Russian bots, trolls test waters ahead of US midterms
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The sponsors of the Russian ‘‘troll factory’’ that meddled in the 2016 US presidential campaign have launched a new American website ahead of the midterm elections in November.
In other signs of possible interference: A Russian oligarch has been linked to Maryland’s election services. Russian bots and trolls are deploying increasingly sophisticated, targeted tools. And a new indictment suggests the Kremlin itself was behind previous hacking efforts in support of President Trump.
As Trump prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, many Americans are wondering if the Kremlin is trying again to derail a US election.
While US intelligence officials call it a top concern, they haven’t yet uncovered a clear, coordinated Russian plot to mess with the fall campaign.
It could be that Russian disrupters are waiting until the primaries are over in September and the races become more straightforward — or it could be they are waiting until the US presidential vote in 2020, which matters more for US foreign policy. In the meantime, an array of bots, trolls, and sites like USAReally appear to be testing the waters.
USAReally was launched in May by the Federal News Agency, part of an empire allegedly run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin that includes the Internet Research Agency — the ‘‘troll factory’’ whose members were indicted by US special counsel Robert Mueller this year.
USAReally’s Moscow offices are in the same building as the Federal News Agency. The original troll factory was also initially based with Federal News Agency offices in St. Petersburg, in a drab three-story building where a huge ‘‘For Rent/Sale’’ sign now hangs.
The site believed to house the troll factory’s current offices is a more modern, seven-story complex with reflective blue windows in a different but similarly industrial neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Reporters were not allowed inside, and troll factory employees declined to be interviewed.
The USAReally site appears oddly amateurish and obviously Russian, with grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks.
It says it’s aimed at providing Americans ‘‘objective and independent’’ information, and chief editor Alexander Malkevich says it’s not about influencing the midterm election. Yet his Moscow office is adorned with a confederate flag, Trump pictures, and souvenirs and a talking pen that parrots famous Trump quotations.
‘‘Disrupt elections? You will do all that without us,’’ he said. He said Americans themselves have created their own divisions, whether over gun rights, immigrants, or LGBT rights — all topics his site has posted articles about.
Most online manipulation ahead of the midterm election is coming from US sources, experts say. They worry that focusing on Russian spy-mongering may distract authorities from more dangerous homegrown threats.
There is Russian activity, to be sure. But it appears aimed less at swaying the US Congress one way or another and more at proving to fellow Russians that democracy is unsafe — and thereby legitimizing Putin’s autocratic rule at home.
While security services are on high alert, ‘‘the intelligence community has yet to see evidence of a robust campaign aimed at tampering with election infrastructure along the lines of 2016,’’ Christopher Krebs, the undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said Friday that warning lights about overall cyber-threats to the United States are ‘‘blinking red’’ — much like ‘‘blinking red’’ signals warned before 9/11 that a terror attack was imminent.
Coats said that while the country is not seeing the kind of Russian electoral interference that occurred in 2016, digital attempts to undermine America are not coming only from Russia. They are occurring daily, he said, and are ‘‘much bigger than just elections.’’
Intelligence officials still spot individuals affiliated with the Internet Research Agency creating new social media accounts that are masqueraded as belonging to Americans, according to Coats. The Internet Research Agency uses the fake accounts to drive attention to divisive issues in the United States, he said.
USAReally plays a similar role. ‘‘USAReally is unlikely to create big momentum in its own right,’’ in part thanks to stepped-up actions by Twitter and Facebook to detect and shut down automated accounts, said Aric Toler of the Bellingcat investigative group.
However, Toler said the site could build momentum by creating divisive content that then gets passed to other provocative news aggregators in the country, such as InfoWars or Gateway Pundit.
Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed ‘‘Putin’s chef’’ because of his restaurant businesses, has not commented publicly on USAReally. Prigozhin and 12 other Russians are personally charged with participating in a broad conspiracy to sow discord in the US political system from 2014 through 2017.