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

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

RIA FAN headline (source)

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

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

Evening Moscow headline (source)

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

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

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

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

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

Malkevich and Robinson (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

Round-Up 2019: Creating a Buzz

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

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

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

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

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Alexander Malkevich (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

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

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

Maria Butina (source)

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

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

Alexander Ionov (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

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

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Malkevich (source)

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

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

Leonid Savin (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Alexander Malkevich (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Butina (source)

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

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

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

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

Yevgeny Prigozhin (source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikhail Potepkin (source)

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

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

Malkevich denied having any knowledge of Bogacheva.

Petr Bychkov (source)

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

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

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

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

Malkevich was sanctioned by the US government for “attempted election interference” last year

— Malkevich “did not contribute personal funds!” says Butina’s Russian advocate 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 money through the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), a Moscow-based NGO, 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 gun-toting 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.”

Malkevich “did not contribute personal funds!” he added.

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 February 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.

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.

Daily Beast: Google Yanks Services From Sanctioned Russian Website

USAReally.com has been barred from using Google Analytics as the website’s American contributors reconsider their involvement

— The site’s parent company has postponed its lawsuit against Facebook while its attorneys apply for a sanctions exemption. Read my latest at The Daily Beast.

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

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

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

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

The sanctions have also thrown a wrench into a FAN lawsuit against another tech giant, Facebook, over its closure of USA Really’s pages on that platform, part of a long-running effort to rid Facebook of malicious foreign propaganda efforts…

Both parties agreed on Tuesday to postpone a conference later this month to update a federal judge on the status of the lawsuit. Treasury’s sanctions against FAN require its attorneys—with the U.S. law firms Diamond McCarthy and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston—to obtain a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to continue their representation…

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

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

Click here to read the full story.

And here’s a response from USA Really author Jeffrey Silverman, who was quoted in the article:

source

A couple of days back The Daily Beast published an article on USA Really titled “Google Yanks Services from Russian Propaganda Site.” The foregone conclusion upon reading the title would be that USA Really is “Guilty as Charged!”

However, I must admit that barring the click-bait like title the article was more balanced than expected.

Since I have been a regular contributor to USA Really, the authors of the Daily Beast article while working on the article contacted me and other writers with their many questions. I was a bit skeptical to communicate with them at first, as my experience communicating with the American mainstream media in the past had not been very productive.

My previous comments to the media were construed to present views that were contrary to mine—taken out of context.  More often than not, to distort what I actually said, with few exceptions.

However, I decided to discuss the matters with them thinking that this might be a chance to tell the true story, the story of how USA Really, just because of its Russian roots, is being harassed.  At least to be able to demonstrate that neither I personally nor USA Really had anything to hide… we were both being upfront and transparent.

My trust in The Daily Beast has paid up, albeit not entirely, but certainly more than I had honestly expected. And I am not the only one who felt this. A colleague of mine during an informal discussion shared:

“Fairly balanced article, I would say. Other than the fact that in the title of the article as well as in the very first sentence they mention USA Really to be a propaganda website; they would have done better by saying ‘alleged propaganda website.”

Surprisingly the article mentioned my true credentials stating, and put all my comments correctly without twisting them, unlike some other previous publications that described me as being an eccentric American with an ax to grind against the US government.

“Jeffrey K. Silverman, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based U.S. Army veteran who previously worked for Radio Free Europe, has written over 30 articles for USA Really on topics as varied as the BDS movement and the tobacco industry. In an e-mail, Silverman said that he continues to write for the site on a paid basis despite the sanctions.

I don’t know how they could legally apply to a US citizen, as the 1st Amendment still applies …”I continue to cooperate, and with greater enthusiasm. I don’t like being told as a US citizen that I am subject to 1984 and USSR-styled censorship.”

With Dean Sterling Jones—the article’s author—I shared my dilemma of not getting an answer from responsible American authorities (Treasury Department and American Citizen Services) about my legal plight and whether I can legally contribute to USA Really, even after asking them multiple times.

Consequently, Dean tried contacting the concerned departments to get their side of the story too. And unsurprisingly, as with my requests, Dean’s too were met by a wall of silence. I know many would say that we did not receive any response was because of the government shutdown, but deep down my heart I know that it is a device of subterfuge—on the part of the US government.

Or maybe they are waiting to ambush me on my next trip to the US, as they have done in the past, [at the airport] or are just not willing or capable of putting anything of substance in writing.

Or, maybe these sanctions are but a Red Herring because there must be some serious reason for picking on a fringe alternative media site, and based on my experience they are testing the waters to understand as to who they can block next?

Click here to read Silverman’s full article.