Russia’s Latest Troll Site is a Total Failure

THE FOUNDATION TO BATTLE INJUSTICE claims to be a human rights organisation for victims of state violence in predominantly English-speaking countries.

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Dubbed the “Russian FBI” in its home country, the organisation is, in fact, the latest project of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was recently added to the American FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for allegedly organising online disinformation campaigns on behalf of the Kremlin.

Prigozhin announced the project on March 23 via Russian social media platform VK, from which he publicly answers questions from journalists. The foundation’s official site, launched on the same day, describes its founder as a “Russian entrepreneur” and lists “providing legal […] financial” and “media support for victims of police” among its purported goals.

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The site follows in the recent tradition of Russian troll sites like USA Really and Peacedata, which published in English and were primarily aimed at a U.S. audience. However, neither of those sites openly declared their Russian origins.

Asked for his take, transnational Russian crime expert Mark Galeotti said the site was “likely a bit of obvious trolling more than a serious attempt to set up a fake HRO that might pass muster.”

To date, the organisation has received no media coverage in the English-speaking press and its Twitter account has just two followers.

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The organisation has fared better in Russia, where Prigozhin has the advantage of chairing of his own media conglomerate, Patriot Media Group, which oversees at least nine pro-Kremlin news sites. Via these sites, Prigozhin recently published dozens of stories touting his foundation’s purported efforts to investigate alleged police misconduct in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Russian FBI investigates case of brutal detention of African American in Ohio,” read one headline by the Federal News Agency, which noted that Prigozhin’s foundation has “asked US President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland for clarification on the current case.”

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In an attempt to better understand Prigozhin’s latest venture, I sent journalistic inquiries to the site’s “info@” email address and Alexey Kochargin, who is listed as a contact on the foundation’s VK account. Neither responded.

I also sent questions to people publicly associated with the site including Alexander Malkevich, who is twice-sanctioned by the U.S. government for his ties to Prigozhin, and who recently commented favourably about the foundation’s work in Russian media. Here is his reply:

You are a very stubborn person in all that concerns conspiracy and inventions about me. Read attentively. I gave a comment about what I think about such a project. And today I gave a commentary about Elon Musk and his words about Russia. Do you think I work for him?

Alexander Ionov, a self-proclaimed human rights activist who recently appealed to Prigozhin’s foundation for help, sent a similar response:

Hi Dean, you’re always writing nonsense […] Why do you write to me if you later come up with articles about me and don’t include my comments? And your questions are not exactly strange but idiotic.
write whatever you want if your CIA fee depends on an interview with me. tell your boss that you’ve done it all.

Don’t bother me with any more stupid questions that have nothing to do with me.

If you want to know why the two Alexanders are so angry with me, you can read my recent reporting about them by clicking here, here, and here.

Got a tip? Send it to me via the comments or the contact form on my “About” page.

“Putin’s Cook” Behind New Russian Action Film “Tourist”

THE FILM marks Yevgeny Prigozhin’s third foray into film-making — and the arrival of a reality-bending new species of Russian propaganda.

Website for action-propaganda film Tourist (source)

On Wednesday, a trailer for upcoming Russian action film, ТУРИСТ (“Tourist”), dropped on YouTube. The film ostensibly tells the true story of Russia’s involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR), and, according to promotional materials, depicts Russian soldiers heroically fighting unnamed “terrorists” seeking to throw the country into turmoil.

Per an accompanying synopsis of the film:

“Tourist” is a film about political intrigue, chases and shootings, about the fight against terrorists – even if they threaten not your home and not even your country. A dramatic and dynamic action movie about people who are ready at the cost of their lives to protect the legal order and the lives of civilians of the Central African Republic – simply because they cannot indifferently watch how innocent people are dying.

The reality is more complicated. For example, U.N. peacekeepers recently accused mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group of “grave human rights abuses,” ranging from “attacks on humanitarian actors” to “mass summary executions,” in support of CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s efforts to quash rebel forces. (Click here for the Guardian’s broad-context reporting on Russia’s activities in CAR.)

The trailer omits another important detail: the film is seemingly owned/funded by Wagner’s titular head Yevgevy Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Cook.” That’s according to domain information for the film’s promotional website, whose registrant is identified as “Aurum, LLC.”

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Update, May 19, 2021: Aurum is also listed as copyright holder in the film’s end credits, per this screenshot:

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As Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and I co-reported last year, Aurum is a film company founded by Prigozhin in 2017. The company’s previous titles include Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which claim to tell the true story of Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, depicted in both films as an innocent sociologist. Per our reporting, the films were part of a year-long Russian propaganda campaign that sought to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison, where he was detained in May 2019 on espionage charges (he was eventually freed last December and currently runs a U.S.-sanctioned think tank that recently sent operatives to CAR).

The promotional site for Tourist seeks to put a similar spin on Russia’s involvement in CAR, describing the film as “a story told by ordinary people.”

While the site does not mask its association with Prigozhin or the Russian government (which is included in a list of acknowledgements), it does keep its distance from Wagner and, in turn, any alleged human rights abuses it may have committed. For example, the site’s only mention of Wagner comes from a brief excerpt of a Russian news report, which states that the film’s poster was designed by an unnamed “28-year-old girl from Vladivostok” who publishes “popular posters on the theme of PMC Wagner” on social media using the pseudonym “Merry Fox.”

It’s unclear if Fox exists and her Instagram page, currently set to “private,” has zero followers. But here’s a sample of her Wagner fan art:

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From the ICYMI Files: The Bizarre Campaign to Free a Notorious Russian Political Operative (Now With U.S. Sanctions!)

ALEXANDER MALKEVICH has been sanctioned by the Biden administration for spreading Kremlin propaganda. Here’s a round-up of my reporting from 2019–2020 about his global campaign to free Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley from a Libyan prison, which successfully weaponised Charlie Sheen, Maria Butina, and the Washington Post.

Poster for action-propaganda film Shugaley (source)

Alexander Malkevich will likely be familiar to readers of this blog. Throughout 2018, I gleefully documented his misadventures as editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really — for which he was sanctioned later that year in connection with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Robert Mueller-indicted Russian oligarch behind St. Petersburg’s infamous troll farm.

I continued to follow Malkevich’s efforts to wage Russia’s “information war” (his words) after he left the site in February 2019 in order to start a new company based in Moscow, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FNVP). This eventually led me to Libya, where in May 2019 one of Malkevich’s employees, Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, was arrested for his alleged involvement in a Kremlin-backed plot to install the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Since then, my reporting via this blog, BuzzFeed News, and Foreign Policy (joined by FP’s national security and intelligence reporter Amy Mackinnon), has shown that:

Malkevich and Prigozhin used a shell company to co-finance two big-budget action-propaganda films, Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which depict their namesake as an innocent but no-nonsense sociologist who brawls, spouts witty one-liners, and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle.

— Malkevich may have paid Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, and Danny Trejo to record video messages of support for Shugaley through the American pay-for-videos app Cameo (Malkevich denies this).

— Malkevich placed a now-deleted advertorial on the Washington Post’s site, calling on Libya’s president to free Shugaley.

— Two of FNVP’s senior consultants, Mikhail Potepkin and Petr Bychkov, advised Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir on ways to quell anti-government protests prior to a violent crackdown in 2018.

On the heels of that reporting, the U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned Malkevich for a second time, accusing him and his foundation of having “facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019.” (The announcement further states that Bychkov, FPNV’s consultant, has been sanctioned for leading Prigozhin’s “Africa back office.”)

Per the Treasury’s Apr. 15 announcement:

Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took sweeping action against 16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government…

Russian national Alexander Malkevich (Malkevich) and his company, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), have facilitated Prigozhin’s global influence operations since at least 2019. Malkevich, who was previously designated in 2018 pursuant to E.O. 13694 for directing USAReally, another designated Prigozhin-financed influence entity, has continued to support Prigozhin’s disinformation operations. Malkevich runs the FZNC website. Malkevich utilized the FZNC website along with other Prigozhin operatives to spread messages on behalf of Prigozhin […] Malkevich and the FZNC were designated pursuant to E.O.s 13848, 13694, and 13661 for supporting Prigozhin’s global influence operations. FZNC was also designated pursuant to E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by Malkevich.

When I asked Malkevich for his response to the above allegations, this was his reply:

It is difficult for me to comment on the actions of American bureaucrats. Everyone knows that I have been working for the fourth month as the head of a large TV channel in St. Petersburg. In addition, all my civil society activities over the past two years have been absolutely public and open. And there was nothing wrong and criminal in them […] As for my work at the foundation, I repeat that it has not taken any hostile actions against America. What does the activity of this organization have to do with the life of the United States of America?))

The full scope of FNVP’s activities in Africa is not known. In my interviews with Malkevich throughout 2019 and 2020, he denied any wrongdoing and insisted that FNVP’s sole enterprise is conducting sociological research to later sell to “businessmen and for other people who are in need of them.” (FNVP’s research is routinely published on its site free-of-charge.)

Shugaley — who was made FNVP’s president shortly after his release from prison in December — did not return multiple requests for comment.

If he’d answered my emails, I would have asked him about his relationship to Alexander Ivanov, who recently attended a meeting of FNVP’s “African debating club” during which there appeared to be discussion of a UN report published last month that accused Russian mercenaries of committing “grave human rights abuses” in the Central African Republic.

Ivanov is listed online as “director general” of the Officers Union for International Security, a self-proclaimed “association of people advocating for peace and stability.” Further research shows that Ivanov is, in fact, an advisor to Valery Zakharov, who is Vladmir Putin’s national security advisor to Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic.

A video of the meeting was livestreamed on YouTube by the Coordinating Council of Russian NGOs, whose chairman, Anton Tsvetkov, also chairs the pro-Putin “Strong Russia” movement.

Shugaley and Ivanov have both published open letters addressed to the UN demanding that it produce evidence for its claims. Meanwhile, studies published on FNVP’s site indicate that the foundation recently sent Russian operatives to the Central African Republic. It’s unclear what they’re doing there.

Notes from the cutting room floor

— Maria Butina, convicted in 2018 of being an unregistered foreign agent of Russia, has been added to the FNVP’s website as an “expert.” Malkevich donated money to Butina’s fundraising campaign in 2019, paying her U.S. lawyers through a third-party Russian NGO in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions preventing him from paying them directly. Butina later penned an article on the foundation’s site titled “Oh please, make me a tool of American propaganda!” lambasting the American press and judicial system. Here’s her newly added bio on the foundation’s site:

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— FNVP is using pirated software to prepare PDF versions of studies published on its site, per a review of the associated metadata.

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— The Officers Union for International Security site has not been properly secured, enabling visitors to browse files uploaded to the site’s WordPress library.

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Here is the (Now-Suspended) Twitter Account of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” Russian Troll

He’s wanted by the FBI, but you won’t find him on Twitter.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian catering oligarch widely believed to be behind St. Petersburg’s infamous troll farm, was booted off Twitter late-January — one month after joining the site — for a series of trollish tweets that veered drunkenly into self-parody.

Here are some of those tweets, in which he defends the motherland, pushes popular right-wing talking points, and complains about censorship by U.S. social media platforms.

1. In his deceptively cheerful first tweet, he wishes a “Happy New Year to Twitter!” before declaring that “Social media [is] full of slander and lies about Russia & Russians.”

2. In this ironic and drippingly sarcastic tweet, he lectures Americans on the “need to hold fair elections.” Alternatively, he suggests appointing “[Mark] Zuckerberg and [George] Soros as ‘King and Queen of the US.’ Let them figure out themselves who is a boy and who is a girl.”

3. Another slam at U.S. social media platforms and their CEOs. This time he equates getting banned from Facebook and Twitter to being impaled and having your tongue cut out by the Spanish inquisition.

4. In this tweet, he unconvincingly argues that Russia didn’t try to interfere with U.S. elections, instead accusing “Democratic politicians and the sluttish liberal media” of having “deceived the world and stolen everything.”

5. Traditional values? Is he running for office or something?

6. This one’s self-explanatory.

Prigozhin claimed ownership of the account in a rambling January 27 post on Russian social media platform VK, from which he answers questions from journalists. Archived snapshots show that he had fewer than 400 followers at the time of his suspension.

The FBI is currently offering a reward of up to $250,000 for information leading to Prigozhin’s arrest, citing “his alleged involvement in a conspiracy to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the United States Department of Justice, and the United States Department of State.”

H/T to the Wayback Machine and archive.today, which allowed me to archive Prigozhin’s account shortly before it got pulled.

Russian Parliament Votes to Exclude Bloggers From Bill Branding Foreign News Outlets as “Foreign Agents”

The controversial proposal was devised by Alexander Malkevich, the U.S. government-sanctioned former editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Via Malkevich’s Telegram earlier today (courtesy of Google Translate):

I’ll be honest: I’m upset; I personally voted in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation against softening the bill on foreign agents.

And this is what happens now: https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4617311

The requirement to indicate the status of a foreign agent in their materials will apply only to the media. Regular citizens and bloggers won’t need to do this.

“We propose more clearly to establish that the marking of materials about a foreign agent in messages and materials belongs to the exclusive competence or responsibility of the media,” said Vasily Piskarev, head of the State Duma Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption. My position on foreign agents is stated here.

I noted that the legislation on non-profit organizations and public associations contains a number of unregulated norms that allow non-profit organizations that receive assistance from foreign sources to operate, but are not registered in the register of foreign agents.

Accordingly, it is necessary to legislatively expand the conditions for the recognition of non-profit organizations, individuals, the media and public associations as foreign agents on the territory of the Russian Federation.

In addition, foreign media outlets (Radio Liberty / Present Time / Voice of America) should be prohibited at the legislative level from campaigning at their sites during the election campaign.

For violation – fines and, as a tougher measure – temporary blocking of resources by Roskomnadzor. If they do not want to comply with the legislation of our country, it means that they will be temporarily blocked for the period of the election campaign.

Legislatively establish the obligation of an individual-foreign agent in the media / Internet to publicly notify the audience about his status.

But, as you can see, their lobby is serious.

It’s unclear what is motivating Malkevich’s dislike of foreign bloggers. But one factor might be my reporting documenting his ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin-linked oligarch widely believed to be behind Russia’s infamous election interference campaigns. Since 2018, I’ve received numerous hostile messages from Malkevich in response to that reporting.

For example, in June 2018 I received the following comment from someone claiming to work for USA Really, the Russian propaganda site for which Malkevich was sanctioned later that year. The comment came in response to a blog post I wrote detailing Malkevich and Prigozhin’s involvement in the site.

Are you semicrazy person? 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.You always do a pretty good job with data gathering (easy as pie).

However, Dude, WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation? Shame on all media who use your talks as actual facts. Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.

Wanna real info about usareally.com write directly to us, we will gladly provide you THE FACTS, not this half-backed-shit. Actually, if you are a good journalist, you will never use someone esle info, especially you would avoid info from some anonymous dude from the internet, who is pushing his own agenda… And it’s not like usareally.com is closed for contacts. It’s wide open. Feel free to write us. Wanna come? Come. Wanna interview? Contact us. DO NOT USE this man thoughts as facts. They are not. And they will never be facts…

Earlier this year, Malkevich falsely accused me of taking orders from the U.S. National Security Agency, claiming that I’d “violated all the principles of objective [journalism],” and comparing me unfavourably with Washington Post duo Woodward and Bernstein. That was for a story I wrote for BuzzFeed News, about a now-deleted ad Malkevich had placed on the Post’s site.

In interviews with Russian media, Malkevich said my reporting heralded the “death of American journalism.”

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You can read more about Malkevich’s attempts to smear me via “Russian ‘troll factory’ cries foul over US advert removal,” by BBC Monitoring’s Russian disinformation specialist Olga Robinson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a screenshot of the now-deleted ads:

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

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

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

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Charlie Sheen Thanked After Accused Russian Troll is Released From Libyan Prison

A U.S.-sanctioned Kremlin policy adviser has thanked Sheen after the star was seemingly paid $400 to record a video in support of Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, now free after spending 18 months in a Tripoli prison.

The video, addressed to Shugaley, was posted on YouTube in September by an obscure Russian channel named “Интер Сторис” (Russian for “Inter Stories”).

Here’s a copy of the video I uploaded to Vimeo after it was removed from YouTube:

The video was part of a lengthy campaign to free Shugaley and his interpreter, who were arrested in May 2019 and accused of being involved in a Kremlin-backed plot to help elect Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the fugitive son of deposed dictator Muammar Gadhafi.

As detailed in a recent story I co-bylined with Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon:

Sheen, alongside actors Vinnie Jones and Dolph Lundgren, seems to have been unwittingly recruited to record messages of support for Shugaley through the pay-for-videos website Cameo. [After this story published, a fourth video from “Machete” star Danny Trejo was released by troll factory-linked news site Riafan.ru.]

The videos are just the latest twist in an increasingly bizarre international campaign to raise the profile of Shugaley’s detention. So far, that has included his election to a local council in Russia, two feature films, an advertorial in the Washington Post, a mixed martial arts tournament, and a one-woman picket in front of the Libyan Embassy in Moscow by Maria Butina, the gun-loving Russian who spent 15 months in prison in the United States after being convicted for conspiring to act as a foreign agent.

The campaign was spearheaded by Alexander Malkevich, a Kremlin media policy advisor whose former role as editor of Russian propaganda site USA Really led to him being sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2018.

Here is Malkevich with a gift given to him by Russian state-backed TV network RT (formerly Russia Today), consisting of alcoholic cocktails made to resemble military cartridges and grenades:

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Malkevich says he employed Shugaley to conduct sociological research in Tripoli on behalf of his Moscow thinktank, the Foundation for National Values Protection. He denies allegations by Libyan prosecutors that Shugaley was working for Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, widely believed to be the mastermind behind Russia’s attempts to interfere with U.S. elections.

Yesterday, I sent Malkevich an email asking if he took credit for Shugaley’s release, and if he wanted to thank Sheen for getting involved.

“Yes and yes,” Malkevich replied.

Danny Trejo Recruited in Russian Propaganda Campaign

Trejo is the latest Hollywood celebrity to make headlines in Russia after recording a video in support of a notorious Russian political operative. The celebrities are seemingly being recruited through the pay-for-videos site Cameo.

Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and Vinnie Jones appeared in their first ever film together last month, when an obscure Russian YouTube channel posted a suspicious video compilation in which they each expressed support for Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, currently being detained in Libya on election interference charges.

The videos, seemingly commissioned by an unknown client through the celebrity video-sharing site Cameo, quickly made headlines on Russian news sites associated with Putin-linked catering oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin — the man accused of hiring Shugaley — as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign to raise his employee’s profile in Russia. (Click here to read more about the “increasingly bizarre” campaign, via me and Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon.)

Now actor Danny Trejo has joined the growing list of unwitting surrogate propagandists, telling Shugaley to “stay strong” in a video published last month by Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), one of the sites associated with Prigozhin.

“Machete don’t text, but […] I’ll text you homie,” Trejo says in the video.

Here’s a screenshot of the FAN’s reporting, which made no mention of Cameo or any pay-to-play services. Via Google Translate:

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And here’s a screenshot of Trejo’s Cameo profile, where he currently charges $125 to record personalised videos in exactly the same format as the video published by the FAN:

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I was unable to reach Trejo for comment.

Alexander Malkevich, who insists that he, not Prigozhin, hired Shugaley to conduct harmless sociological research in Libya, has denied paying for any of the videos. Malkevich previously ran the clumsy Russian propaganda site USA Really, a subsidiary of the FAN.

Malkevich, Prigozhin and the FAN are all subject to U.S. government sanctions that prohibit them from doing business with U.S. individuals and entities.

I’ve contacted Prigozhin and the FAN for comment.

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.

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.

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Equally unsurprising 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.