Twitter and Reddit Suspend Accounts Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Russian Propaganda Site

Russian troll factory-linked news site USA Really is struggling to connect with American voters ahead of 2020 election

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For the second year in a row, Twitter and Reddit have suspended accounts belonging to sanctioned Russian propaganda website USA Really, one of a number of shady news outlets allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s Cook.”

It’s the latest setback in a series of misplaced attempts by the site to cultivate an American audience.

Launched in May last year as a U.S.-facing adjunct of Russia’s Federal News Agency, the site initially presented itself as a homegrown, independent news and storytelling platform. However, the site quickly gained notoriety when its calamitous efforts to stage a flash mob at the White House fell flat.

In December, the site, its parent company, and its founder, bumbling Kremlin policy adviser Alexander Malkevich, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in connection with Project Lakhta, a massive social media influence campaign that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Under Malkevich’s leadership, USA Really “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies,” the Treasury Department said in an accompanying statement, which mirrored reporting first published by this blog.

In February, as U.S. tech companies severed ties with USA Really and the site’s American contributors fled, Malkevich resigned his editorship. Under current editor Leonid Savin — who previously edited the pro-Putin think tank Katehon — the site has continued to publish politically contentious content.

Leonid Savin (source)

In July, the site quietly registered new Twitter and Reddit accounts in a seeming attempt to mount a second social media influence campaign ahead of the upcoming 2020 election. The site’s reappearance highlights how propagandists and other bad actors are easily able to thwart even the most vigilant of social media platforms.

Asked to comment, Twitter quickly suspended the new account, which USA Really had been using primarily to post links back to its site.

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After multiple inquiries, Reddit also removed USA Really from its platform, putting an end to a racist, sexist, and homophobic commenting campaign that appeared to follow Russian troll factory directives for posting online.

“The account in question has been banned in accordance with our site-wide policies,” a Reddit spokesperson said in a statement.

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The intentionally offensive comments were posted across at least 25 different hot-button subreddits, including r/progun, r/republicans, r/SandersForPresident, r/conspiracy, r/WikiLeaks, r/Feminism, r/MensRights, and even r/gaybros, a support group for “those of us who are gay and trying to leave the parTy scene.”

In other words, exactly what you might expect from a Russian troll account.

Surprisingly, the issues USA Really argued over most vehemently weren’t guns or politics, but climate change (“What is the essence of this whining about melted ice?”), and — stranger still — the legalisation of topless bathing (“We can only imagine how many lawsuits will be directed against men who, not knowing the age of a minor, but an adult looking, will look at her bare breasts”).

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Less surprising was the site’s targeting of Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, known for her advocacy of progressive policies such as the Green New Deal.

In July, someone posted a video of Tlaib heckling Donald Trump on the r/republicans subreddit. The video soon caught the attention of USA Really, who, using the handle “usaUNreally,” wasted no time firing off a disparaging comment.

“She need a better bra,” wrote usaUNreally, in perhaps one of the most childish examples of professional trolling ever published to the Internet.

Last month, usaUNreally struck again when a commenter on the r/Conservative subreddit asked why the House of Representatives had not opened a sexual misconduct investigation into Tlaib’s friend and colleague, Somali-American congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

“[It’s] because she is only capable of incest,” replied usaUNreally, alluding to an unfounded rumour that she’d married her brother.

Ilhan Omar (source)

On the r/Conspiracy subreddit, usaUNreally turned to the topic of immigration, playing up xenophobic claims that illegal immigrants had secretly invaded a Californian town on a fleet of buses.

“Democrats,” wrote usaUNreally, “buy votes, but insolently bring ‘electorate’ from abroad. What we have in line … Reparations, bribery of Jewish communities, satisfaction of other ethnic minorities, gay voices will be valued twice as much as a heterosexual white man. Welcome aboard!”

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In a race-baiting rant on the r/PublicFreakout subreddit, usaUNreally just stopped short of using a racist expletive.

“the question is as old as the sea,” usaUNreally pontificated. “but explain why white people shouldn’t call African-Americans a n-word (they always say this to each other), but black can use the word “white” (snow white)?”

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Elsewhere, usaUNreally defended using violence against women.

“I’m not protecting this exact guy,” explained usaUNreally, referring to a video in which an alleged batterer gets his comeuppance. “But sometimes women behave as men, so if they demands the same attitude to themselves they should handle what they deserve.”

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DivestTrump, an online disinformation researcher who outed USA Really’s attempts to infiltrate r/The_Donald subreddit last year (as reported by Newsweek, BuzzFeed News, and NBC News), said that despite the site’s lack of success this time around, the end goal remained the same.

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“Their traffic plummeted after the previous bans and they’re clearly trying to rebuild an audience,” DivestTrump tweeted from an undisclosed location. “Their endgame hasn’t changed. They exist to heighten divisions, sow distrust in our own government, and push a Russian agenda in America.”

USA Really’s editor did not reply to a request for comment.

Maria Butina Pens Article for Russian Think Tank Run by U.S.-Sanctioned Kremlin Policy Adviser

The article appears to be the first in a regular column published by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, an obscure Russian think tank run by sanctioned Kremlin mass media policy adviser Alexander Malkevich

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Maria Butina is teaming up with a Russian think tank whose founder allegedly has close ties to the Kremlin’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In collaboration with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FPNV), Butina has penned an article titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. The article, which claims to mark the beginning of a broader collaboration, comes just a few weeks after Butina was released from the Tallahassee Federal Correction Institution, where she served a 15-month sentence for acting as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin.

Recounting an interview she gave 60 Minutes while still in prison, Butina described her sentence as “a shameful deal for the US prosecutor’s office, with an investigation in which they had to recognize my legitimate status as a student, apologize for sexist charges and, in order not to hit the dirt in the face and justify the money spent by American taxpayers on me, appoint me a prison term ?!”

Maria Butina (source)

The most scathing comments, however, were saved for interviewer Lesley Stahl, whose “little dry American face,” Butina wrote, “doubled in the grimace of surprise and clear misunderstanding of my words.”

On returning to Russia, Butina claimed she “was barely alive from lack of sleep and stress,” but nevertheless “remained true to my promise to the women who sat with me, still imprisoned in the mortal arms of the American penitentiary system … not to be silent about all violations of their rights…”

Butina went on to thank FPNV founder Alexander Malkevich, who, “having experienced the bullying of American law enforcement officers himself,” had “systematically helped” her during her prison term.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Readers of this blog will remember Malkevich as the former editor of USA Really, a Russian propaganda site allegedly funded by Robert Mueller-indicted catering oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin aka “Putin’s cook.” Both Malkevich and Prigozhin are currently under U.S. sanctions for their alleged involvement in Project Laktha, a massive social media influence operation that allegedly sought to “sow discord” in the American political system in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

At least four of Malkevich’s current employees — three of whom he reportedly shares with Prigozhin’s infamous troll factory — were recently accused of attempting to meddle in African elections. Malkevich has denied the claims.

In May, Malkevich launched a crowdfunding effort in Russia to help pay Butina’s legal bills. In an interview with this blog, he said he intended to pay the money through a third-party in Moscow in order to circumvent financial restrictions placed on him by the U.S. Treasury Department.

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

Malkevich with Butina (source)

When Butina returned to Moscow last month, Malkevich met her at the airport with a bouquet of flowers. Following that appearance, I again asked Malkevich about his involvement with Butina. This time he said he’d made an offer for Butina to work for FPNV as its vice president.

“Yes, I offered Maria Butina to become a part of our foundation for national values protection, and I will be happy if she will agree to become a vice president of our fund, of our foundation,” Malkevich said in an audio recording. “About her possible acceptance, you know that I heard that she expressed interest in our joint work. But you know that nowadays she is in Barnaul in her native city in Altai region, and I think that for week or maybe for two weeks she has to have a rest among her family, with her father, her mother, with her friends. So we are not in a hurry. We are not in a hurry.”

Butina did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

I also asked Malkevich if he was excited to see himself back in the American press.

I can’t say that I was excited to see myself on CNN because a lot of American media wrote about me and are still writing something about me,” he said. “Maybe that first time I was a little bit excited when I found myself in New York Times, and really big article with photo about me and so on.”

He added that his next project will involve compiling the various definitions western news outlets have used to describe him and his activities. You can learn more about that project via the SoundCloud link below.

Head of Russian Propaganda Site USA Really Calls It Quits

Alexander Malkevich and his website USA Really were sanctioned for “attempted election interference” last year

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Alexander Malkevich, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Russian propaganda website USA Really, has quit the project after he and his site were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in December.

Malkevich, who currently leads Russia’s Civic Chamber of Mass Media, from which he advises the Kremlin on media policy, said he left USA Really at the end of last month to focus on his work in Russia, including writing “several books” on U.S. elections.

“I decided to turn into my numerous projects in the field of civil society both in Russia and abroad,” Malkevich explained in an e-mail. “I have also plan to write and publish several books about the US elections and about the history of elections in the Russian Federation. This year I also have to finish my doctoral dissertation in the political sciences so I have too much work and I don’t have time enough for the USA really.

“I would like to mention that Leo Savin [a Russian political analyst and former editor of pro-Putin think tank Katehon] will be the next face of this media outlet,” he added.

USA Really HQ (source)

Malkevich’s exit comes just a few months after U.S. prosecutors accused USA Really’s parent company, the Federal News Agency (FAN), of being involved in Project Lakhta, a Kremlin-backed, multi-million dollar social media disinformation campaign allegedly intended to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.”

USA Really’s alleged role in the campaign included “efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues,” according to a statement by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). “In June 2018, USA Really attempted to hold a political rally in the United States, though its efforts were unsuccessful.”

In November, Malkevich was briefly detained by the F.B.I. during a trip to the U.S. as “a public observer” of the midterm elections. During that same trip, he gatecrashed an election night party at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he later claimed he was physically accosted by celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti’s entourage.

“This never happened and I don’t travel with an entourage,” Avenatti told Shooting the Messenger. “Putin must be so proud of this nonsense.”

Michael Avenatti with Alexander Malkevich (source)

Since December, USA Really has faced a number of setbacks after the Treasury Department prohibited U.S. individuals and businesses from transacting with the site.

In January, the site’s security certificate and PayPal account were revoked, restricting its ability to operate and do business within the U.S. Last month, Google followed suit and yanked the site’s analytics account, blocking its ability to access reporting data on its readers.

The sanctions also appeared to take their toll on USA Really’s American contributors, at least three of whom have since left the site, fearing possible legal repercussions. OFAC guidelines state that “fines for [violating sanctions] can be substantial” and “in many cases, civil and criminal penalties can exceed several million dollars.”

Despite those setbacks, Malkevich appeared resolute in comments last month to The Daily Beast, describing the sanctions as a “WITCH HUNT” and insisting that “ALL ANERICANS [sic] CAN WRITE ANYTHING FOR US.”

USA Really did not reply to a request for comment regarding Malkevich’s exit from the site.

Shooting the Messenger has followed USA Really since April last year, and in June scooped Malkevich’s involvement in the site.

Via POTUS Press Pool with Julie Mason, Sirius XM, April 19, 2018:

For those of you who are looking for a job, there’s a Russian troll farm that’s recruiting English-speaking journalists. Uh, you know, need a few extra bucks? It’s called the Federal News Agency, whichFederal News Agency used to be the name of, like, a transcription service here in Washington DC, so when I first saw that I was, like, “wait, what?” Anyway, Federal News Agency, a pro-Russian website linked to the Internet Research Agency, has been recruiting English-speaking journalists to work on its “Wake Up, America!” campaign. This is according to Shooting the Messenger. Here’s the adI’m going to read aloud from the ad:

“Due to the growing political censorship imposed by the United States, there remains less and less of information sources that are not under control of the U.S. authorities. In this regard, U.S. citizens cannot receive objective and independent information about events occurring on the territory of America and throughout the world.”

What!? Come on. “Under control of U.S. authorities”—Russia, come on, be smarter than that. Be smarter than a Russian troll, Russia. Anyway, so they are hiring. If you dream of working for a Russian troll farm, you can check it out.

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…”

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…”

MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, [an] 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.

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.