Russian trolling ahead of the midterm elections is a mixture of the weird and the pathetic
For the past month, the consensus around Russian interference attempts in Tuesday’s midterms has been that Moscow has decided to effectively avoid doing anything to try to meddle in the election.
The Kremlin, The New York Times concluded, is “sitting out this election.” Or as the Daily Beast noted when surveying researchers’ opinions on Russian interference attempts in 2018, “This year, crickets.”
To be sure, there have been no large-scale hacking dumps, no on-the-ground rallies yet linked to fake Russian pages, no odd trips to Moscow from those on the far-left or the far-right — none of the staples of Russia’s 2016 interference campaign. And while there have been page removals on platforms like Facebook, it’s still unclear who was behind those accounts recently taken down.
Indeed, by all appearances, it seems Russia’s interference efforts are a shadow of their 2016 selves. But to say there haven’t been any interference attempts linked directly to Russia’s previous operations — and specifically to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian organization behind Moscow’s social media interference efforts — isn’t entirely accurate.
Over the weekend, a Twitter account called @IRA_USA1 contacted ThinkProgress. In a direct message, the account — which featured a pea-green troll hunched over a laptop as its avatar — claimed that 2018 would see Russia reprise its role as meddler extraordinaire.
“Do you still worry about Russians controlling your election? That is true,” the account wrote, in the type of stilted English featured in other fake Russian accounts. “We’re still doing it and no one, including [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller, can stop us. There’s no need to spend millions of tax payers’ money on the investigation — we’ll tell all the truth about it ourselves.”
While other Twitter accounts have claimed access to Russia’s trolling operations over the past week — one, which has since been suspended, claimed it had accessed Mueller’s “database” — the @IRA_USA1 account linked specifically to a website: USAIRA.ru.
Headlined the “Internet Research Agency American Department,” the website was a laughably bare-bones site. There was a single page cycling photos of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, alongside a countdown clock at the bottom set to expire at on Thursday morning. (It’s not clear what was supposed to happen when the countdown expired.)
Claiming to have “thousands” of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit accounts at their disposal, the page stated that electing Democrats was the IRA’s “top priority in these midterm elections.” Stirring Democratic discussions about collusion between Trump and Russia, it read, was “part of our plan.”
The rest of the page read like a bizarre, maniacal screed:
CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! YOUR INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES ARE POWERLESS…
SOON AFTER NOVEMBER 6, YOU WILL REALIZE THAT YOUR VOTE MEANS NOTHING. WE DECIDE WHO YOU VOTE FOR AND WHAT CANDIDATES WILL WIN OR LOSE.
WHETHER YOU VOTE OR NOT, THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE AS WE CONTROL THE VOTING AND COUNTING SYSTEMS. REMEMBER, YOUR VOTE HAS ZERO VALUE. WE ARE CHOOSING FOR YOU.
The page would be easy enough to ignore, both for its lack of content as well as its ludicrous text. There was one detail, though, that made the page newsworthy.
While it’s still unclear who managed the Twitter account — the page’s listed email address didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’ inquiry — a domain-registry search helped shine a bit of light on who put the website up. Registered last Friday, the organization behind the page was listed as “Azimut, LLC.”
If that name is familiar, it’s because the LLC is one of the companies mentioned in the February 2018 indictment from Mueller’s office against a number of Russian nationals responsible for Moscow’s social media interference campaign. The company, according to the indictment, listed Jay Aslanov — one of the indicted Russian nationals — as its general director. (The Justice Department issued a separate, related indictment last month.) Mueller’s indictment described Aslanov as the “head of the translator project,” who “oversaw many of the operations targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Not much is known about Azimut. According to Mueller’s office, Azimut was “used to move funds” from Concord Management and Consulting, a separate Russian firm, to the Internet Research Agency to help fund social media interference operations. Concord is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a sanctioned Russian national often cited as the primary operative behind the social media interference operations.
As RBK uncovered last year, Azimut was created in June 2016, and helped promote assorted fake Russian social media accounts. Azimut was one of a number of LLCs used in the 2016 operations, according to Mueller’s office — but it appears to be the only one thus far linked to any attempted 2018 operations.
That is to say, one of the LLCs cited by Mueller as part of Russia’s social media interference efforts apparently put up a website just a few days ago that claimed to be the home of the IRA’s “official statement.” And while Twitter hasn’t yet confirmed that the @USA_IRA1 account was linked to a Russian state-sponsored campaign, the account was suspended just a few days after it went live.
What’s the point?
It’s not immediately clear why those behind the new website thought the effort would be worth their while — especially given how quickly the Twitter account was suspended, and how sparse the page itself appears.
One person familiar with the Twitter suspension told ThinkProgress that the page may be an excuse to simply sow doubt about Russia’s manipulation efforts, or lack thereof, in 2018. After all, it’s not as if there haven’t been concerns about efforts to hack voting infrastructure in the United States. Just last month, the NSA’s Cyber Mission Center wrote that a “growing volume of cyber activity [was] targeting election infrastructure in 2018.”
The page, though, follows a separate, equally odd upload related to Russia’s previous trolling efforts. Last week, ThinkProgress reported that “Williams,” a man identified as part of Russia’s 2016 trolling efforts, had posted a video on YouTube claiming he was trying to leave the IRA and had swiped certain documents related to Russia’s 2018 interference efforts.
The Twitter and YouTube accounts for “Williams” were promptly suspended, but there are plenty of reasons to question the authenticity of the video itself. “It looks very, very suspect,” Ben Nimmo, a disinformation researcher at the Atlantic Council, told ThinkProgress.
Now, with the new website linked to one of the LLCs mentioned in Mueller’s indictment, we have a second abnormal account traced back to those behind Russia’s 2016 interference efforts.
Partly pathetic, partly strange, the accounts — and their messages and trolling — have flailed where the 2016 efforts succeeded. It doesn’t mean that Russia has decided to sit out election interference in 2018, necessarily. Rather, between Twitter’s rapid response and the information laid out in Mueller and DOJ indictments, the best days of Russia’s social media interference operations may be behind them — with little more than the weird and the wacky ahead.