Information Warfare · Russia

Anatomy of a Russian Propaganda Troll: Geotagging Marks the Spot



First highlighted by the astute Grant Goodale, this mistake on the part of the account’s operators presents an opportunity to analyze the content of a Russian propaganda troll account that accidentally blew its own cover. From this, we can get a sense for the kinds of messages the Russian intelligence/propaganda apparatus seeks to convey to American audiences, the fake news that Russian propaganda spreads, the actions they want to dupe Americans into taking, and the outcomes they would like to see happen.

First, though, some background: Russia has been known to spread propaganda via “troll farms” of paid content creators, using social media, “fake news” and other kinds of websites, YouTube channels, recruited/coopted agents in the West, etc, to manipulate public discourse and pursue its strategic objectives. This famous analysis of the infamous “Internet Research Agency” provides good context:

The Internet Research Agency […] had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.”

Since then, much related research has been done, including Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy by a team of researchers at FPRI, and our own Black Friday Report On Russian Propaganda Network Mapping (both of which have held up very well in retrospect!). Joel Harding has done excellent work describing the organizational structure of Russia’s propaganda bureaucracy, the New Yorker has laid out the Kremlin’s larger motivations and strategy in their war on liberal democracies around the world, a famous dossier describing Trump’s “deal” with Russia has been vindicated as accurate time and again, multiple investigations have been probing the Trump administration’s collusion with Russia to sabotage the 2016 election, and Congress has begin investigating how Russia used extremist pro-Trump websites like Infowars and Breitbart to target “fake news” propaganda at the American people, among many other developments.

The scandal of “Kremlingate” – Trump’s corruption by and collusion with Russian intelligence – is just getting started.

However, Russian propaganda continues its attempts to deny, confuse, justify, or distract from Russian military and intelligence operations around the world, especially their covert support of the Trump administration. Thanks to the Russian operators of the @KevinK_2012 propaganda account blowing their cover by leaving geotagging on, we have new insight into their operations.

Let’s start with the location and account description:

The @KevinK_2012 account claims to be an American from Westerly, Rhode Island in its profile, but after leaving geotagging on, Twitter attributes the origin of many of its tweets to Saratov, Russia. There is no obvious reason to suspect that Twitter’s geolocation is inaccurate, and leaving it on is an easy mistake for a Russian propagandist pretending to be an American to make. There is no previous reporting into Russian propaganda troll-farm activity originating in Saratov, but it’s a city of around a million people, so it’s not surprising as a location for such operations.

Russian propaganda operations often work through contractors, so can be located almost anywhere, and widely vary in competence and technical skill. Russia also frequently outsources their propaganda-creation efforts to allies and coopted agents in target countries or third countries, in order to create deniability. The Saratov location is a reasonable location for such troll-farm contractors.

Because it is a Russian propaganda account pretending to be an American, the KevinK_2012 account counts as “black propaganda“: A systematic form of persuasion, purporting to be from someone it is not, that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages.

The content of the account itself is especially worthy of direct scrutiny, and is telling, because it gives us a sense for the kinds of messages the Russian intelligence/propaganda apparatus seeks to convey to American audiences, the fake news Russian propaganda spreads, the actions they want to dupe Americans into taking, and the outcomes they would like to see happen.

For example, Russia would like to see Trey Gowdy (R-SC), become Director of the FBI. We know this because this known Russian propaganda account is advocating for it:


That indicates that the Russian state and intelligence services would love to see Trey Gowdy replace James Comey as FBI Director, presumably because he would not effectively investigate Trump’s collusion with Russia. It also indicates that Gowdy may himself by compromised by Russian intelligence, whether through cooption or blackmail, and should immediately recuse himself from all related investigations and submit to counterintelligence investigation.

There is much more we can glean. For example, Russia wants to stir up ethnosectarian hatred against Muslim people in the United States. We know this because this known Russian propaganda account is trying to do so:

In doing so, this Russian propaganda account is spreading “fake news” – deliberately inaccurate information. The Pew Research Center has examined this in some detail:

Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. Asked specifically about suicide bombing, clear majorities in most countries say such acts are rarely or never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies…

In fact, the Russian intelligence services (with their allies, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria) help create and continue to strategically support extremist terrorist groups like ISIL and the Taliban. The Russian intelligence services have supported terrorism since the height of the Cold War, and there’s no reason to think they stopped. However, and at the same time, Russian propaganda like the KevinK_2012 account stirs up internal strife in the West, using fake news to blame all Muslim people for the very problem Russia is helping create!

Further, Russia hates attempts to help refugees and promotes internal conflict surrounding them. We know this because this Russian propaganda account is trying to do so:

Here, Russian propaganda is piggybacking off mainstream U.S. media (the Wall Street Journal) in order to frame attempts to help refugees as a zero-sum conflict with U.S. military veterans. It is attempting to create division within the U.S. by promoting the narrative that “refugees are taking our jobs”, which directly parallels Russian attempts to use refugees as a political wedge and incite division in Europe.

Russian propaganda is still trying to hype the “Clinton email server” non-story, and focus investigatory attention away from Trump and onto Hillary Clinton. We know this because this Russian propaganda account is still trying to do so:

Here, Russian propaganda is piggybacking off Charlie Kirk, the founder of a major conservative activist group, Turning Point USA, in order to refocus attention on Russia’s U.S. opponents, and distract from the very warranted investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia.

This takes a similar approach:

Different kinds of Russian propaganda amplify and feed off each other. We know this because this Russian propaganda account provides an excellent example of them doing so:

Here, a “black” Russian propaganda account (deniable, trying to pretend to be an American) comments on and amplifies a narrative being spread by one of Russia’s largest “light gray” (state-sponsored but pretending to be independent) propaganda outlets, Russia Today. The narrative it uses attempts to discredit Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, and negatively associate him with Hillary Clinton.

Russian propaganda hates “globalists”, and wants Americans to think that “liberals and globalists” support terrorism, Muslim people cannot assimilate into the West, and Islam forbids doing so. We know this because this Russian propaganda account provides an excellent example of them doing so:

Here, Russian propaganda uses the term “globalists”, which (as we mentioned in our report) Russian propaganda has long used as a derogatory scare-word (instead of “globalization”), in an attempt to demonize what has been largely seen in the West as a relatively secular process resulting from increasingly efficient global communications and transportation. Russian propaganda denigrates liberalism, writ large, in keeping with the Kremlin’s fascist ideology (which they pretend they don’t have). Russian propaganda insists that Muslims cannot integrate into the West, ignoring how, especially in the U.S. they actually do a great job of integrating and assimilating into the fabric of American life. Russian propaganda also frequently insists that Islam “forbids Muslims from assimilating”, which is simply fake news.

Russia is using propaganda to fight a populist revolutionary war against liberal democracyThis one requires a little explanation:

Here, Russian propaganda is laying out the terms of the war they’re fighting, using ideological language that they think will appeal to their audience in this particular case. The primary objective is to demonize liberal democracy by associating it with “corporatism” and “globalism”, and they advocate for its “populist” overthrow using whatever justification seems appropriate at the time. To Russian propaganda, “socialism” and “capitalism” are essentially interchangeable terms, and they’ll advocate for “socialism” while targeting left-leaning audiences, and for “capitalism” when targeting right-leaning ones.

Here they do it again:

This Russian propaganda account’s use of “Woke Up World” is interesting, and warrants further investigation. Whoever produces and spreads those memes is, knowingly or not, acting as a propagandist for Vladimir Putin, the most brutally corrupt dictator in the world.

Russian propaganda constantly seeks to discredit actual journalism. We know this because this Russian propaganda account provides an excellent example of them doing so:

Here, Russian propaganda is using a meme from collectiveevolution.com in order to create the impression that actual journalism is trying to “enslave” its audience. The objective is to confuse public opinion, encourage paranoia and passivity, and distract American audiences away from relying on actually-accurate journalism – and supplant actually-accurate journalism with Russian propaganda.

This Russian propaganda account’s use of content from collectiveevolution.com is interesting, and warrants further investigation. Whoever produces and spreads such content is, knowingly or not, acting as a propagandist for Vladimir Putin, the most brutally corrupt dictator in the world. We have listed collectiveevolution.com as a Russian propaganda outlet for related reasons.

More generally, any time a particular outlet consistently, uncritically, and one-sidedly echoes, repeats, gets used by, or refers its audiences to Russian propaganda (especially Russian (semi-)official state media), then it is acting as an outlet for Russian propaganda itself, and should be treated accordingly.

All of the above examples are from just the last 24 hours. The timeline of the KevinK_2012 account  contains numerous similarly telling examples of Russian propaganda, and we encourage all concerned to investigate it for themselves, using a critical eye and whatever technical forensics tools you have available. Because we expect that account to start deleting tweets, we have mirrored them all in a spreadsheet for later analysis, along with a spreadsheet of the propaganda account’s followers.

In conclusion, this a rough-and-ready analysis of just one, out of literally millions, of Russian propaganda Twitter accounts, websites, YouTube channels, Facebook pages and accounts, etc. It is probably partially automated, and its operator almost certainly runs hundreds of parallel accounts, repeating similar messages in various guises to audiences targeted by Russian intelligence for indoctrination.

We know about how this works in part because courageous Western journalists (and comedians!) have actually interviewed some of the Russian propagandists doing this:

As the investigation of Trump’s treachery with Russia closes in on him and his henchmen, we expect Russian propaganda to increase in volume accordingly, along with Russian intelligence use of other “active measures” – including bribery, intimidation, cyberespionage, and even assassination and terrorism.

We encourage all concerned to share this article, read our report, get news from actual journalists, organize locally, and creatively oppose Trump/Putin using all legal means! Also, please follow us on Twitter, at @PropOrNot, and on Facebook. Feel free to get in touch by email at (our domain)@gmail.com, and watch this space – we won’t stop fighting this.

Sincerely,

— The PropOrNot Team

Source: http://www.propornot.com/2017/03/anatomy-of-russian-propaganda-troll.html
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