Category: Russia

Zero Hedge, Russia, and the Business of Conspiracies

Note: On December 23, 2019, I was notified that a criminal complaint (see English summary here) had been filed against me with the Bulgarian prosecutor general’s office by the subject of this piece, Krassimir Ivandjiiski. I was given a deadline of December 31 to take down this piece. I refuse to do so.

For my lastest story in The New Republic magazine, I tried to figure out where conspiracy theories come from. The answer took me on a strange reporting journey that led to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It’s a long read, but a good one, and you can read it here.

The story mentions Zero Hedge, a popular financial blog. There wasn’t room in the TNR piece to get into it, but Zero Hedge and What Does It Mean have a lot in common. They have both found that Russia and conspiracies are good for business.

Zero Hedge, with its mix of gloom-and-doom financial analysis, current events, conspiracies, and pro-Russia commentary, is one of the most popular sites on the Internet. It ranks in the top 2,000 of all Internet sites worldwide, meaning that it pulls in more than a million views every day.

Zero Hedge says its mission is “to widen the scope of financial, economic and political information available to the professional investing public” and it does that by refusing to follow what it calls the “pro-US script.”

Instead it follows the pro-Russia script.

It runs stories that hew the Kremlin line, such as how the poisoning of a double agent in England was staged by British intelligence operation or how the Steele Dossier was created by Internet trolls. Throw in commentary from a self-described “Kremlin troll” and writings from Russia Insider (which the Trump State Department describes as “an English-language publication linked to pro-[Russian] government oligarchs”) and you see how many think Zero Hedge is some kind of Russian disinformation operation.

Despite its pro-Russia leanings, or perhaps because of them, Zero Hedge a critical part of the right-wing conspiracy ecosystem. This became clear when Facebook temporarily blocked Zero Hedge in March, prompting howls of outrage from people in President Trump’s circle like his son, Don Jr., Nigel Farage, and Katie Hopkins. (The ban was lifted, and Facebook told Breibart that it was the result of a “mistake with our automation to detect spam.”)

A few days later, Australian Internet providers blocked customer access to Zero Hedge after a gunman killed 51 people in a New Zealand mosque.

The Australian ISP ban had less to do with the site and more to do more with the people who read it.

Zero Hedge readers were sharing links to the shooter’s live-streamed video of the massacre, which many of them thought was a hoax.

Yes, these are people who are so narcissistic that they think the mass slaying of 51 unarmed people in a mosque is all about them.

Who is behind Zero Hedge?

All posts on Zero Hedge are written under the pseudonym of Tyler Durden, the character played by Brad Pitt in the film Fight Club. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” reads the Zero Hedge “manifesto.”

Of course, anonymity is also a shield for someone who has something to hide.

In a 2016, a former Zero Hedge employee named Colin Lokey, who wrote much of the site’s political content, told Bloomberg that he felt pressure to frame issues on the site in a way that felt disingenuous.

“I tried to inject as much truth as I could into my posts, but there’s no room for it,” Lokey explained. “Russia=good. Obama=idiot. Bashar al-Assad=benevolent leader. John Kerry= dunce. Vladimir Putin=greatest leader in the history of statecraft.”

Lokey identified the other Durdens at Zero Hedge as Dan Ivandjiiski, a Bulgarian-born financial analyst banned from the industry in 2008 for insider trading, and Tim Blackshall, a credit derivatives strategist in San Francisco. In a telephone interview, Ivandjiiski told Bloomberg that he and Blackshall had been “on the payroll.”

Neither Ivandjiiski nor Blackshall own Zero Hedge directly. The site is owned by ABC Media Ltd. In one lawsuit, ABC Media was identified as a Bulgarian company.

Cornerstone Macro v Ivandjiiski

Indeed, ABC Media Ltd. is listed on Bulgaria’s corporate registry.

Founded in 2011, ABC Media (АБЦ Медия) is a single member LLC. The sole proprietor is Daniel’s father Krassimir Ivandjiiski (Красимир Иванджийски).

If you can read Bulgarian, here’s the company’s corporate filing.

In addition, Zero Hedge’s domain name is registered under Krassimir’s name at an address in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Who is Krassimir Ivandjiiski?

Krassimir Ivandjiiski

Krassimir Ivandjiiski has an interesting background.

Born in Bulgaria in 1947, he was educated at the First English Language School in Sofia and the Warsaw School of Economics.

As a young man, Ivandjiiski worked in the Bulgarian the Ministry of Foreign Trade, before leaving to join the military and begin a career as a journalist. He became a “special envoy before 1990 to the most important political and military conflicts.” He spent more than 12 years abroad as a foreign in Prague, Warsaw and Vienna, then in Africa — Harare and Addis Ababa.

Craig Pirrong, who blogs at Street Wise Professor, wrote that this is the perfect resume for a spy:

That is an intel operative’s CV with probability 1. Probability 1. Every one of those jobs was a classic cover. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever—none—that Mr. Ivandjiiski senior was a member of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security (Държавна сигурност or DS for short)—the Bulgarian equivalent of the KGB. And remember that Bulgarian DS was the USSR KGB’s most reliable allied service during the Cold War. It carried out wet work in western countries, notably the “umbrella murder” of Georgi Markov in London. It was linked to the plot to assassinate the Pope; although in the topsy-turvy world of intelligence, it is also alleged that the CIA fabricated the case against the DS. Regardless of the truth about the links to the attempt on John Paul II, it was a very, very, very nasty operation. (The African stops in Ivandjiiski’s resume makes it highly likely that his path intersected that of another charmer, Igor Sechin, who was a “translator” in Africa.)

On his website, Krassimir Ivandjiiski assures us that he had nothing to do with the KGB and he will sue anyone who says otherwise. Zero Hedge has attacked Pirrong as “the world’s favorite finance ‘expert’ for Wall Street hire.”

In 1994, after the Soviet Union collapsed, he began publishing a Bulgarian tabloid, Strogo Sekretno (Top Secret), which describes itself as the country’s only independent newspaper. Strogo Sekretno is published by a separate company, Primex-7 Ltd., also owned by Ivandjiiski, senior.

I found out about Strogo Sekretno because it often runs the fake conspiracy stories created by What Does It Mean. Krassimir Ivandjiiski also published Bulgaria Confidential which has run stories that have nothing to do with Bulgaria such as drug trafficking in Montana.

The site is also filled with pro-Putin, anti-Semitic garbage:

  • “The US dollar is built on the so-called ‘Jewish Mafia’. This is not some racial prejudice, but a proven truth.” Source
  • Millions of people in Russia and around the world were stunned to see Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the Victory Parade in Moscow on 9 May. This hideous spectacle let the genie out of the bottle: “What is it? What’s going on with the Zionist Netanyahu and at whose expense?” Source
  • “Chabad is a “racist, criminal Jewish supremacist doomsday cult.” Source
  • “It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Talmudic behavior is the real cause of Anti-Semitism.” Source

Zero Hedge, for the most part, steers clear of such outright anti-Semitism, but is nevertheless very popular with the sort of people who like the hatred Krassimir Ivandjiiski likes to spew.

Just look at the Zero Hedge comments section: a lot of racists and crackpots are reading. Don’t believe me? Do a search for the n-word or “joo” in the Zero Hedge comments section.

What Is This All About?

In a word, money.

“They care what generates page views. Clicks. Money,” Colin Lokey, the former Zero Hedge employee, told Bloomberg.

Zero Hedge says they have nothing to do with the Russian government or any government. “We have also never accepted a dollar of outside funding from either public or private organization – we have prided ourselves in our financial independence because we have been profitable since inception,” the site wrote.

As my story on What Does It Mean shows, this may very well be true. It would be nice if Vladimir Putin were secretly running things, but the sad truth is sites like Zero Hedge don’t need to take marching orders from Russia; they gravitate to it on their own because it keeps the audience happy.

And keeping the audience happy is what really matters. An audience comprised of racists, anti-Semites, extreme right-wingers, and conspiracy wingnuts is a valuable one. They are all credulous fools, and, as all dime-store preachers know, the credulous are easily monetized.

Krassimir Ivandjiiski, who did not respond to emails sent to ABC Media and Strogo Sekretrno, wrote on his site that the only reason his name is connected to Zero Hedge is because “they even did not have $30 for the initial registration.”

That may have been true at one time, but the web domain registration fee is spare change for Zero Hedge today. Dan Ivandjiiksi, who didn’t respond to questions, lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.

It’s possible that Zero Hedge is registered in Bulgaria because it’s somehow connected to a Kremlin disinformation operation. It’s also possible that Zero Hedge is registered in Bulgaria for financial (tax?) reasons.

The bottom here is the bottom line. Conspiracies are big business.

Impeachment Showcases Putin’s Skill at “Working with People”

Few people realize that Vladimir Putin was once asked how his past experience as an officer in the KGB helped him as a politician. His answer related to his experience “working with people.” (работы с людьми)

For Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council and Russia expert who delivered powerful testimony last month before the House impeachment inquiry, “working with people” is not as innocent as it sounds.

It is a bit of what she calls “KGB jargon” that reveals a great deal about Putin’s nearly two-decades long hold on power. And it also sheds light on what has befallen our current political order here in the United States.

During Putin’s days as a spy in the 1970s and 1980s, the KGB was all about “working with people,” a euphemism for what might better be described as working on people. Rather than repressing, detaining, or killing critics and opponents of the Soviet regime, Yuri Andropov’s KGB decided it would try to win them over using guile, patience and, most importantly, leverage. “It means studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them,” Hill writes in her insightful 2012 book, Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin.

Hill lays out how Putin has used this skill to great effect in winning over the Russian political elite as well as its citizens, nearly half of whom still approve of his performance as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his election as president. It’s also quite clear that one of the people with whom Putin has been diligently “working” is President Donald Trump.

The Russian leader has had ample opportunity to work with Trump over the course of more than a dozen phone calls and in-person meetings, including the two-hour private meeting in Helsinki that offered the relaxed, informal setting that Putin prefers. “To be able to work with people effectively,” Putin has said, “you have to be able to establish a dialogue, contact.”

While we know when the two leaders have spoken, including a phone call between Trump and Putin shortly after the Ukraine election is of particular interest to House investigators, we know little about what they have discussed. Even Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said he did not “fully understand” what the two leaders had discussed privately in Helsinki. But Trump has given us some clues about a frequent topic of conversation.

Putin has repeatedly told Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  “He just — every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that.’ And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in 2017. The president went even further the following year in Helsinki when he said he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would have interfered, citing the Russian president’s “strong and powerful” denial.

Putin has called working with people “the most complicated work on the face of the Earth,” but for an experienced KGB case officer Trump isn’t a tough study. The president’s deep insecurity about being perceived as an illegitimate leader is painfully obvious.

This insecurity is at the root of his false claims about the “millions and millions” of illegal ballots that cost him the popular vote in 2016 or his “massive landslide victory.” Trump cannot stomach the fact that he was elected by a minority of the people.

Nor is the president able to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A former aide, Hope Hicks, told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that whether or not Russia had an impact on the election or not didn’t matter to the president because “people would think Russia helped him win.” Hicks astutely described the intelligence assessment as Trump’s “Achilles heel.”  

Another leader might let the matter drop, but a former KGB case officer recognizes the issue of election interference – the very same one the U.S. intelligence community found Putin ordered — is a vulnerability he can skillfully exploit. It provides an opportunity for the Russian president to create the shared understanding necessary to “achieve results,” in working with people. “You need to make that person an ally,” Putin has said, “you have to make that person feel that you and he have something that unites you, that you have common goals.”

It’s not hard to see how destructive this shared understanding that Russia didn’t interfere in the election has been to Trump’s presidency. The July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky that is at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry was in part an attempt by Trump to cast doubt on Russian interference.  Similarly, Trump’s potentially criminal efforts to obstruct his own Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference are the fruits of the poisoned seeds planted and carefully nurtured by Putin.

After the uproar over Trump’s comments in Helsinki, which he swiftly walked back, the president no longer publicly voices his doubts about Russian interference. He leaves it to surrogates like Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, who show loyalty to the president by voicing his feelings. Asked recently whether it was Russia or Ukraine that hacked the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, Kennedy replied, “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”

Likewise, Hill called out Republican members of the intelligence committee for suggesting that Russia did not attack the election but somehow Ukraine did. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian Security Services themselves,” she said. 

Hill stopped short of accusing the Trump of serving the Kremlin’s interests for fear of creating more fodder that the Russians could use against American democracy in 2020.

At the same time, she made it perfectly clear that anyone who pushes the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election – as Trump did on Fox & Friends the day after Hill testified — is serving Russia’s interests.

Surely, not even Putin could have imagined the uproar that would flow from his shared understanding with the American president, but the upcoming impeachment vote in Congress is in no small measure a testament to the remarkable power of Putin’s skills at “working with people.”

The Problem with “Letting the Voters Decide” about Donald Trump

Photo via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8M6PhK

Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and President Trump’s former UN ambassador, is out with a new book this week. Casting her lot with Trump and his base, Haley says she doesn’t think her former boss has done anything to merit impeachment.

“There’s just nothing impeachable there, and more than that, I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why do we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?” Haley told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell.

Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition who was so fond of telling us during the Clinton impeachment hearings that “character matters,” agrees with Haley.

“Let the voters decide who should be president! This impeachment inquiry is a sham and is an attack on our democracy,” Reed tweeted.

“Let the voters decide” is fast becoming the impeachment battle cry of Trump and his band of loyal Republicans who say the president’s only real “crime” was winning the 2016 election.

But Trump’s defenders have it backwards. Impeachment is the only remedy left for a president who has welcomed, solicited, and extorted foreign interference in our elections. Letting the voters decide is a fine idea when elections are free and fair, but there is simply no guarantee that an election will be free and fair as long as Trump’s name is on the ballot.

The framers of the Constitution worried about foreign interference in elections, which they saw as chief among “the most deadly adversaries of republican government.” But the framers surely never anticipated a president like Trump who would make foreign interference in domestic politics an element of his statecraft.

As the impeachment inquiry in Congress has made painfully clear, the scheme that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, cooked up in Ukraine took advantage of a beleaguered country’s need for help battling Russian invaders and sought to use it for Trump’s political advantage back home. Congressionally-appropriated money for Javelin anti-tank weapons was held hostage as the White House tried to coerce Ukraine’s new president into announcing an investigation of a company connected to Joe Biden’s son.

To be sure, politics is a dirty business and candidates have been slinging mud in elections for as long as we’ve had them. But using the power of the presidency to coerce a shaky democracy into investigating the family of a political opponent is so breathtakingly corrupt that it manages to undermine American democracy, damage the rule of law, weaken a U.S. ally, and undermine our national security all at the same time.

The cry of “let the voters decide” signals a retreat to safer ground from the earlier, now abandoned position that no such quid pro quo occurred. An anonymous whistleblower followed by a parade of current and former members of the administration who defied the White House told Congress a sordid story about the administration’s shady goings-on in Ukraine. That led Gordon Sondland, a hotelier who serves as Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, to “refresh” his recollection and concede, contrary to his earlier denials, that not only was there an ultimatum given to Ukraine, but he was the one who had delivered it.

Letting the voters decide might be a plausible if Ukraine were the only instance of foreign interference in a Trump election, but it isn’t. Russia interfered in the 2016 election in what Special Counsel Robert Mueller called a “sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Trump, and the campaign welcomed some offers of Russian assistance, such as the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian attorney whose offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton was described as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Not much has changed. Offers of help from abroad were still welcome in the Trump campaign, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller sent Trump’s campaign chairman, his lawyer and a campaign aide to prison for lying about Russia. The president told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos in June that there was nothing wrong with accepting dirt from foreign governments. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said — a statement that was noted by the anonymous whistleblower in his complaint laying out the details of the president’s efforts to shake down Ukraine.

The trial of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political advisor, is a reminder of the lengths the Trump campaign was willing to go in order to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election. As early as April 2016, Stone was informing the Trump campaign of upcoming Wikileaks email dumps of emails stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian intelligence. Prosecutors said that Stone repeatedly lied to Congress about his contacts with Wikileaks because “the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”

The toxic combination of foreign interference and Trump’s desire to win at all costs also may go a long way to explaining Trump’s strange attraction to tyrants and strongmen like Vladimir Putin. Trump was clearly willing to punish Ukraine because it wasn’t willing to “do us a favor,” as he put it, and help the president politically. Just imagine what Trump would do for a country that did help him win.

As new details emerge, one can’t help but wonder how many other times the Trump White House solicited foreign interference in episodes that we don’t yet know about. How many testimonies collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller might have been “refreshed” had courageous insiders stood up to Trump’s bullying and blown the whistle? How many witnesses were less than forthcoming because of the intimidation Trump openly directed at those who stood in his way?

In the end, impeachment isn’t about who wins, regardless of what Trump says. It’s about whether Congress believes foreign governments belong in our elections and whether a leader who welcomes help from abroad or tries to extort it is worthy of letting the people cast their votes for him.

On Red Sparrows

“There is a colossal institute of co-opted Soviet girls,” an ex-KGB man told a room full of U.S. senators. “There were many, many co-opted Soviet girls with different appearance, different talents.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that day in 1970 was a KGB defector named Yuri Krotkov, testifying under the alias of George Karlin.

Krotkov, a Soviet screenwriter, playwright and radio correspondent who defected in 1963, called these women “swallows” because like the birds, they are “gentle” and “soft.”

Testimony of George Karlin

Krotkov said he “recommended” — procured, one might say — “swallows” for the KGB. “The swallows are clever girls,” Krotkov continued, “they want all sorts of jobs with foreigners, they dream about them, even if it is risky, because they hope, they would marry them, maybe they would go abroad.”

One of his swallows became a mistress to Sukarno, the president of Indonesia. Another was used to seduce Maurice Dejean the French ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1964.

The goal, Krotkov said, was to use these “swallows” to get these foreigners to do something for the KGB.

Today, these sorts of women are better known as “sparrows,” after the best-selling 2013 book Red Sparrow by former CIA officer Jason Matthews (highly recommended, and the way) and film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The closest thing we have to a real-life “swallow” or a “sparrow” these days is Maria Butina, the redheaded Russian graduate student who went to prison for acting as a clandestine Russian foreign agent. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, Alexander Torshin.

Prosecutors initially accused Butina of offering sex in exchange for a job. That allegation was soon withdrawn, with prosecutors saying they had misread a text.

During her time in the United States, Butina did have affairs well-connected older men, such as Paul Erickson, who was well connected in Republican circles. With help from Erickson, Butina infiltrated the National Rifle Association, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA annual meeting, and came very close to a meeting with President Trump. You can read more about that here.

Another man who had a romantic affair with Butina was Patrick Byrne, then the chief executive of Overtstock.com. You can read what Byrne told me about his relationship with Butina and the FBI here.

Maria Butina and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.

A few months ago, I met with Byrne at a hotel in downtown San Diego and he told me a story that, I think, reveals a lot about Maria Butina.

Byrne wrote part of the story last month on his blog, Deep Capture, but his account leaves out what I view as the most revealing part.

In the spring 2018, Byrne was visiting Washington, D.C. when he got a message from Butina. She somehow knew that he was in town and asked to come by his hotel room. Butina had received a master’s degree in international relations from American University and she wanted to show him her diploma. She arrived and after a while pulled out her cellphone and showed him a picture of her transcript.

“…. Then she swiped the screen. I was staring at a subpoena she had received from the Senate Intelligence Committee a few weeks earlier. She told me about being questioned by Senate Intel, about how the forces of the [U.S. government] were closing in on her.”

Missing from that account is something Butina told Byrne in that hotel room. According to Byrne, Butina told him that the Senate Intelligence Committee had spent “about a third of their time” asking about him, Patrick Byrne. “They have a stack of every message, every text, every email we every wrote,” Byrne said Butina told him.

It was the last time Byrne saw Butina. A few weeks later she was arrested on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. Butina pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She was released last month and returned home to Russia where she was welcomed as a hero.

There’s a good reason why Byrne left out the part about the Senate Intelligence Committee asking about him: It wasn’t true.

I checked with Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll. Butina’s Senate testimony isn’t public but he had a copy and he reviewed it at my request. “No reference to Patrick after a pretty close skim,” he emailed me.

I relayed this to Byrne:

According to Byrne, he told her to go home to Russia. She told him she couldn’t. If she did, she would serve 15 years in prison. As Butina’s heroic welcoming in Moscow shows, this, too, was a lie. He told her to the FBI. She said that, as a Russian, she couldn’t.

Some will no doubt say that perhaps Byrne was lying. I don’t think so. When he told me this story, he seemed to believe it. Even so, he encouraged me to go check this account with Driscoll. That’s not something a liar would do.

I think Butina told Byrne a well-crafted lie. Since her testimony was sealed, she knew whatever she told Byrne about would be impossible to verify. Also, it’s no secret that Byrne saw himself at the center of various intrigues. Thus, it was a lie that he would be likely to accept without much fuss.

The question is why. Why would Butina lie to Byrne? Why was she using him and what for? Had someone told her to make this approach Byrne? Did she hope to provoke a reaction? Did she know that Byrne was talking to the FBI?

I wrote Butina several letters in prison to see if she was willing to talk about this. She never responded. As often happens with intelligence-related matters, we are left with more questions than answers.

But it’s a revealing glimpse into the world of woman who was much more than a foreign grad student. A “sparrow” or a “swallow” was a beautiful seductress. Maria Butina was using her brains as well as her body.

The Origins of the Internet Research Agency

The Internet troll factory in St. Petersburg was a surprise to Americans during the 2016 election. In Russia, it was an open secret from its very inception.


Payments Weekly and Free Food!!!

In August 2013, an intriguing posting for jobs in St. Petersburg, Russia appeared on social networks:

“Internet operators wanted! Work in a chic office in OLGINO!!!! (m. Old Village), payment 25,960 rubles per month. Objective: posting comments on specialized Internet sites, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks. Screenshot reports. The work schedule is selected individually <….> Payment is weekly, 1,180 per shift (from 8:00 to 16:00, from 10:30 to 18:30, from 14:00 to 22:00). PAYMENTS WEEKLY AND FREE FOOD !!! Official or contractual employment (optional). Training offered! ”

Original wanted ad for the Internet Research Agency

Novaya Gazeta, the fiercely independent Russian newspaper, sent one of its correspondents to find out what it was all about.

Their queries took them to an address in Olgino, a historical neighborhood in St. Petersburg.

The Internet Research Agency’s original location in Olgino.

The Novaya Gazeta reporters were told they would be required to write 100 comments a day on specified articles. As an example, the reporters were told to write that the recently concluded G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was a great honor for Russia.

The goal was to increase the visibility of these articles in the same way that writing reviews on Amazon boosted product sales, the reporters were told. Robots could do the job, but the sites often blocked them so it was decided to have humans do the work.

Within a few years it would be wreaking havoc in elections around the world, but even in its early days, the group had bigger plans.

It was in the process of recruiting people for an even bigger project that would begin in 2014.

The name of the business was the Internet Research Agency.

“Masha Hari”

Maria Kuprashevich

The Novaya Gazeta reporters were able to figure out who was behind the Internet Research Agency almost immediately because they recognized a former colleague.

Her name was Maria Kuprashevich (Марию Купрашевич).

The reporters knew Kuprashevich because she had been sent undercover to work in the advertising department at their newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

In fact, Kuprashevich worked in the PR department of Concord Catering, a company owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.” Novaya Gazeta dubbed her “Masha Hari” after the famous woman who spied for Germany during World War I.

Prigozhin was a convicted criminal whose connections ran all the way to the top chain of Russian command. Prigozhin had been found guilty of robbery and was a member of an organized crime group that practiced fraud and involved “minors in prostitution,” as I wrote in Trump/Russia:

Yevgeny Prigozhin

He served nine years in prison and was released in 1990, opening a hot dog stand as the Soviet Union collapsed around him. He then managed a chain of grocery stores and in 1997 opened a restaurant in an old ship called New Island that became one of St. Petersburg’s hottest restaurants. And it was through that restaurant that Prigozhin not only became wealthy, but fell into Putin’s inner circle.

Russian president Vladimir Putin dined at New Island with French president Jacques Chirac in the summer of 2001. Prigozhin personally served the two heads of state. Putin not only became a regular at New Island, but Prigozhin became the Russian president’s favored caterer, which earned him his derisive nickname. He was awarded lucrative contracts to provide lunches to Moscow schoolchildren and feed Russian soldiers.

In return, the Kremlin called on him to perform jobs that it did not want attributed to the state.

Facing West

The first Western journalist to take note of the Internet Research Agency was Max Seddon, then writing for Buzzfeed (now with The Financial Times).

Seddon got hold of internal organization documents posted online by anonymous hackers.

Seddon’s June 2014 story in Buzzfeed showed that the organization was reaching far beyond Russia’s borders. In the internal documents were guidelines on posting in the comments sections of Fox News, The Huffington Post, The BlazePolitico, and WorldNetDaily.

Few, however, were paying attention.

By the time Seddon’s story ran, the Internet Research Agency had upgraded to a four-story office building on Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg and the troll factory was in full operation.

IRA employees known as “specialists” were expected to create false online personas on these sites known as “sock puppet” accounts complete with fake names and photos.

Specialists had to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they were expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the were expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.

“We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” one former employee told The Guardian of London. For this, she was paid 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. English-language trolls could earn up to $1,000 a month.

Working conditions were miserable. Employees were fined for being a few minutes late or not reaching the required number of posts each day. Editors imposed fines if they found posts had been cut and pasted or were ideologically irrelevant.

Another cache of internal documents smuggled out by IRA employees and published by the St. Petersburg publication Moi Region included the following job description:

TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.

Cited in Information Wars by Richard Stengel

The organization’s paid trolls were being given specific themes to write about that included the United States.

The USA

US policies are aimed at achieving a unipolar world. They are ready to destroy any country to achieve their goal.

The EU and NATO act on the orders of the United States. Because of this, Europe cannot establish relations with Russia.

The internal problems of the United States are violence, terrorism, obesity—but they try to teach the whole world how to live!

The only thing America ever gave the world was Coca-Cola and that turned out to be poison.

Stengel, Information Wars

Employees told the Russian news site MR-7 that training was provided by a “bearded, intelligent man” who printed out particularly illiterate posts, passed them around and sighed.

Another journalist even managed to film surreptitiously inside the IRA, which looks like any modern office anywhere:

A Troll Abroad

What Seddon other Russian journalists had caught a glimpse of was a much larger story that would only become clear when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency and its top officials.

According to the special counsel’s indictment, the Internet Research Agency was already planning on interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by May 2014.

The Internet Research Agency had formed a department that was called, among other things, the “translator project.” Its stated goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

The translator project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Anna Bogacheva

Two employees traveled to the United States to “gather intelligence” in June 2014, according to an indictment filed by the special counsel’s office. Aleksandra Krylova, the organization’s third-highest ranking employee, and Anna Bogacheva, director of the translator project’s data analysis group, made stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.

Prior to the trip, the two women had worked with their colleagues to plan itineraries and purchase equipment, including “cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones.” They also worked on various “evacuation scenarios” and other security measures for their trip.

Another employee traveled to Atlanta, Georgia in November 2014.

A memo distributed inside troll factory shows how they had used the intelligence gathered from the U.S. trip to formulate angles of attack that were sure to produce a deliberate provocation:

Main idea:

The ongoing series of accidents in the United States, caused by the lack of American authorities concern for the safety of their citizens.

We are forming a negative post condemning the policy of the American authorities.

News:

In Texas, a three-year-old boy died by accidentally shooting himself with a pistol found in a bag.

Theses:

In Houston, a three-year-old boy found a loaded pistol in his mother’s bag and accidentally shot himself in the head. The child was taken to the hospital by helicopter, but it was not possible to save his life.

According to police, the woman left an open bag with weapons on a shelf and for several minutes went into another room. The child somehow took out a bag and found a gun. So far, no charges have been brought in this case, TASS reports.

In the United States, several similar tragedies have recently occurred. So, in January, in the state of Florida, a two-year-old child died by shooting himself in the chest with a pistol, which he found in the interior of the parent’s car. And a few days earlier in Missouri, a five-year-old boy shot his nine-month-old brother from a revolver found at home.

Output:

The irresponsibility of the American authorities, not paying attention to such incidents, leads to accidents. The weapons that every US citizen has (practically) are in the public domain and, as a result, fall into the hands of children.

Instead of protecting the country’s citizens from weapons and drugs, US authorities continue to develop aggression around the world, not paying attention to what is happening inside the country.

A Terrorist Attack in Louisiana?

On September 11, 2014, residents in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana got a disturbing text message: “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM. Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

Twitter accounts were lighting up with reports of an explosion at a Columbia Chemicals plant.

There was even a screenshot of what looked like CNN’s home page, with the plant explosion leading the news.

There was a Wikipedia page, a YouTube video of a man showing his TV screen with masked ISIS fighters next to footage of an explosion. But if anybody bothered to check, there was no explosion; the CNN page, the Wikipedia page, the YouTube video were all fakes.

As Adrian Chen revealed in his incredible story in The New York Times Magazine it was a hoax pulled off by the Internet Research Agency.

This was a modern twist on an old spy game, one that was very familiar to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the World War II predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, as I wrote in Trump/Russia:

The OSS didn’t have the benefit of social media, but the operatives in its Morale Operations branch used what they called “rumors” as weapons of war against Nazi Germany. According to a now-declassified 1943 field manual, the OSS developed a special class of gossip called “subversive rumors.”

This form of scuttlebutt could be used “to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources” and “to create division among racial, political, [and] religious” groups within a country. Subversive rumors could be used to “create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports.” The OSS believed that the best fake gossip was simple, plausible, and vivid, the more “strong emotional content” the better. “Rarely can [rumors] by themselves change basic attitudes,” the OSS field manual declared in highlighting the limits of their new word-of-mouth weapon. “Their function is to confirm suspicions and beliefs already latent; to give sense and direction to fears, resentments, or hopes that have been built up by more materialistic causes; to tip the balance when public opinion is in a precarious state.”

The Soviet KGB also understood the nature of rumors. The KGB’s Service A was the unit tasked with running aktivnye meropriiatiia—covert “active measures” designed to sow distrust against the West. One example included developing fraudulent info about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Another was Operation Infektion, a KGB-planted rumor that the AIDS virus had escaped from a biological weapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Thousands of people were involved in the active measures operations, which were integrated into the whole of the Soviet government, and they surely would have been familiar to Vladimir Putin, who was just beginning his KGB career in 1980, a time when the CIA estimated that the annual cost of the Soviet Union’s active measures program was no less than $3 billion a year. In the 1990s, the United States asked Russia to stop these rumor campaigns, but Sergei Tretyakov, a high-ranking Russian spy who defected to the United States in 2000, said nothing changed. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.,” Tretyakov said in a 2008 book, Comrade J. “Let me repeat this. Russia is doing everything it can today to undermine and embarrass the U.S.

What the Internet Research Agency really represented was a modern Russian version of the old OSS rumor factory and KGB active measures division. Social media gave the St. Petersburg operatives a power the likes of which neither the OSS nor the KGB could have imagined. The OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors; the KGB planted the AIDS rumor in a newspaper in India. The modern influence operative didn’t have to leave his or her desk in St. Petersburg. In the hands of a spy, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were machines for the rapid transmission of rumors. But one needed to flip through the musty pages of the OSS field manual to see how well their creed holds up today, and just how accurately the St. Petersburg troll factory was able to wreak havoc on the American public during the 2016 presidential election.


In February 2016, an outline of themes for future content was circulating inside the Internet Research Agency. The organization’s “specialists” were instructed to post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”

The Internet Research Agency’s sock puppet accounts would produce pro-Trump social media postings, pro-Trump Twitter accounts, pro-Trump rallies, pro-Trump political ads.

By September, the IRA was spending $1.25 million a month on operations on “Project Lakhta,” which involved Russian domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences in the United States and elsewhere.

More than 80 people were working in the American part of the translator project by July 2016 and employees were posting more than 1,000 pieces of content per week, reaching between 20 and 30 million people in the month of September alone.

Conclusions

  1. When you hear of foreign actors making big plans to influence the West, believe them. Information operations are cheap, and they work.
  2. It’s fairly easy to figure out who is behind these operations, but in Russia it doesn’t matter which oligarch is behind it. They are proxies for the Kremlin.
  3. Russian information operations test out strategies and themes and spend years refining them.
  4. Read critically. Verify everything before you trust it.