Being Alexander Malkevich

— When the head of Russia’s new disinformation campaign arrived in Washington DC this week, reporters for NBC News and Foreign Policy were there to meet him

Last week, I blogged an original story about Alexander Malkevich, a Russian government policy adviser and head of USA Really, a troll factory-linked propaganda organisation in Washington DC.

Shortly after I published my post, I received an unhinged comment from someone named Michael using a USA Really e-mail address, in a seeming attempt to persuade reporters to disregard what I’d written.

“Are you semicrazy person?” the comment read. “Please, go see a doctor help the society and yourself. May be you just have a vivid imagination. I’m not sure, but it looks like you took too much acid (aka LSD) in your childhood…Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.”

And so on.

Evidently, the dissuasion effort failed: the story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and covered by The Washington Post and Politico.

This week, Malkevich had scheduled a flash mob event to take place at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday, and a roundtable event at a WeWork office space opposite the White House to discuss fake news (WeWork is a company that rents private offices).

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Things did not go to plan.

Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the flash mob event—which originally included a symphony orchestra—after applying for the wrong permit. Then, according to Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is overseeing the USA Really project, Malkevich was removed and banned from re-entering the WeWork office space he’d rented. WeWork declined to comment for this item.

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Now NBC News and Foreign Policy have published profiles of Malkevich.

Via “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to” by Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich stood outside the White House on Thursday, braving the 85-degree heat in a skintight long-sleeve shirt with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on it. Thursday was flag day, as well as the birthdays of Malkevich, Che and President Donald Trump, and he was leading a very small political rally.

But this wasn’t one of the typical protests that crop up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malkevich sits on Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, an official arm of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was there to promote his new Russia-funded, English-language news site, USA Really. Wake Up Americans.

Like most of Russia’s efforts to manipulate U.S. politics, the website traffics in content on divisive issues such as promoting secessionist movements in the U.S. — the same kinds of activities that caused a furor when they were exposed as having influenced the 2016 presidential election.

Malkevich’s hopes of generating a similar furor now, two years later, seem to have degenerated into self-parody, however. Instead of actors with signs and musicians playing symphony music, as Malkevich had envisioned, he stood among tourists and “Free Tibet” protesters with only his business partner, Alex Dolgonos.

“It’s hot out here, but it’s much hotter in some of those rooms we’ve been kicked out of,” Malkevich said.

[…]

USA Really has a variety of links to Russia. The domain name for USA Really was registered privately from a Russian address, and promoted by the Federal News Agency, which is allegedly owned by “Putin’s Chef,” restaurateur oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their campaign to sow discord before the 2016 U.S. election. Since April, the jobs section of the Federal News Agency’s website has been recruiting English-speaking journalists for USA Really.

USA Really’s monthlong campaign in the U.S. has hit roadblocks in recent days, according to a statement of grievances from Malkevich posted on the Federal News Agency website. Facebook removed USA Really’s page, and according to Malkevich, Twitter has imposed restrictions on its account.

Malkevich repeatedly ignored or deflected questions about USA Really’s funding.

[…]

Malkevich told NBC News that he’s working on his English and that he’s staffing up for bureaus in New York and Washington. He also said USA Really wouldn’t repeat troll farm tactics of impersonating Americans on social media, while denying knowing anyone involved in the embroiled Internet Research Agency,

“We want to do everything legal,” he said.

Malkevich said he was enjoying his time in Washington, despite being disappointed at what he called “Red Scare” books in places like the gift shop of the Spy Museum about a half-mile from the White House.

“I see all of these stories about how 10 Russian hackers changed the election. Where is CIA? Where is FBI? They can’t stop 10 Russian hackers?” he said.

Malkevich chatted amiably about his venture. But under the unrelenting heat, he grew agitated when asked about the Internet Research Agency.

“I like America, but I keep getting into problems with all of these officials,” Malkevich said. “And now all of these people asking about the Russian trolls.”

Via “Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?” by Amy MacKinnon, Foreign Policy, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich might be the new face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subvert U.S. democracy. Or he might be a bumbling provocateur.

Malkevich, a Russian media executive with ties to the Kremlin, arrived in Washington this week to launch USA Really, an English-language news site that spreads the kind of disinformation and discord attributed to Russian trolls in a high-profile indictment earlier this year.

[…]

On Wednesday of this week, he showed up at a coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C., for his first interview with an American reporter. He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of the Russian foreign minister looking irritated and the phrase “debili blyat,” which roughly translates as “fucking morons.”

“This is my answer for these strange people that are frightened by us,” Malkevich said.

His new website is no less sophomoric. In the past few days, it has included stories headlined “Man Served His Friends Tacos Made From His Severed Limb” and “No Sex for Cops in Louisiana.”

Malkevich is a former manager of local TV and radio stations in Russia. He’s also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which advises the government on policymaking.

He says he was approached by a group of Russian journalists and businessmen to found USA Really after he gave a speech to the Russian Civic Chamber, a parliamentary advisory body, about the need to establish more media outlets abroad.

“We only have a few media working abroad. It’s so hard for them to stand against all this oppression,” he said.

[…]

“Now we see that there is real freedom of speech in Russia,” he said. “But a Russian media company cannot do anything in the USA.”

Social media websites, heavily criticized for serving as a megaphone for the Russian disinformation campaigns during the U.S. election campaign, have been aggressively policing USA Really.

Facebook shut down the website’s page within a day of its launch in May. On Twitter, USA Really has been prevented from posting direct links to its website, forcing it to route articles through Google Plus posts.

Malkevich said the site has been able to post photos on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but it is blocked from adding captions and hashtags.

The reasons for the crackdown are not totally clear. While the website is connected to individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions and indictments, through its affiliation with Federal News Agency, Malkevich is not included on either list and was able to enter the United States on a tourist visa.

[…]

Malkevich admitted that he’s had difficulty recruiting native English speakers to work for the publication, but he has high hopes for the project.

“I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Toward the end of the interview, an employee wiping down the table behind him splashed cleaning fluid on his phone.

“Spies from the FBI. Poison,” he joked.

“Of course, I am being sarcastic,” he added. “But there is still some concern.”

Russian Trolls Cancel White House Flash Mob Following Media Exposés, Citing Deep State Conspiracy

— It appears that organisers of the event applied for the wrong permit, before accusing US authorities of conspiring against them

Update, June 14, 2018: The USA Really website has posted a new article stating that the flash mob will go ahead “in downtown Washington not far from The White House.”

Last month, I scooped the story that a media campaign linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), —better known as the Russian troll factory—had planned to flash mob the White House on June 14, Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday, to mark the launch of its new website, USAReally.com.

The story was subsequently reported by McClatchy DC and The Rachel Maddow Show.

Courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood unpaid blogger, here’s another scoop (or two):

• The troll campaign has apparently cancelled its plans, having applied for the wrong permit (banners advertising the rally are still up on the USA Really website);

• The campaign says it’s currently operating from an office opposite the White House.

• Bonus scoop: The campaign says it had hired a symphony orchestra to play at the rally.

The cancellation was announced via the Federal News Agency (FAN), the pro-Kremlin Russian website behind the campaign. FAN has been traced back to the IRA by open-source researcher Lawrence Alexander. Russian news websites including RBK Group and The Moscow Times have also published stories linking FAN to the IRA.

“The Federal News Agency (FAN) planned to open in Washington its affiliated project, the information agency ‘USA Really. Wake Up Americans,’” an article on the FAN website reads. “The office of the news agency USA Really is located in the White House business center opposite the US president’s residence and we officially requested permission for the celebration, knowing the delicacy of the situation – after all, we invited a symphony orchestra, prepared invitations to many people, and thought out the opening ceremony.”

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The post continues:

“However, the Metropolitan Police Department categorically denied the information agency USA Really in coordinating the holiday action. Moreover, in addition to a written refusal, we were told by telephone that ‘the local police and intelligence agencies, including the CIA, have been informed [of the campaign] and will respond to all challenges on your part.’”

Here’s what the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s Director of Communications told me when I asked if his department had denied USA Really’s rally permit:

Dean,

Our Special Operations Division Planning Office has not received a request for a permit to be issued related to this.  You may want to contact the National Park Service’s Permit Office as well as they also issue permits.

Regards,

Hugh Carew
Officer, Public Information Office
Office of Communications
Metropolitan Police Department
300 Indiana Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
202-727-4383 (Office)
hugh.carew@dc.gov
http://www.mpdc.dc.gov
Twitter: @DCPoliceDept

Going by this screenshot of an e-mail posted on the FAN website, it appears that USA Really might have applied for a film permit instead of a rally permit:

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If you can’t read that, it says:

Good morning Alex,

We have received your permit request and are referring you to the Metropolitan Police Department for a rally/public gathering permit. I’m not sure which would suit your project – but it appears to me that filming this project may only be incidental to the ‘rally’ aspect which you requested.

https://mpdc.dc.gov/service/get-permit-special-event

Therefore your permit application is denied since we’ve determined this is a rally more so than a filming.

Sincerely,

Ray Williams / Locations, Resources & Film Permit Manager
Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment
Government of the District of Columbia
1899 9th St NE (HQ)
1 202-671-0066 main

In a separate article on the campaign’s US website, USAReally.com, the campaign accused “Deep State” security forces working from within the US government of conspiring with journalists and social media platforms to violate its First Amendment rights.

“The case surrounding the suppression, or outing, if you will, of ‘USA Really’ might be looked at closely, and at the end of the day described as just one more instance where certain political powers have shoved themselves into the democratic processes of the American people,” the post reads.

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It continues:

“This project hasn’t even officially started yet, but the deep state and the security services have already launched into their standard defamation campaign, and have started up again with their typical tropes and tired labels that we saw pop up around the time of the last presidential election, where any line contrary to the anti-constitutional and pro-imperialist one is magically ‘fake news.’”

USA Really’s Facebook and LiveJournal accounts were both recently suspended following the widely seen reports by McClatchy and Rachel Maddow.

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Meanwhile on Twitter, the campaign is busy dealing with an onslaught of criticism by doing what it does best: trolling the electorate.

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