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Despite sanctions, top Russian propaganda operation still active on popular platforms

The Federal News Agency, the successor to the infamous troll farm that pushed propaganda during the 2016 U.S. election, is active on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram.

Despite sanctions, top Russian propaganda operation still active on popular platforms
[Photo: Leon Bublitz/Unsplash]

Despite a series of indictments and sanctions in the last year, a Russian propaganda operation continues to sow division and spread misinformation around the globe–from the upcoming U.S. presidential race to Venezuelan unrest–on popular platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.

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The Federal News Agency is the blandly titled successor to the infamous Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that pushed propaganda during the 2016 U.S. election on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms. The FNA website, whose articles closely adhere to Russian foreign policy, from tough criticism of the Ukraine to fake news about Venezuela’s healthy economy and the U.S. occupying Syria, is a key component of Project Lakhta, a Russian influence operation. Since February 2018, three dozen outlets and operations affiliated with Project Lakhta, including Federal News Agency and the Internet Research Agency, have been sanctioned and indicted by U.S. authorities.

Project Lakhta is funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, “a Russian oligarch who is closely identified with Russian President Vladimir Putin” and Concord Management and Consulting, according to an affidavit filed by the U.S. Justice Department in September.

According to the October 2018 indictment of a woman described as Project Lakhta’s accountant for her alleged role in a Russian conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the 2018 midterm election: “The conspiracy allegedly used social media and other internet platforms to address a wide variety of topics, including immigration, gun control, and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate. Members of the conspiracy took advantage of specific events in the United States to anchor their themes, including the shootings of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, and concert attendees in Las Vegas; the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and associated violence; police shootings of African-American men; as well as the personnel and policy decisions of the current U.S. presidential administration.”

Despite the sanctions, several of Project Lakhta’s outlets spread their propaganda on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Telegram–and even offer apps for download on the Google Play and Apple App stores, according to research compiled by Kharon, a data and risk analysis firm launched by former U.S. Treasury Department officials.

A January 31, 2019 PolitRossiya article predicting a “second round of martial law” in the event that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko loses his March 2019 reelection campaign. [Screenshot: Kharon]
Among the headlines on stories shared by the Federal News Agency: “There are five times fewer beggars in Caracas than in Kiev,” claims that Venezuelan stores are full of goods (contrary to mainstream news reports of massive food shortages), and warnings that the U.S. might remain Syria’s “main occupier” despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw most U.S. forces from the war-torn country.

Kharon researches and analyzes the universe of over 7,000 actors–that includes companies, individuals, and government entities—sanctioned by the EU, the U.S., and the UN, capturing that information in its Clearview platform, the firm’s senior vice president Joshua Shrager tells Fast Company. Its clients range from global financial institutions to law firms “interested in making evidence-based decisions about the various risks they are facing.” Kharon says that it relies on information that is publicly available–from corporate records in Russia and media reports to personal websites and social media activity for its research–rather than human intel, in contrast to intelligence firms.

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Project Lakhta outlets continue to use U.S. social media platforms to amplify their communications. View full size here. [Image: Kharon]
Similar to the IRA’s activities, the FNA and its affiliated sites focus on news “in a way that supports the Kremlin’s policy objectives” and with a focus less on picking favored candidates and more on sowing discord in the U.S. elections.

The resilience of Project Lakhta points to the success of the Kremlin’s goal of creating disposable assets to spread their propaganda, says Ben Nimmo, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab:
The first stage was the creation of overt sources, especially RT and Sputnik. The second stage was the creation of sources which obscured their origin–for example, RIAFAN, the Baltnews network in the Baltic States, and a range of RT offshoots which didn’t mention their affiliation until they were caught. Now that those assets have been exposed, it looks like the troll farm operators, in particular, have been launching a new set of sites which haven’t yet been exposed as part of the troll machine.
The challenge the project faces, like early 21st-century media outlets around the globe, is building an audience “which means building a brand,” adds Nimmo. “But to work effectively, the brand has to conceal its real origin. That means that, once the origin is exposed, the brand is devalued, and they have to start again.” Hence, the Internet Research Agency effectively being replaced by the Federal News Agency.

Interestingly, Facebook, which was the poster boy of misinformation in the 2016 U.S. election due to the spread of Russian propaganda on the platform, has been more proactive than its competitors, taking down the profiles of groups affiliated with Project Lakhta, says Kharon analyst Alec Hively.

Reps for Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, and Prigozhin did not return calls for comment from Fast Company. A spokesperson for Twitter declined comment, except to tout the platform’s progress at removing content and accounts with potential links to “state-backed information operations,” noting that from January to June 2018, about 75% of spammy accounts challenged for more information were ultimately suspended.

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