Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?

This article gives me a reason to air a fairly dated but now applicable theory.  

Loud, abrasive, inept, and sophomoric efforts at dispensing Russian propaganda like USAReally are most likely deliberate distractions for more sophisticated, low-level, more-professional efforts.  

Every single thing about USAReally screams they’re smoking hashish and planning this while drinking vodka.  I can hear it now…”Da, da, dis we should doo.  Vrite article making Alexader Malkevich loook like the next comingk of Joseph Stalin, loooking līk Vladimir Putin, talkingk like Hillary Clinton, but vith the eentelect of Rachel Maddow. Da?  Nazdrovia! (More correctly, Za zdorovje)”. 

In the meantime, members of the Russian Troll Farm will be quietly snapping up dozens, if not hundreds of domains sounding like legitimate news sites, conservative and liberal sites, and sites from every ethnic, racial, cultural, sexual, and religious perspective.  These sites, in turn, will probably be autopopulated with news feeds to establish long-term cred. Using AI, some will carry “original” stories. Each will have twitter feeds, follow other pirate sites, and feed yet more pirate sites. 

USAReally is a joke. A loud, obnoxious effort to make us confront our own First Amendment. We’ll handle them, we’ll even find a way to brand Malkevich an agent of foreign influence.  It’s the other ones, the quiet ones, we need to find and stop.

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A Russian media executive says he’s come to Washington to test the limits of American freedom.

This article was co-published in collaboration with our editorial partner Coda Story

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.

It has not been a soft landing.

First, WeWork ejected him from the coworking space he’d rented across the street from the White House — just two hours after he entered the building.

Then, his plan to stage a rally in front of the White House to mark the website’s launch was dashed because he sent his permit request to the wrong office.

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.

Though he declined to say whose idea it was to launch the site, Malkevich admitted that his startup capital came from Federal News Agency, a Russian news outlet tied to the infamous Internet Research Agency, better known as the troll factory.

In February, the Internet Research Agency and 13 Russians alleged to have worked with it were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Among them was Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s close allies, who is suspected of bankrolling the troll factory.

But if the launch of USA Really suggests Russia is still determined to spread disinformation among Americans, it also offers insight into the often-clumsy nature of Russia’s information war.

The news site was featured on the Rachel Maddow Show earlier this month, but Malkevich said his own attempts to reach out to U.S media outlets about the launch have been fruitless.

“They totally ignore me,” he said. (Malkevich’s emails to this reporter somehow ended up in a spam folder.)

News that USA Really would be operating from an office just a block away from the White House did attract some press attention. WeWork declined to comment on its reasons for terminating Malkevich’s membership.

“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.

Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that his ability to launch USA Really highlights the whack-a-mole nature of using sanctions and indictments against people who carry out the Kremlin’s bidding abroad.

“They will always be able to find a new person who we’ve never heard of before who will be willing to do their dirty work,” she said.

“Am I concerned that this website is going to get millions and millions of views? No, but we shouldn’t look at it in isolation,” she said, adding, “It’s really just one small part of a much broader ecosystem of disinformation.”

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.”

Amy Mackinnon is an editorial intern, focusing on security and defense. Originally from Scotland, she has reported extensively from across Eastern Europe. Her work has been published by CNN, Foreign Policy, Slate, and Coda Story, among others. She is a frequent contributor to BBC Radio Scotland and was a reporter on the Reveal episode, “Russia’s New Scapegoats” which won the 2018 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award. She is currently pursuing an MA in Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. @ak_mack