Is a New Russian Meddling Tactic Hiding in Plain Sight?

0
8

To an untrained eye, USAReally might look like any other fledgling news organization vying for attention in a crowded media landscape. Its website publishes a steady stream of stories on hot-button political issues like race, immigration and income inequality. It has reader polls, a video section and a daily podcast.

But this is no ordinary media start-up. USAReally is based in Moscow and has received funding from the Federal News Agency, a Russian media conglomerate with ties to the Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” whose employees were indicted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Caught flat-footed by the influence campaigns of 2016, intelligence agencies and tech companies in the United States have spent months looking for hidden Russian footprints ahead of the midterm elections.

USAReally’s website, which began publishing in May, does not advertise its Russian roots. But in many ways, it is operating in plain sight.

Its founder, Alexander Malkevich, is a Russian journalist with little previous experience in American media. Its domain was registered through a Russian company, and its formation was announced in a news release on the Federal News Agency’s website. The project, originally known as “USAReally, Wake Up Americans,” was intended to promote “information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications controlled by the political elite of the United States,” according to the release.

Today, USAReally’s website depicts the United States as a democracy in decline, riddled with crime and divided by partisan rancor.

Many of the site’s stories are similar to the divisive content that Russian trolls circulated on social media in 2016, down to their conspiratorial tone and telltale grammatical errors. (“Rabid Squirrels Is Terrorizing Florida,” read one headline.) Some of its articles appear to have been lifted word for word from legitimate American news websites.

The amateurish appearance of USAReally has led some critics to assume that it is either a bizarre vanity project or a decoy meant to attract attention away from more covert Russian campaigns happening elsewhere. But some cybersecurity experts believe the website may be a part of a retooled Russian propaganda operation that is experimenting with new tactics ahead of November’s midterm elections, and testing the boundaries of what American social media companies will allow.

“It’s a very overt operation,” said Lee Foster, an intelligence analysis manager with the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “Perhaps it’s an attempt to move this type of activity more into the mainstream, to try to legitimize it as a media entity so that it’s tougher to take action against it.”

[If you see disinformation before the midterms, we want to hear from you. Here is how to submit a tip.]

Last month, in a two-hour interview while traveling in New York, Mr. Malkevich, USAReally’s founder, explained his vision.

Red-bearded and combative, Mr. Malkevich wore a T-shirt printed with an image of cartoon spies, accompanied by a Russian sentence that translates as “the motherland is listening.” Accompanied by a translator but mostly speaking in his own heavily accented English, he peppered his speech with American political catchphrases like “fake news” and “witch hunt,” and he denied that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, calling it a paranoid conspiracy theory.

“I cannot imagine how several people from Russia or from Australia or from Japan can change the electoral situation in the United States,” he said. “Why do some representatives of a deep state think that Americans are so foolish?”

Mr. Malkevich acknowledged that he had received funding and other support from the Federal News Agency. Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian businessman who has been nicknamed Putin’s Chef because of his close ties to the Russian president, is believed to oversee the news agency. Mr. Prigozhin faces criminal charges stemming from the Mueller investigation, and he and several associates have been placed under sanctions that forbid them from entering the country.

But Mr. Malkevich, who said he had several types of visas that allowed him to enter the United States, denied any connection to the Internet Research Agency. He quoted a Russian proverb — translated roughly as “the son is not responsible for his father” — to distance himself from the group’s 2016 trolling campaigns.

“I don’t know anybody from so-called troll farms,” he said.

A video interview posted to YouTube in June provided a glimpse of Mr. Malkevich in USAReally’s office in Moscow, which featured a large portrait of President Trump and two flags on the wall — one American, one Confederate. Behind Mr. Malkevich was a Russian-language map of the United States, in which states were labeled with topics such as “crime,” “poverty,” and “Second Amendment (mass-shooting).”

Mr. Malkevich characterized the map as “normal,” and said it helped the site’s editors focus their work on different states.

Spokeswomen from the Justice Department and F.B.I. declined to comment on USAReally.

Mr. Malkevich said he aimed to turn USAReally into a kind of digital-first version of RT or Sputnik — both Russian media organizations that broadcast pro-Kremlin views inside the United States — and a counterweight to organizations funded by the United States, like Radio Free Europe, that broadcast in Russia and other countries.

A 2017 American intelligence report concluded that both RT and Sputnik were part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.” But they have been allowed to remain on Facebook and Twitter, because government-funded media is generally allowed on those platforms as long as it is created by authentic users and doesn’t violate the sites’ content guidelines.

USAReally, by contrast, was quickly banned by both Facebook and Twitter, although it recently opened a second Facebook page. A Twitter spokesman said that USAReally’s account was suspended for violating the site’s rules against spam. A Facebook spokesman said the company had enough evidence that the first page was involved in coordinated inauthentic activity to take action against it. He said the group’s second page was being investigated, and that the company had been aware of the account before being contacted by The New York Times.

Despite Mr. Malkevich’s claims, there are hints that USAReally may be drawing from the Internet Research Agency’s playbook, in addition to adopting the more open tactics of RT and Sputnik.

Last week, users on the popular message board Reddit complained that links to USAReally stories were being posted on the site’s largest pro-Trump forum, r/the_donald. The links were disguised, appearing to belong to websites like geotus.army and geotus.band. But when users clicked on the links, they were redirected to stories on USAReally’s website. (G.E.O.T.U.S., or “God Emperor of the United States,” is a nickname for President Trump popularized by users of r/the_donald.)

Reddit banned USAReally, geotus.army and geotus.band, along with a separate Russian-linked website called Brutalist.press. A Reddit spokeswoman said that the company had taken action against the domains for breaking the company’s policies, which prohibit manipulative behavior.

In a text message, Mr. Malkevich called the Reddit ban “just another illustration of censorship in America.” He said he had never heard of the G.E.O.T.U.S. domains, and that USAReally had no need to post its stories to Reddit, given the small amount of traffic it received from the site.

Without a presence on major social media networks, it has been difficult for USAReally to build an audience. Mr. Malkevich said USAReally’s website typically receives 5,000 to 10,000 visitors a day, a pittance compared to more established news sites, although several recent posts have received thousands of views apiece.

Mr. Malkevich, 43, was born in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, and has had a career trajectory similar to other successful post-Soviet media managers. He started in music journalism, spent time in political public relations, then ran a television station in Omsk, Siberia.

Recently, he has positioned himself as a champion of freedom of speech. In a column on the Federal News Agency’s website, he wrote that American social media networks were guilty of “selective censorship that Orwell did not dream of.”

Mr. Malkevich’s fumbling misadventures in American media have, at times, made him seem more like a Sacha Baron Cohen character than a sinister propagandist. In June, he planned a rally outside the White House, but canceled the event, he said, after failing to obtain the proper permit. He scheduled a round-table discussion about fake news inside a WeWork office in Washington, but his membership was abruptly terminated. An NBC News story about Mr. Malkevich carried the headline, “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to.”

“I’m an easy victim for American media,” Mr. Malkevich said. “You can showcase this Russian journalist — he wants to destroy our democracy with his bad English. But I don’t want to destroy. I want to build.”

USAReally has a full-time staff of 15 in Moscow, according to Mr. Malkevich, and a handful of American writers who contribute to the site. One of those writers, Jeffrey K. Silverman, said in a phone interview that USAReally’s Russian origins weren’t a concern. He had previously written for other pro-Kremlin sites, and when he learned that USAReally was looking for American writers, he volunteered. The site paid him $50 to $100 for each of his articles, he said, and didn’t instruct him to cover particular subjects or parrot a party line.

“Whenever I write for anything Russian, they don’t censor me,” Mr. Silverman said. “If I write for American publications, I get censored.”

Unlike the Russian trolls of 2016, who posed as Black Lives Matter activists, pro-gun Republicans and other American groups, many of USAReally’s writers use their real names. Several of them also write for a variety of other pro-Kremlin media outlets and think tanks.

“There’s a wide-ranging collection of Russian propaganda sites online that are connected,” said Renee DiResta, the head of research at New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm that specializes in disinformation networks. “USAReally has drawn from many of them to create a site that appears to be using the less-academic style of I.R.A. content to reach a much broader American audience.”

When not recruiting writers, Mr. Malkevich has been busy touring America, conducting interviews and posting dispatches to a group of supporters on the messaging app Telegram.

In New York, he posed for a photo in front of Trump Tower, then stopped at a bookstore, where he filled a shelf with books about Russian collusion, took a photo and posted it to his followers, mocking what he sees as a conspiracy-obsessed American public.

With a smirk, Mr. Malkevich said that despite the bleak vision of America that his website paints, he was not interested in sowing discord and division.

“I am interested in cooperation and friendship between our two great countries,” he said.

Graphic by Keith Collins. Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Moscow.

Interested in All Things Tech? Get the Bits newsletter delivered to your inbox weekly for the latest from Silicon Valley and the technology industry.

A version of this article appears in print on
, on Page
A
1
of the New York edition
with the headline:
Russian Website, in Plain View, Stokes the Fire of U.S. Politics
. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here