Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

Paul Manafort financed a lavish lifestyle with money laundered through offshore accounts, with expenditures including more than $1.3 million in purchases at Beverly Hills and New York clothing stores and more than $1 million on antique rugs, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday. Manafort pled not guilty.

The 12-count indictment against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates charges that more than $75 million “flowed through” those offshore accounts. It alleges Manafort took $18 million through the accounts, while Gates is accused of transferring $3 million from those accounts to ones he controlled.

The bulk of Manafort’s alleged years-long spending spree took the form of $12 million  in untaxed money he spent on luxury items and home improvements. The indictment spells out how Manafort would have one of his 15 offshore accounts—12 in Cyprus, two in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and one in the United Kingdom—wire in cash to each vendor for his purchases.

The list of Manafort’s lavish expenditures from his offshore accounts runs across eight of the indictment’s 31 pages. More than $5.4 million went to a “home improvement company” in the Hamptons from a mix of Cypriot entities, notably LOAV Advisors and Yiakora Ventures (An NBC News story about the Manafort’s debts to Russian oligarch and Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska said Manafort’s other companies were a primary influence over Yiakura’s business dealings).

Manafort’s expenditures at a Northern Virginia rug merchant, including a $100,000 “related” payment


Manafort, whose house in Water Mill, New York is among the assets prosecutors have proposed seizing, began spending from offshore accounts at that vendor in 2008 and continued, often several times a month, until August 2014. He also spent quite a bit on lawn care: a Hamptons-based landscaper lists expenditures totaling $164,740.

The indictment charges that he wired money to an Alexandria, Virginia rug merchant nine times, from as little as $7,400 to as much as $250,000.

Talking Points Memo called around Monday afternoon to rug merchants in Alexandria. At J&J Oriental, a salesperson promised a call back; at Domimex Antiques and Rugs, the proprietor said, “If you hear of anybody who has that kind of money to spend, please send them to me!”

TPM was not the first outlet to contact Art Underfoot, where the person who answered the phone said, “So many reporters have called me! I wish [Manafort] did! I am so poor!”

Not everyone was willing to chime in, however. A person who answered the phone at Herat Oriental told TPM “no comment” and hung up after a reporter identified himself.

Accounts associated with Manafort also made 34 transfers to an unnamed New York clothing store totaling nearly $850,000, and nine transfers to a Beverly Hills clothing store totaling $520,440. He patronized a Florida art gallery in 2011 and again in 2013, where his tab ran to $31,900.

A New York housekeeping service also earned $20,000 in three installments from accounts associated with Manafort.

Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 1 of 2
Manafort’s expenditures at a single New York clothier, 2 of 2

The satirical commentary on Twitter was swift:

This post has been updated.

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Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates were hit with a 12-count indictment unsealed Monday that alleges a wide-ranging money laundering conspiracy and multiple violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Both will plead not guilty.

The charges focus not on collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government but on Manafort’s own alleged money laundering activities, which the indictment says personally netted him $18 million and Gates $3 million. According to the indictment, the money in question came from under-the-table lobbying activities on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions, the party of former president Victor Yanukovych. The two men held offshore accounts that allegedly handled more than $75 million over the nine years covered by the charges.

Manafort and Gates were each indicted on one count of conspiracy against the U.S., one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making a false and misleading FARA statement and a separate count of making a false statement. Manafort was also indicted on four counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, while Gates was indicted on three counts of the same.

The indictment charges that Manafort “represented falsely that he did not have authority over any foreign bank accounts,” and, in a complicated tax dodge, Manafort “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts,” depriving the U.S. of tax revenue, according to the indictment.

It also alleges that Manafort, who was not registered as a foreign agent, took steps to “develop a false and misleading cover story” that would conceal his work for the Party of Regions in order to distance himself from the Government of Ukraine.

In the indictment, the government proposes seizing four of Manafort’s real estate properties—three in New York and one in Arlington, Virginia—as well as his life insurance policy.

This post has been updated.

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Wading into the debate over the effect of Russian meddling on the 2016 election, on Thursday Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein played down the impact of Russian-backed ads posted on various online platforms.

“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”

No assessment of Russian interference in the election has attempted to measure whether or not that interference was effective, but all of them concurred that it happened. The extent of the Russia-backed ads, intended to sow division during the election, on major platforms like Facebook and Twitter has only become publicly known in recent weeks.

Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general for the Russia investigation, appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel and is overseeing Mueller’s probe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously recused himself from matters relating to Russian interference.

Rosenstein hedged in his remarks, referring to Russian election tampering as “alleged” and in the hypothetical in the podcast interview published Thursday. Despite affirmative public assessments of Russian meddling by the intelligence community as far back as October, Rosenstein’s strongest assessment was that “if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

Rosenstein referred the matter to the intelligence agencies when asked what kinds of consequences the Department of Justice could mete out to the Russian government for meddling in the 2016 election.

“Combating cyber-threats is a role the Justice Department has something to do with,” the DOJ’s second-in-command admitted, “but the primary responsibility for dealing with those threats falls on the intelligence community.”

Target USA’s network, PodcastOne, distributed Rosenstein’s full quote playing down Russian attempted election tampering.

“I think, what you need to recognize is that there have been a number of public reports about alleged Russian activities related to the election, including a report of the intelligence community, and what you’ve asked about public information, you have in an unclassified version of a report that reflects the assessments of our intelligence community. There have also been public reports, recently, about allegations of Russian advertisements, for example, that were posted on various networks. And so, there are a lot of public sources of information out there, and I think what people need to keep in mind is that there’s a distinction between people trying to sway American elections, and succeeding in swaying American elections. I think one of our responsibilities is to make sure that people understand, you know, what the risks are, but also that they make their own determinations. You know, American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for. I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments. I think people are more thoughtful about that in the way that they make their decisions. But nonetheless, you know, if we have foreign countries that are seeking interference in our elections, I think we need to take appropriate action in response.”

On a separate topic, Rosenstein was more certain about his views on the role whistleblowers: Setting aside legal considerations, “any responsible person” has “a moral obligation not to disclose things if it’s going to cause harm,” he said.

People who distribute information to the press, Rosenstein asserted, do not count as whistleblowers. “There are accepted ways in which you can raise concerns if you work for the government and you have access to information that you believe represents a violation of law or policy,” he told Green. “There are lawful ways for you to raise those issues. But leaking it publicly in a way that’s going to harm national security is not one of those authorized ways.”

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Twitter is barring Russian state news services Sputnik and Russia Today from advertising on its platform, the company announced on its blog Thursday. Twitter cited an intelligence community report from January pointing the finger at the two media agencies, as well as its own findings, among them that RT alone had spent $274 million on Twitter advertising in 2016. Twitter has not disclosed Sputnik’s expenditures.

Sputnik and RT can continue to use their accounts on Twitter, the company said in the announcement.

The company will donate the $1.9 million in advertising revenue it estimates it has taken from RT since 2011 to “external research into the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections, including use of malicious automation and misinformation, with an initial focus on elections and automation,” the unattributed announcement said. That cash came almost entirely from Russia today—a source told TPM that Twitter revenue from Sputnik ads was in “the low hundreds” for 2016 and was generally much lower.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 1, less than a week away, on the role played by Twitter, Google and Facebook during Russian election interference in the 2016 election.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, tweeted the announcement:

RT immediately hit back, saying Twitter had “pushed RT to spend big on the 2016 US election” and criticizing the company for making its investment numbers public.

Sputnik said Twitter had “refused to provide more details on the issue” and cited pressure from Congress as a reason for the move.

Earlier this week Twitter said it would roll out stricter rules for political advertisers and a “transparency center” to show users more details about the way their information is being used to show them advertisements. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who are co-sponsoring a bill to regulate political advertising on the internet, both issued statements calling the new ad rules a good “first step,” in Warner’s words, but said their bill would go forward as written regardless of Twitter’s internal guidelines.

The company announced other changes earlier this week, adding to its list of banned content “non-consensual nudity” and “hateful imagery and hate symbols.”

Twitter held its 3rd-quarter earnings call on Thursday morning. The company is as little as a single quarter away from profitability, according to its internal projections, executives told financial analysts on a conference call. Its earnings per share were impressive enough to send the stock up 14 percent.

This post has been updated.

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Twitter on Tuesday afternoon announced a new set of standards for political ads on its platform as well as a “transparency center” that will allow users a detailed look at the nature of ads being shown to them on the platform.

But there were no new guidelines for so-called “issue ads,” a term that covers the majority of the propaganda Russian government operatives deployed on Twitter to influence the 2016 election.

“Today, we’re announcing steps to dramatically increase transparency for all ads on Twitter, including political ads and issue-based ads,” wrote Twitter exec Bruce Falck on the company blog. “We will also be improving controls for our customers and adopting stricter advertising policies.”

Twitter’s announcement seemed geared at heading off regulators at the pass: Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently proposed the Honest Ads Act, a bill to regulate digital advertising in the wake of accusations that Twitter and Facebook had been exploited by Russian cyberactors trying to sow division in the American electorate.

Warner tweeted that the company’s new rules for political ads are “a good first step,” which is markedly softer than his harsh words for the service after it gave what he described as an “inadequate” presentation to the Senate Intelligence Committee in September.

The most substantive change Twitter is making appears to be the transparency center, which will allow users to see who is advertising what, for how long, and whether those ads have been targeted to their accounts, in addition to the information organizations use to target advertising. Additionally, Twitter will now require political ads to identify their campaigns as such and “include a visual political ad indicator.”

But “issue ads”—which might say, for example, “a wall with Mexico is a great idea” rather than “vote for Donald Trump”—remain unaddressed.

We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads,” Twitter’s announcement reads. “There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads but we will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policy makers, and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above.”

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The National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote Sunday that one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics had been barred from entering the U.S.—and the outcry was immediate. Had the State Department revoked Bill Browder’s visa? Was Russia trying to get him arrested?

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, issued a statement decrying “the Department of State’s baffling decision to revoke Bill Browder’s visa” and calling on Rex Tillerson to personally reinstate him. A State Department spokesperson referred TPM’s questions to the Department of Homeland Security—like most Brits, Browder didn’t have a formal visa, they said—he was welcome to apply for one.

Browder himself was irate when he spoke to TPM on Monday afternoon: “I’m pretty sure that this is just an automatic thing. So the question is, will they lift it or not?”

“There’s no way that I can get any information about any of this stuff,” he added. “When I called [DHS’] help line, after waiting an hour and a half they said ‘I can’t tell you anything about why this has happened, you’ll have to write a FOIA.'”

Hours later, the Department of Homeland Security provided an answer: Customs and Border Protection had to manually approve Browder’s travel authorization after the Interpol notice went out—but says it did so on Wednesday. Browder contests this—he said he still couldn’t fly on Thursday, when he got the email notice. TPM has asked DHS for clarification and will update this story when and if it comes.

So what exactly happened here?

Russian authorities had issued a “diffusion” through international police service Interpol calling for his arrest last Tuesday, Browder told TPM (the country’s government had already tried to force Interpol to issue a “red notice,” much like putting Browder on an American “Most Wanted” list, but Interpol repeatedly refused). Exploiting that bureaucratic loophole, Russian authorities appear to have succeeded in automatically rescinding permission for Browder to visit the U.S., albeit briefly.

The problem stemmed from Browder traveling not on a visa issued by the State Department, but on the less formal Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). ESTA is supposed to ease diplomatic restrictions on travel for foreigners who are unlikely to overstay the 90-day limit on their visas, Chicago-based immigration lawyer Richard Hanus noted. The automated nature of the system makes it convenient for most people, but speed and responsiveness pose a problem when Russia can use the system to game American border controls to cause trouble for its critics.

“The only times we see things like this is when there’s an irregularity,” Hanus told TPM: “previous U.S. immigration violations—when somebody stays more than the 90 day—or when there’s a criminal matter.”

The New Jersey-born, Chicago-raised Browder, who became a British citizen in 1998, said that he’d gotten a form email on Thursday telling him to check his “Global Entry” status, which is like TSA Pre-check for non-citizens.

“And so I logged into Global entry and it said ‘your status has been revoked’ and so I said, ‘Well I wonder if my Visa has been revoked, so I tried to check into a flight and I couldn’t,'” he said.

Yet a DHS spokesperson told TPM that Browder was supposed to be good to go by that point. The agency’s statement reads:

“As the agency charged with preventing the entry of terrorists and other criminal actors from entering the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection regularly screens law enforcement systems in order to determine if any travelers present a security or law enforcement risk. This vetting is done on a recurrent basis and decisions on travel are made on the latest information available. The decision to approve or deny an ESTA application is made on a case-by-case basis on the totality of the circumstances. When possible matches to derogatory information are found, applications will be vetted through normal CBP procedures which include a manual review by a CBP analyst and a supervisor prior to a determination being made. Applications being manually reviewed may temporarily be placed in a pending status until a final determination is made. William Browder’s ESTA remains valid for travel to the United States. His ESTA was manually approved by CBP on Oct. 18—clearing him for travel to the United States.

Russia had given Browder a similar headache in August, shortly after a Council of Europe report condemned that country for misusing anti-crime protocols for political ends in his case. Turkey recently had been scolded for trying to use Interpol to arrest a Spanish journalist critical of military dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, too.

Four days after publication, Interpol responded to TPM’s request for clarification on the topic of the diffusion calling for Browder’s arrest. No member nation, Interpol said, is required to honor its Red Notices or diffusions beyond its own laws. On the topic of Russia’s specific diffusion related to Browder, the agency said:

All notices and diffusions must meet Interpol’s rules and regulations, and prior to publication all Red Notice requests are checked by a dedicated task force to ensure they are compliant. Diffusions are circulated without prior approval from the General Secretariat.  However, the dedicated task force also checks diffusions for wanted persons, even though they are already circulated, to ensure that they are compliant.

When a Red Notice or diffusion is cancelled, for whatever reason, a message is sent to all member countries informing them of the decision and they are requested to remove any related information from their national databases and not to use Interpol’s channels in relation to the case.

A diffusion recently circulated in relation to Mr Browder was found to be non-compliant following a review by the General Secretariat. All information in relation to this request has been deleted from Interpol’s databases and all Interpol member countries informed accordingly.

Browder Tweeted Thursday that Interpol had changed its policies to prevent Russia from abusing the diffusion system.

As Canadian reporter Daniele Hamamdjian also pointed out on Twitter, the law enforcement agency did the same thing in 2013.

This post has been updated.

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In one of the stranger aspects of the Russian influence campaign reported to date, the Federal News Agency (FAN) troll farm funded activism and social programs in black communities as recently as May. The Russian operation set up a news site that interviewed prominent thinkers like Occupy Wall Street’s Micah White and former Black Panther Party leading member Ericka Huggins. It also sponsored self-defense programs around the country, including one in Queens that specializes in de-escalating conflict between black people and police officers. None of those American activists who had contact with the operatives knew they were in contact with Russian agents at the time.

White (pictured above) has a theory for why those operatives were supporting black activism in the U.S. He has written on the tactical use of social movements to wage war—he wrote on the topic more than a year before the 2016 election—and he says that while Russia “can be pursuing multiple objectives simultaneously,” he thinks subverting the American status quo may be a mutual objective for a hostile Russian operation and the U.S. protest movements striving for more equality and justice—the challenge is to use that signal boost for noble ends.

“I think there aren’t many examples of social change that isn’t created by outside forces,” White told TPM. “Lenin was allowed back into Russia on German railroads while Russia and Germany were at war.”

As White observes in one essay, Russian state news couldn’t get enough of Occupy Wall Street: he claims RT flew Occupy organizers to London to be interviewed by Julian Assange for his TV show on the Kremlin-backed network.

One thing White said discourages him about the Russian propaganda efforts is how successful they were in terms of pure reach. As a rule, activists operate on a shoestring. The funds from the Russian trolls helped do things activists normally may be hard-pressed to pull off, like those classes in de-escalation.

“I do think it’s a watershed moment for American activism where American activists have to say, ‘Why is Russia able to create fake Facebook pages that get more likes than we do?’ I think it’s another sign that protest is broken,” he told TPM.

Another person contacted by the troll farm said he was surprised when the person who reached out wanting to facilitate political action wasn’t especially interested in talking politics.

“Their idea was they wanted to address police brutality, maybe do know-your-rights training,” said Omowale Adewale, a trainer in New York City who was asked to lead self-defense classes in Brooklyn and Queens by a troll-run group called BlackFist. “I was doing street harassment self-defense classes for women, so they caught me really at a time when I was already kind of engaged in a lot of this work.”

Adewale told TPM that while he was skeptical of the person who contacted him, he never thought a foreign government was recruiting him. He just thought the whole thing was probably a setup for a scam that would end up stealing from him.

“There never was any politics, which was just nuts,” he said.

But then the people Adewale thought might be scammers sent money to him. The prospect of offering something good to his community, especially bankrolled from the outside, thrilled him—but he was still curious about where the money was coming from. His thoughts, though, were primarily with a black community living in fear.

“I don’t know if you can fathom in the community the way people feel really targeted by police brutality,” Adewale told TPM. “I’m a fighter myself. Sometimes I jog and I’m running and cops are around. You can’t just run past them! White folks can just keep jogging, but if I’m in jogging gear, my jogging gear might include a hoodie! That’s problematic on a huge level, that somebody might be nervous and I might get shot, or at least get stopped and harassed. That’s the kind of thing that happens to me. A lot of things have to take place before you physically get somebody’s hands off of you. [It’s about] de-escalation ad knowing your rights. You really don’t want to die.”

That fear was a good litmus test for Adewale when it came to the intentions of “Taylor,” as well. “Taylor” didn’t seem to feel it, for himself or for anyone else.

“The lack of any kind of caring,” Adewale told TPM, “gave me insight.”

This post has been updated.

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Alan Yuhas contributed English-language translation

As many as 100 unwitting activists were recruited to help organize events in the United States both before and after the election by the same St. Petersburg-based Russian troll farm behind scores of fake social media accounts that purchased ads to sow discord during the 2016 campaign.

The revelation comes from a report in the Russian business magazine RBC published on Tuesday morning.

The events included an October 2016 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest police violence mere weeks after a protester was fatally shot at a Black Lives Matter protest there. The organizers of the October protest were not with BLM, though, according to RBC’s report. They were with BlackMattersUS, the organization outed as a Russian front last week by Casey Michel at ThinkProgress.

The Charlotte rally was one of ten BlackMattersUS events catalogued by RBC journalists Polina Rusyaeva and Andrey Zakharov. The two reporters interviewed numerous former employees at the Federal News Agency (FAN), the troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, and reviewed chats on encrypted messaging app Telegram from senior personnel.

The report also found that from January-May 2017, the troll farm contacted martial arts instructors through a puppet group called BlackFist. In places as disparate as New York City, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan and Tampa, Florida, BlackFist offered to pay the instructors to provide free self-defense course for “anyone who wanted them.” Those instructors told RBC that they had indeed received sponsorship for free classes, although it was abruptly withdrawn.

“Up to 100 American citizens helped to organize the events for the ‘Trolls factory,’ not knowing who’s really behind all these groups,” Zakharov told TPM.

A source familiar with the troll farm’s activities told RBC that it spent about $80,000 total—just $20,000 less than Facebook said was spent promoting divisive ads on its platform—on “paying for these local organizers’ work (flights, printing costs, technical equipment),” according to a translation of the report commissioned by TPM.

RBC found that the troll farm was carrying out dry runs for political protests in the U.S. as early as 2015. That spring, the organization used publicly accessible webcams in Times Square to see if people would follow instructions on Facebook to show up at a designated place and time for a free hot dog. They did, and didn’t even get a promised hot dog for their trouble.

FAN considered that show of hungry Facebook users a huge success, according to the translation of RBC’s report:

The action was meant to test the effectiveness of a hypothesis: can you remotely organize measures in American cities. “Simply a test of possibilities, an experiment. And it succeeded,” remembered one of the “factory” workers, not concealing their pleasure. From this day forward, almost a year and a half before the US presidential election, began the full work of the “trolls” in American communities.

In March 2015, on the web portal SuperJob, there appeared vacancies for “internet operators (night),” with a salary of 40-50 thousand roubles and a work schedule of 21pm to 9am, in the office on Primorsky district; job duties included writing materials “on designated themes” and “news information and analysis.” On the list of requirements for the position, “natural English,” “confident ownership” of written language, and creativity.

Russian reporter Alexey Kovalev told TPM last month that a troll he took to task for praising Putin in the comments of one of his articles made him a similar offer for work.

The RBC report also identified the head of FAN’s American division, Jayhoon (also spelled Dzheikhun) Aslanov, 27, who studied abroad in the U.S. in 2009 and graduated with a degree in economics from Russian State Hydrometeorological University in 2012. Three sources confirmed Aslanov’s role at the troll farm to RBC, including one who showed the reporters messages from Aslanov on Telegram; Aslanov himself denied it to the news outlet.

FAN’s American unit spent $2.3 million between June 2015 and August 2017 and employed 90 people at its peak, according to the report; it is still active and today employs 50 people. During the period RBC studied, the troll farm’s budget for promotion on social media was $5,000 a month, fully half of which was devoted to “posts touching on race issues.”

But Trump himself factored into that material far less than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, RBC found. From the translated report:

A RBC analysis of hundreds of posts showed that Clinton figured in troll posts far more frequently than Trump.
“Share if you believe that Muslims did not do 9/11,” (United Muslims of America, 11 September 2016), “Clinton insists ‘We have not lost a single American in Libya’ Four coffins, covered in flags, were not empty, Hillary.” (Being Patriotic, in a post about Clinton’s relation to the tragedy, from 8 September 2016). In a statement, Facebook said that for the most part the blocked ads “range across the ideological spectrum,” touching on issues like LGBT rights, race, immigrants and firearms.

RBC’s investigation uncovered more than 100 community pages and associated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms active through August 2017 that it believes were run by the troll farm. It confirmed those accounts’ authenticity using screenshots of posts and by consulting “a source close to the factory’s leadership.” The report estimates about 70 million people a week saw something posted by those accounts.

Zakharov told TPM that he believes there are accounts run by FAN with a total following around 1 million that remain active to this day.

This post has been updated.

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Reporters and analysts have long suspected and, over the past several weeks, confirmed that Russian cyberactors were running propaganda campaigns under the noses of three major tech companies—Facebook, Twitter and Google—during the 2016 elections. Even Microsoft’s Bing network reportedly sold ads to the Russians.

Those interlocking propaganda campaigns didn’t consist of merely stumping for Donald Trump or deriding Hillary Clinton. Instead, most of the ads unearthed thus far appear to have been devoted to reinforcing the American electorate’s own prejudices; that gambit appears terribly obvious and unsubtle in hindsight, as the contents of the ads continue to trickle out in the press. But no one spotted it at the time.

For example, YouTube videos recently uncovered by the Daily Beast feature two black men with African accents calling Clinton an “evildoer” next to a Black Lives Matter logo. One meme posted on a Russian troll-operated Facebook account read—with a dropped article worthy of Boris Badenov—“Why do I have a gun? Because it’s easier for my family to get me out of jail than out of cemetery.”

Facebook has said the Russian-bought ads were probably viewed 10 million times; Columbia University professor Jonathan Albright has suggested that, when all traffic to Russian-run accounts—not just the ads—is combined, that number increases to hundreds of millions, and possibly billions, of times. It’s not known whether all the propaganda itself was as hamfisted as the ads the public has seen, but even the amateurish material was unlikely to raise eyebrows, because the function of social media is to affirm its users, said Gordon Borrell, CEO of ad industry analytics firm Borrell Associates.

On Facebook, as opposed to a medium like television, “you’re able to hone in on someone who will likely vote Republican or will likely vote Democrat and hold on to them a bit more,” Borrell told TPM. “You don’t see a lot of crossover. They’ll hold onto you as a voter—at least that’s what [social media] campaigns appear to do.”

It’s certainly possible that some people who saw the laughable YouTube videos, crummy Facebook memes and broken-English tweets were suspicious of them; it’s also possible that the low-quality Russian ads were the exception. But it’s also generally true that when people hear what they want to hear, they’re unlikely to question who’s talking.

Thread 1: Smearing Black Lives Matter

Facebook, Twitter and Google have flattened the media ecosystem to such a degree that traditional news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times effectively compete with whitewashed demagoguery masquerading as information on sites like InfoWars and Breitbart. The Google News ranking algorithm gives those sites equal footing, and until very recently treated digital troll hive 4Chan as a news source. Partisan Facebook pages like @BeingConservative rack up millions of followers.

Against that backdrop, the now-defunct “conservative news” Twitter account @tpartynews amassed tens of thousands of followers before it was deactivated in August. @tpartynews frequently trashed Black Lives Matter, the decentralized black activist movement that protests systemic racism and police killings of black people in particular. And as TPM previously reported, @tpartynews’ followers were lapping up state-sponsored Russian propaganda: the feed was run by the now-notorious Russian troll farm, the Federal News Agency (previously known as the Internet Research Agency), that purchased $100,000 worth of Facebook ads.

“Williams and Kalvin,” the black YouTube personalities who the Daily Beast reported were part of Russia’s propaganda effort, used a Black Lives Matter logo and invoked the Black Panthers in poorly-produced videos of their own. The content is barely pro-Trump, but as Justin Hendrix, executive director of the NYC Media Lab, pointed out, that didn’t really matter—some of the Russian propaganda was even pro-Bernie Sanders.

“One of the reasons people are dismissing this stuff is they’ll look at one particular instance of this stuff and say, ‘That looks like it might be vaguely anti-Trump,'” Hendrix told TPM. “And you’ll dig under it and see that while it may initially appear anti-Trump it has a subtler purpose, to discourage people from being engaged or to suggest that all politics are so corrupt that there’s an equivalence between the candidates.”

That equivalence boosted Trump’s electoral prospects even as a score of women accused him of grotesque sexual misconduct. The Trump campaign didn’t need conservatives who didn’t dig Trump as a candidate to like him—they just needed those holdouts to believe he was better than Clinton, and the image of a black person supporting him, or at least deriding her as a “racist bitch,” might do the trick.

“A lot of it does seem to really prey on identity politics,” Hendrix said.

That identity politics was already surging in reaction to the presence of a black president: Conservative pundits have been quick to attribute any unrest that follows episodes of police brutality to Black Lives Matter, wielding #bluelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter hashtags on social media, and to tie all Black Lives Matter positions to Obama, whose justice department had taken first steps toward police reform. Russian-operated accounts gleefully exploited that festering sore spot: the @tpartynews Twitter account pushed out the message that “Crimminals [sic] commit less crime after they have been shot! That’s why I say #BlueLivesMatter.”

The Russian campaign played the other side of the issue as well. According to CNNMoney, Facebook ads were targeted around Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, two areas with reputations for police brutality and vicious clashes with the protestors who objected to it. A Facebook account called “Blacktivist” posted ostensibly pro-black liberation rhetoric that was filled with dogwhistles designed to play on the worst right-wing fears: “Our race is under attack, but remember, we are strong in numbers,” one post uncovered by CNN proclaimed. “Black people should wake up as soon as possible,” said another.

The Daily Beast reported that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who introduced kneeling during the national anthem to the league as a form of protest against systemic racism, was a frequent target of the Kremlin-backed propaganda campaign as well.

Thread 2: Exploiting anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment

People who fear disloyalty don’t just fear activists like BLM. Trump’s resoundingly anti-immigrant campaign, with its cornerstone of a border wall he may or may not ever build, and the nativist grievances that anchor his base dovetail with the Putin government’s desire to see less military and diplomatic cooperation across the West.

The @tpartynews account was quick to tie together everything the right fears about undocumented people: “Illegal Immigrants today.. Democrat on welfare tomorrow!” Russian-linked Facebook pages went a step further: “Due to the town of Twin falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society’s attention to this problem,” read a post on the SecuredBorders page, according to the Daily Beast. That page went so far as to promote an anti-refugee rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, although it’s not clear that anyone actually showed up.

Another Russian-linked group called Heart of Texas, with about 225,000 followers, successfully organized anti-immigrant rallies protesting “higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens” and warned of the scourge of “mosques,” according to Business Insider. CNN reported that the group, which proposed “no mosques in America,” also succeeded in organizing one rally that was captured on video.

Thread 3: Amplifying gun rights issues

Undergirding both the anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment the Russian propaganda campaign capitalized on is a fear of violence. It’s something the NRA exploited throughout the tenure of the United States’ first black president to great effect, and it was easy for Russian trolls to exploit too.

The New York Times listed “gun rights” among the topics covered by the divisive Russian Facebook ads turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. @tpartynews tweeted several pro-gun messages, and the “out of cemetery” meme referenced above appeared on a Russian-linked Facebook page called “Defend the 2nd.”

Tying it all together

Looking at the ads—though scant few of them have been unearthed by reports as tech companies have declined to publicly release them—it’s clear that the issue of race is paramount. The ads that have surfaced play relentlessly on prejudices against black people, immigrants and Muslims, and Trump’s campaign was a symphony of insults maligning all three groups.

Advertising from the Trump campaign was notable for the brazenness of its racialized invective; the Russian propaganda campaign followed suit with a microtargeted series of ads explicitly playing up racism and bigotry, rather than trying to sanitize it with coded phrases and winks. The results were inexpert and scattershot—the improbably named “Williams and Kalvin” seem to be looking at cue cards occasionally in their videos—but Facebook, Twitter and their peers had honed the delivery mechanism so carefully that the relative sophistication of the Russian propaganda may not have mattered.

“It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in computer science to use Facebook’s targeting tools,” Hendrix said. “These are tools that were built for anybody to be able to target messages and ads to any constituency. They’re designed for the lowest common denominator—to be as simple as possible and to work at scale.”

This post has been updated.

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It appears Russia didn’t attempt to disrupt the 2016 election through ads only on social media.

Nearly lost amid the deluge of reports about Kremlin-run Facebook and Twitter campaigns designed to influence the American electorate, the Department of Homeland Security last week messily notified 21 states, including Wisconsin, that Russia had targeted their election systems. The Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) then quietly issued a press release describing an unsuccessful August 2016 cyberattack that took the form of neither a targeted phishing attack nor an attempt to crack a password, but an ad.

The elections commission said that the state IT division’s protective measures had “blocked an advertisement embedded in a publicly available website from being displayed on a WEC computer.” When the state Department of Enterprise Technology provided the IP address it had blocked to DHS, the agency identified that address as “connected to Russian government cyber actors,” according to the release.

Steve Michels, the DET’s communications director, told TPM that the ad his department’s firewall identified and blocked was consistent with run-of-the-mill website advertising. Such filtering “commonly occurs in conjunction with an internet advertising pop-up or banner,” he said. While Michels said he couldn’t confirm what site the ad originated with, neither Facebook nor Twitter serves pop-up or banner ads.

“This attempt was blocked by our web content filtering tool and no data was exfiltrated,” Michels told TPM. “This blocked content request came on an elections commission network, likely a desktop computer.”

Toni Gidwani, director of research operations for respected cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect, told TPM that such “malvertising”—malicious advertising—” is a pretty common attack vector.” Gidwani, who cautioned that ThreatConnect couldn’t independently verify DHS’s claim of Russian targeting of Wisconsin without the actual IP address, which Michels declined to disclose, said the tactic is often used on general-interest sites where advertisers don’t exercise broad control over their audiences.

“If the website was something really specific to elections and/or something that WEC workers specifically would navigate to more consistently than other targets, that would be notable,” she told TPM. “If the website was something really general, then it might be hard to make the case that the activity was targeting the WEC. ”

The first kind of attack to which Gidwani referred is sometimes called a “watering hole,” a trap set for a particular set of users at a website they seem likely to visit; it’s not clear that the WEC employee who set off the ad was targeted that way. But it does appear that Russian cyberactors were able to participate in the broader digital ad ecosystem, with its self-applied regulations and well-documented vulnerability to malicious activity, in addition to their use of Facebook and Twitter ads.

It’s not clear what the 2016 attack was intended to accomplish, but tools designed for ad fraud—usually used to inflate the records of successfully completed ads, which determine how much an advertiser pays—have been repurposed in the service of Russian propaganda efforts before. In 2015, someone used a network of bots designed for malvertising to redirect users to pro-Russian videos on Dailymotion.

Jonathan Albright, research director at the Two Center for Digital Journalism who was mapping ecosystems of online disinformation as far back as November 2016, told TPM that many of the websites spreading that disinformation contained malicious code.

“There were definitely suspicious resources (i.e., content and code) in the batch of propaganda/disinfo/hoax sites I looked at back in November 2016,” Albright said. “If I remember, I believe 3 of the 116 sites were pre-emptively blocked by my browser as I scraped the ad tech. Lots of redirects to weird IPs, external insecure image/graphics loading, etc.”

Targeting a body like the Wisconsin Elections Commission would not be a particularly difficult or sophisticated operation, Albright said.

“It’s absolutely possible to target a business, and based on what I’ve seen, even more likely that an individual government office or bureau/department would be targeted,” he told TPM. “I think a directed story or topical hoax piece could be written to bring in a specific audience and then used as a vector to compromise individual computers and/or ranges of IP addresses.”

Wisconsin blocks tens of thousands of attempts to game its web applications and more than half a million attempts to crack passwords annually, Michels said. He was emphatic that the ad served to the WEC computer was one small attack in a sea of similar attempts, and that it was thwarted.

Regardless, experts already suspected that Russian government operators had used malvertising elsewhere; now DHS has confirmed they used it in the 2016 elections, too.

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