Shooting the Messenger Referenced in New Book By Richard Stengel, Former Time Magazine Editor/U.S. Under Secretary of State

— “Information Wars” details modern disinformation tactics, from ISIS to the Kremlin

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Richard Stengel, former managing editor of Time Magazine, has a new book out.

Recounting his experiences as U.S. Under Secretary of State during the Obama administration, “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It” details the rise of modern disinformation tactics as practiced by the Kremlin and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organisation ISIS.

The book cites my February 2018 deep dive into the tactics used by the infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) — better known as the Russian troll factory — in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election (my post transcribed and analysed internal IRA documents obtained in 2015 by Russian news site MR7.ru. To my knowledge, my blog was the first publication to translate that information into English).

Here is an excerpt from the book:

The Internet Research Agency was creating hundreds of pieces of fake and misleading internet content an hour. Like a digital marketing agency, it operated across the entire social media ecosystem. The whole enterprise is financed by a tycoon who is an ally of Putin’s…

MR7.ru had actually published documents smuggled out by IRA employees. They ranged from overarching guidelines about posting (amount, frequency, use of keywords) to talking points about the news of the day (protests on the Maidan, American policy toward Syria) to a glossary of internet slang. The guidelines offered a blueprint for what the workers did and how they did it.

One document describes their job this way:

TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.[52]

The first thing workers needed to do, according to one of the memos, was to create online personas, sometimes called “sock puppets.” These personas are meant to look and sound like real people. They have names and photographs. They “like” other people’s photos and comments and statuses. Workers are meant to have multiple social media accounts – one memo said they should have at least three different Facebook accounts. There are also specific guidelines, for example, for posting pro-Russin material in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, Politico, and the Blaze. The guidelines suggest that these identities should mix political opinions with more mundane posts about things like music or movies or “the owner’s social life.”

And here is the reference to my blog in Stengel’s footnotes:

52. Translated from a lexicon of internet slang terms produced by the Internet Research Agency and leaked in 2015. See Andrei Soshnikov, “Столица политического троллинга” (“The Capital of Political Trolling)”, MR&.ru, March 11, 2015, https://mr-7.ru/articles/112478/; and Dean Sterling Jones, “Inside the Russian Troll Factory,” Shooting the Messenger, February 7, 2018, https://shootingthemessenger.blog/2018/02/27/inside-the-russian-troll-factory/.
53. Jones, “Inside the Russian Troll Factory.”

The book contains a few more references to information first published on my blog, including an IRA directive requiring its staff to publish socially and politically divisive content online in an attempt to “stir up dissatisfaction and grievance” around issues of racial inequality, police brutality, and gun control in America.

Following the Indian government’s recent attempts to censor my blog (click here and here to read), this is a welcome change.

Thanks Stengel!

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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 Russian plot to influence African elections.

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 a mysterious St. Petersburg mining company named 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.

Trolling the Electorate

— A Russian troll factory-linked media campaign headed by a Putin-approved government consultant claims to have an office facing the White House 

For the past month, I’ve blogged extensively about “Wake up, America!”a mysterious “Russian ops” campaign that recently made headlines after it attempted to organise a flash mob event at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s upcoming 72nd birthday.

The event was advertised via USAReally.com, a disinformation website that called on “every patriot” to “come up to the White House on June 14th at 2:00 p.m. to congratulate America.”

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According to a press release published in April, USA Really was created by the Federal News Agency (FAN), a pro-Kremlin Russian media company that says it has an office “in the White House business center opposite the US president’s residence.”

Organisers appeared to cancel the event—which would have included a symphony orchestra—after mistakenly applying for a film permit instead of the proper rally permit, although an article published earlier this week on the FAN website claims the cancellation came as a result of a conspiracy by US authorities to censor its free speech rights (banners advertising the rally are still up on the USA Really website).

FAN has been digitally traced to the Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency (IRA)better known as the Russian troll factoryby US cyber-security firm FireEye and open-source researcher Lawrence Alexander, among others. In 2015, Adrian Chen of The New York Times visited the IRA’s offices in St. Petersburg and found that FAN was operating out of the same building.

Now for the latest twist in the story: According to a video published Tuesday on FAN’s YouTube channel, the “Wake up, America!” campaign is being headed by the deputy chairman of the Russian government’s Commission on Mass Media and Mass Communications, Alexander Malkevich.

Alexander Malkevich (source)

The video appears to have been filmed from inside USA Really’s Russian office, which is adorned by US and Confederate flags, a colour-coded map of the US, and a framed picture of Donald Trump.

The Commission on Mass Media is a branch of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation (OPRF), which was created by Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2004 to facilitate “interaction between the federal government, the local governments, and the people of Russia in order to ensure that their interests are taken into account, and that their rights and freedoms are protected when creating and implementing government policy.”

The composition of the chamber was personally approved by Putin himself.

USA Really HQ? (source)

Despite OPRF’s claim that it helps “strengthen civil society institutions as democracy institutions,” the chamber has been described by Russian critics as a “smokescreen” intended to “distract the public’s attention from what is a real diminishment of democracy,” and “a calculated move to diminish the power of parliament and strengthen the Kremlin’s centralization of power.”

Yesterday, Malkevich used the OPRF website to publish an anti-US screed complaining about the negative attention “Wake up, America!” has received in the US, and demanding that the Russian government take legislative action against US news and social media platforms.

Here is his post in full (courtesy of Google Translate):

Our Commission has talked a lot about the discriminatory approach that applies to the Russian media in Europe and the United States. And we have repeatedly made proposals on this topic that Russia needs more mass media in order to fight back in the world information war.

In May, in a test mode, a group of enthusiasts launched the information resource “USA Really”. Objective media, young, sincere media. It was honestly and officially announced that he would work in the English-speaking zone, no media outlets violated any laws, only official information, proven materials, no fictions, open real journalism was published. And what happened?

After the site worked for several days in a test mode (ie without advertising campaigns and mass mailings about the opening of the resource, it was simply debugging work processes), the Facebook account was completely destroyed, Twitter introduced a number of restrictions: in fact, journalists can not He publish publications with direct links to his site.

But there was a blog in LiveJournal (I want to emphasize that this social network is run by a Russian company), which began to develop, Twitter missed direct links to LJ posts, but it did not last long, for a maximum of 24 hours, after which this blog was also blocked.

It is clear that this is illegal and this is arbitrary, since the administrators of the blog received no warning messages from the management of the social network. And this makes you ask a whole series of questions.

First, there is no vaunted democracy and freedom of speech in the US. The American authorities, without ceremony, without giving any reasons, clean out the information field from everything they disagree with and from all those who do not cuddle or crouch before them.

But, once again, why does the Russian company support US sanctions? A law on counter-sentences has been introduced, at the highest level, the introduction of criminal responsibility for those who are ready to support these sanctions on the territory of our country is being discussed.

Does this mean that the leadership of SUP media should go to jail for supporting the policy that the US authorities are leading against Russia?

With the so-called “freedom of the media” in America everything is clear, because it simply does not exist. But it is fully present in Russia – only in some perverted forms. On the territory of our country, not only the American media that regularly publish libel, but also their subsidiaries, who tell us very coolly and with a spark that Siberia should secede from Russia, that the Crimea is not Russian land and so on. They work in the Russian legal field, they quietly conduct their groups in Russian social networks, they are not blocked, although there is a violation on violation and violation drives.

It turns out that Americans can work for us quietly, but we do not. There is discrimination, and with this you need to do something at the highest governmental level. We, both as a journalistic community and as public figures, are certainly outraged by this imbalance – and we are asking the State Duma, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the Government to support the interests of the media, which are insolently flouted by American companies, and the US authorities, which dictate to them, and to all of us, thus, our will.

In a separate post, FAN’s editor-in-chief Yevgeny Zubarev called on Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor to censor “foreign social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.”

According to Russia’s business index, Zubarev is FAN’s founder and proprietor. He is also a key figure in Adrian Chen’s NY Times Magazine piece on the IRA, sending a photographer to follow Chen to his hotel and later publishing an article attempting to link Chen to Moscow neo-Nazis.

Although Zubarev refused to disclose the names of FAN’s investors, a 2017 investigation by Russian media group RBK found evidence that FAN might be funded by “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of 13 Russian nationals indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February for allegedly attempting to interfere in the 2016 US election.

Prigozhin has hired lawyers and is fighting the charges in US court.

Update, June 10, 2018: USA Really is holding an event hosted by Alexander Malkevich at WeWork White House on June 15. The event is titled “’Fake News’ in the ‘Digital Technology Age.’ WeWork White House is located one block from the White House.

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