Russian politics, including former CIA officer John Sipher, believe Whelan was arrested in retaliation for Butina’s prosecution in the U.S., claims denied by Putin’s spokesperson.

Ionov’s other connections to Butina include Vladimir Ovsyannikov and Roman Khudyakov, high-ranking State Duma officials who helped support Butina’s gun rights group, the Right to Bear Arms (RTBA). The two men currently work under Ionov at his private contracting firm Ionov Transcontinental (IT), which provides a range of legal, financial and security services, as well as helping to facilitate business relationships between foreign clients and Russian government agencies.

Ovsyannikov, IT’s Vice President for Government Relations, became involved with RTBA in 2013 after giving a speech at one of its rallies. Khudyakov, IT’s Vice President and a former Russian presidential candidate, joined the group that same year in an initiation ceremony along with: Alexander Torshin, the former Central Bank governor who allegedly directed Butina’s activities in the U.S.; and David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, one of many prominent conservative groups Torshin allegedly used to gain access to Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.

When prosecutors indicted Butina last July, alleging, among other things, that she had traded sex for political access, Khudyakhov quickly rushed to her defense.

“She was friends with many men, with me, with other men, with men from all over the world,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Prosecutors later retracted the allegation.

Recently, Ionov himself has come out in support of Butina, describing her in an interview with Voice of America (which did not disclose their affiliation) as a “human rights activist…who did not (collaborate) with Russian state bodies.”

Ionov did not reply to multiple requests to comment for this story.

Butina is currently awaiting sentencing. To date, she has raised approximately $16,700 towards the cost of her legal fees, but still owes her lawyers $610,000, according to a recent interview with her father, Valery Butin.

Round-Up 2018: Here’s the Scoop

Russian trolls and stealth political campaigns. Revisiting my scoopiest stories of 2018

2018 was undoubtedly my most successful year since I started writing at Shooting the Messenger almost five years ago.

Once described as an “amateur sleuth” by Politico and unceremoniously trashed by a surrogate for U.S. president Donald Trump on Fox News (something I’ve always worn as a badge of pride, thank you), in 2018 I was delighted to land a freelance gig at The Daily Beast, from which I served a few decent-sized scoops.

Huge thanks to the Beast’s Editor-in-Chief Noah Shachtman for generously inviting me to write for him, and Beast reporters Asawin Suebsaeng, Lachlan Markay, and Lachlan Cartwright (count ’em, two Lachlans) for their help and encouragement.

Big thanks to everyone else who provided me with invaluable help and encouragement in 2018, including (but not limited to!): Zen Master Blogger Peter M. Heimlich and his wife Karen Shulman, Techdirt reporter Tim Cushing, nutrition journalist/author Nina Teicholz, FoodMed.net publisher and editor Marika Sboros, journalist/fact-checker extraordinaire Brooke Binkowski, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, and BuzzFeed Canada’s Craig Silverman and Jane Lytvynenko.

The year started strong when a story I wrote in late 2017, about the HuffPost’s retraction of a pay-to-play puff piece on former Trump business partner Felix Sater, was picked up by the Beast in January.

Felix Sater (source)

Via “Who Paid for the HuffPost Puff Piece on Trump’s Felonious Friend?” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, January 11, 2018:

An unknown client paid a Pakistani national to place an article at the HuffPost defending a controversial associate of President Donald Trump.

HuffPost scrubbed the article, written in December, from its website after a blogger in Northern Ireland, Dean Sterling Jones, inquired about the piece, which hailed the dismissal last year of a $250 million tax fraud case against Felix Sater, a Russian-born former Trump Organization executive.

The article’s author, listed on HuffPost’s website under the name Waqas KH, runs a Pakistani company called Steve SEO Services. That company offers to ghostwrite articles and organize internet commenting campaigns for paying clients. On the freelancer website Fiverr, Waqas goes by the username “nico_seo” and offers to place articles on HuffPost for an $80 fee. For an extra $50, he will write the article himself.

Following that article, the HuffPost announced that it was permanently closing its flagship contributor platform, which allowed readers to self-publish articles on the HuffPost website, and which the author of the Sater piece had been exploiting for financial gain.

In an interview with The New York Times, which cited my story, the HuffPost’s Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen said that the decision to close the platform was due to the proliferation of fake news.

Via “HuffPost, Breaking From Its Roots, Ends Unpaid Contributions” by Sydney Ember, The New York Times, January 18, 2018:

Since its founding nearly 13 years ago, The Huffington Post has relied heavily on unpaid contributors, whose ranks included aspiring writers, citizen journalists and celebrities from the Rolodex of the site’s co-founder Arianna Huffington.

…On Thursday, it said it was immediately dissolving its self-publishing contributors platform — which has mushroomed to include 100,000 writers — in what is perhaps the most significant break from the past under its editor in chief, Lydia Polgreen…

[Recently] a contributor with the byline Waqas KH published an article about Felix Sater, an associate of President Trump, that he had been paid to post. The site has since deleted the article.

In July, I co-authored a follow-up story—my first for the Beast—about a much larger campaign to whitewash Trump’s Russian business ties by manipulating Google’s search rankings.

Via “Inside the Online Campaign to Whitewash the History of Donald Trump’s Russian Business Associates” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 5, 2018:

A mystery client has been paying bloggers in India and Indonesia to write articles distancing President Donald Trump from the legal travails of a mob-linked former business associate.

Spokespeople for online reputation management companies in the two countries confirmed that they had been paid to write articles attempting to whitewash Trump’s ties to Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who, with former Russian trade minister Tevfik Arif, collaborated with the Trump Organization on numerous real estate deals from New York to the former Soviet Union.

The campaign appears designed to influence Google search results pertaining to Trump’s relationship with Sater, Arif, and the Bayrock Group, a New York real estate firm that collaborated with Trump on a series of real estate deals, and recruited Russian investors for potential Trump deals in Moscow.

The story was covered by The Washington Post, Politico, and ABC News, among others.

Perhaps my biggest story of 2018, about Russian government media adviser Alexander Malkevich’s attempts to launch a troll factory-linked disinformation website from an office near the White House in Washington, D.C., was my second to make it to The New York Times.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

The website, the conspicuously titled USA Really, was in fact created by Moscow’s Federal News Agency (FAN), one of a number of Russian entities U.S. prosecutors claim “employed hundreds of individuals in support” of Project Lakhta, a multi-million dollar social media influence operation that aimed “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system.”

I first started writing about USA Really in April, following FAN’s attempts to recruit “English-speaking journalists” to write for the website. That early reporting was picked up by The Daily Beast, Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire, and Press Pool with Julie Mason. But USA Really only really caught the attention of mainstream news outlets in June, after a story I wrote about Malkevich’s ties to the Russian government, his involvement in the USA Really website, and disastrous attempts to stage a flash mob event at the White House to celebrate Trump’s 72nd birthday, was picked up by—who else?—The Daily Beast.

Via “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, June 10, 2018:

A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship…aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking…

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

Included in that article was reporting about an unsuccessful attempt by someone at USA Really named Michael to suppress my story:

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, Jones received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Following that article, the story quickly made its way to The Washington Post and Politico, then on to NBC News, NPR, Foreign Policy, and The New York Times.

USA Really (source)

Via “Is a New Russian Meddling Tactic Hiding in Plain Sight?” by Kevin Roose, The New York Times, September 25, 2018:

To an untrained eye, USAReally might look like any other fledgling news organization vying for attention in a crowded media landscape. Its website publishes a steady stream of stories on hot-button political issues like race, immigration and income inequality. It has reader polls, a video section and a daily podcast.

But this is no ordinary media start-up. USAReally is based in Moscow and has received funding from the Federal News Agency, a Russian media conglomerate with ties to the Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” whose employees were indicted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the 2016 presidential election…

Its founder, Alexander Malkevich, is a Russian journalist with little previous experience in American media. Its domain was registered through a Russian company, and its formation was announced in a news release on the Federal News Agency’s website. The project, originally known as “USAReally, Wake Up Americans,” was intended to promote “information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the political elite of the United States,” according to the release…

Mr. Malkevich’s fumbling misadventures in American media have, at times, made him seem more like a Sacha Baron Cohen character than a sinister propagandist. In June, he planned a rally outside the White House, but canceled the event, he said, after failing to obtain the proper permit. He scheduled a round-table discussion about fake news inside a WeWork office in Washington, but his membership was abruptly terminated. An NBC News story about Mr. Malkevich carried the headline, “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to.”

As I reported in an article I co-authored with Lachlan for the Beast, by September FAN and USA Really had become ensnared in the F.B.I.’s probe into Russian election interference.

Via “D.C.-Based Russian Media Venture Boasts that Indicted Kremlin Operative Is Its CFO” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, October 26, 2018:

When federal authorities allege a massive, foreign-government-backed campaign to undermine America’s democratic institutions, the expected reaction from those accused of complicity is to put some distance between themselves and the culprits.

But when Elena Khusyaynova, the alleged financier of a sprawling Russian disinformation effort, was indicted last week, one Russian media outlet rushed to associate itself with the St. Petersburg accountant. USA Really, a conspiratorial website run by a Russian media executive and Kremlin policy adviser, quickly boasted on its website that Khusyaynova was the company’s chief financial officer.

It’s not clear what USA Really hoped to gain through the admission. The site is quick to deny that Russia had any involvement in the 2016 election. But its gleeful association with Khusyaynova suggests that USA Really is not the independent, inquisitive news organization that it claims to be, but rather an adjunct of a deep-pocketed propaganda apparatus that federal prosecutors say amounts to a criminal conspiracy against the United States.

Last month, half a year after my first post, Malkevich and USA Really were officially sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for “attempted election interference.”

Via “Treasury Targets Russian Operatives over Election Interference, World Anti-Doping Agency Hacking, and Other Malign Activities,” U.S. Treasury Department, December 19, 2018:

Today, [the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control] 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.

Another article I co-authored with Lachlan that made national news told the story of an anonymous editing campaign to whitewash the Wikipedia page of Russian spy Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to engaging in a Kremlin-backed conspiracy to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America. As we reported in our story, the edits traced back to Butina’s D.C. alma mater.

Maria Butina (source)

Via “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA)…

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it.

The story was subsequently covered on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show:

My last big story for the Beast in 2018 was a collaborative effort with Lachlan and the Beast’s White House reporter Asawin Suebsaeng, about a conscious effort by National Enquirer boss David Pecker to distance himself and his tabloid from Trump, with an assist from Hollywood’s leading talent agency. Take a guess at which part of the story I contributed.

David Pecker (source)

Via “National Enquirer Boss David Pecker Tiptoes Away From His Pal Trump as Scandal Swirls and Circulation Drops” by Asawin Suebsaeng, Dean Sterling Jones, and Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, August 02, 2018:

Shortly after the feds raided the office of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s now estranged personal attorney and longtime enforcer, National Enquirer publisher David Pecker went into a state of calculated retreat.

For years, Pecker’s tabloid had promoted and puffed up Trump’s political rise and his presidency. But once a regular fixture on the cover of the National Enquirer, Trump hasn’t appeared on it since an issue dated early May. That appearance was for a cover story on the various scandals swirling around Cohen…

According to multiple sources familiar with the situation, Pecker and the Enquirer’s top brass made a conscious decision to pull back on their pro-Trump coverage, just as Pecker’s media empire found itself increasingly embroiled in Trumpworld’s legal and public-relations woes.

A month after the Enquirer’s last Trump cover, the Wall Street Journal reported that federal authorities had subpoenaed Pecker and other executives at American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the tabloid. They sought records related to allegations that the company purchased the rights to former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s story of an affair with Trump, then killed the story for Trump’s benefit, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Prosecutors are exploring whether such an agreement may have constituted an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign by AMI…

As Pecker and his team were distancing themselves from Trump publicly, a more surreptitious effort was underway to cleanse the public record of details of Pecker’s involvement in the McDougal scandal and the AMI boss’s relationship with the president.

Over the course of a week last month, an anonymous Wikipedia user repeatedly tried to scrub Pecker’s page of damaging information regarding his alleged links to the McDougal hush-money scandal, removing huge blocks of text describing Pecker’s and AMI’s roles in paying the model for her story. The edits also removed references to Pecker as “a close friend of Donald Trump” and a supporter of his 2016 presidential campaign in addition to scrubbing mention of a federal investigation of the payment that stemmed from the raid of Cohen’s office (In a recently-leaked tape, Trump told Cohen to make the payment “in cash” to “our friend David,” assumed to be Pecker.)

The origin of the edits was even more interesting. They were made by someone using an I.P. address associated with the high-powered Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor, according to publicly-available web database information. The same I.P. address has been used to edit pages for WME itself, the head of the agency’s literary division, and a number of WME clients.

Click here for a clip of Asawin discussing the story with MSNBC news anchor Katy Tur.

Finally, here’s a quick story I blogged in February about how the Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the Russian troll factory, used online job ads to recruit its army of election-meddling “Kremlebots,” then allegedly expected successful applicants to work for free.

Vladimir Putin (source)

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.

The story was subsequently covered by The Hill.

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

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.”

Click here for more stories from 2018.

Sex, Lies and Wikipedia

— Who scrubbed the Wikipedia bio of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina? Read my latest at The Daily Beast, plus coverage of the story by The Rachel Maddow Show

Via “Who Whitewashed the Wiki of Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina?” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, July 24, 2018:

Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.

Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”

The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.

Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it.

The edit campaign began in March when an anonymous Wikipedia user made a series of five edits to Butina’s page. The edits included adding details of her biography and noting the Russian spelling of Right to Bear Arms (Право на оружие), the non-profit gun rights group she founded in 2011 to “improve weapons culture” and provide gun owners with access to free legal advice.

The account’s only identifying information was an IP address traced to web servers at American University, the school where Butina studied from mid-2016 through the spring of 2018, and which federal prosecutors say she used to obtain a U.S. student visa. In April, another Wikipedia account sprouted up and made four edits to Butina’s page. That account also used an IP address associated with AU.

Click here to read the full article.

And via The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, July 24, 2018 (skip to 13:00):

Transcript: If you were intrigued by this information about Maria Butina and her alleged boyfriend and her being in jail awaiting charges and him being an alleged co-conspirator and potentially being the subject of another federal investigation, I mean, this is the collusion case, right? It might make you want to look up more information on these two characters.

Well, their Wikipedia pages have been scrubbed clean. “The Daily Beast” tonight has a great report up on this, detailing dozens of edits to both of the Wikipedia pages for Maria Butina and for Paul Erickson, dropping all information about allege ties to the Russian government, alleged efforts to broke her meetings between Trump and Putin during the campaign, reported criminal history, reported business history between them, references to investigative reporting about Russian money being potentially had funnelled through the NRA, all of that is gone, all removed.

And the beauty of something like Wikipedia is that Wikipedia has regenerative power once somebody mounts an effort to the make real information go away, other people are likely to reinstate thought real information. But there has been a diligent effort online to submarine all of that information about this accused Russian agent who tonight sits in jail, as well as the American who allegedly helped her.

“The Daily Beast” reports now that at least some of the edits to these Wikipedia pages were made from an account that was maintained on the Russian language version of Wikipedia.