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The Cyber Front: Russian troll farms targeting Ukraine and interfering with US elections

Russia is reactivating social media trolls to disrupt the US mid-term elections, posting negative and at times obscene content about President Biden and his fellow democrats. 

Researchers from the cybersecurity group Recorded Future identified one bot account which had lain dormant for a year which suddenly tweeting anti-Biden sentiments, while also lamenting the “waste of US tax dollars” on supporting Ukraine. 

The account was previously linked to Russia’s sinister Internet Research Agency (IRA) when it interfered in the 2016 presidential election and again in 2020, according to the researchers. 

And there are thousands more. 

The IRA has been at the forefront of anti-Ukraine propaganda, but its focus is now on the US, as it seeks to boost the chances of pro-Trump Republicans, because they are seen as softer on Russia. 

Source: Google Maps – One of the IRA offices in St. Petersburg

The St Petersburg-headquartered IRA is co-ordinating this political misinformation and disinformation campaign – after the Mueller report, revealed how it reached an estimated 126 million Facebook users during the 2016 presidential election, and an estimated 1.4 million people on Twitter. 

Earlier this year the St. Petersburg online newspaper Fontanka revealed how “patriots” were paid an average of £637 per month by an organisation linked to the IRA. Each was required to post 200 disinformation posts per eight-hour shift. At one location visited by undercover investigators near Lenin Square there were more than 100 people in the troll factory. The operatives would also identify content posted by genuine users consistent with the views they wanted to push, and then work to amplify these messages. 

When it comes to the Ukraine war, disinformation and misinformation can be considered Russia’s strongest weapon, which is used to assist with multiple strategic goals. From social media platforms, such as Telegram to state TV, the Kremlin plays to its domestic audience to win public support, and the various narratives produced by the state go on to spread beyond the country’s borders.  

The Kremlin did not want to be openly associated with IRA’s propaganda effort, so Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the man referred to as “Putin’s chef”, provided funding to the IRA through his group of companies known as Concord. Concord was responsible for sending funds, recommending personnel, and overseeing IRA’s activities.  

Prigozhin has appeared in public photographs together with Putin, and his restaurants and catering businesses are known to have hosted dinners which Putin attended with foreign dignitaries.  

This week, ahead of the US midterm elections, Prigozhin said “We interfered, we are interfering, and we will interfere. Carefully, accurately, surgically and in our own way, as we know how to do.” In turn, Bloomberg, citing data from Graphika, reported that social media users associated with Russia are promoting racist and inflammatory rhetoric in order to undermine support for Democratic candidates in the midterms.  

More recently, Meta published an Adversarial Threat Report in August 2022; this reported that a network of Instagram accounts operated by a troll farm was taken down. The entity behind this activity was identified as “Cyber Front Z”, with the letter Z signifying Russian support for the war.  

The Cyber Front Z Telegram channel, which currently has over 110,000 subscribers, was used to coordinate some of the activity, inviting users to post pro-Russia comments on content by politicians, journalists, actors, celebrities and commercial brands from around the world.

Source: Telegram group of Cyber Front Z 

Cyber Front Z’s activity is consistent with the work of IRA, and it is believed to be associated with Prigozhin.  

In December 2016, Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US, and, in July 2022, the State Department offered a reward of up to $10m (US dollars) for information on him, the IRA, and other entities involved in the 2016 election interference. 

Source: FBI

Prigozhin is not only behind the companies pumping out Kremlin’s propaganda, but he is also reported to have founded Russia’s Wagner Group, the state-backed mercenary group accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria, and Ukraine. 

Outside of the US, the UK cited evidence that the IRA fuelled social divisions and religious tensions in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the UK including the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park attacks. There is also evidence that Russia influenced the Brexit referendum.  

The Kremlin is well practiced in disinformation campaigns and propaganda, with this past year focused on intensifying its information campaign against Ukraine and justifying the war. Debunk reported that Russia spends more than $1.5bn (US dollars) per year to spread disinformation and propaganda, and this budget tripled in size between January and March 2022, compared to the same period the previous year.  

The British Foreign Office cited expert research showing how the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign was “designed to manipulate international public opinion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, boost support for it and recruit new sympathizers”. 

Through social media, via organisations such as IRA or Cyber Front Z, Russian propaganda has made its way into mainstream media, as tweets from controlled accounts are picked up, quoted and attributed to reactions of real persons.  

In March 2022, the UK created a Government Information Cell to counter Russian disinformation, specifically focusing its attention on exposing and challenging Kremlin’s narratives about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

War is not just a military operation, but a battle that must be fought in the global information space, as Russian propaganda will remain a weapon both in and out of Ukraine.