Monday June 7, 2021
Posing as Patriots
The Graphika Team
Graphika Exposes an Active Campaign by Suspected Russian Actors to Covertly Target Far-Right U.S. Audiences on Alternative Platforms
Actors linked to previous Russian information operations continue to target American far-right communities with inflammatory and politically-divisive messaging, leveraging alternative online platforms such as patriots[.]win, Gab and Parler. The newly-discovered campaign began on Nov. 5 last year, is still active, and builds on previous foreign influence efforts likely conducted by the same actors that Graphika exposed ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Narratives have included false allegations of voter fraud, amplification of tensions over racial inequality and police violence, criticism of the U.S. government’s response to Covid-19, racist attacks on Vice President Kamala Harris, and accusations of senility and pedophilia directed at President Joe Biden. The actors also disseminated a series of political cartoons, which appear to be unique and may have been created specifically for this campaign.
Graphika assesses with a medium degree of confidence that this activity was conducted by the same actors as the “Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens'' (NAEBC). This assessment is based on identified connections between a set of newly-discovered accounts on patriots[.]win and previously-identified NAEBC assets on Gab and Parler. Those connections include both sets of accounts repeatedly posting the same unique content within minutes and sometimes seconds of each other. While content sharing on its own never amounts to a strong attribution signal, in this case both sets of accounts alternated as the original posters, suggesting the activity is unlikely to be the work of two independent actors with one copying the other.
NAEBC was a fake right-wing media outlet publicly exposed by Graphika and Reuters in October as part of a covert Russian influence operation targeting U.S. voters ahead of the presidential election. The actors behind the campaign succeeded in hiring freelance authors to produce content, and also ran a fake left-wing outlet called Peace Data to target both sides of the political debate. The operation has been attributed to people associated with past activity of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian “troll farm” and political influence effort that former employees, investigative reports by Russian journalists, and U.S. prosecutors say is orchestrated by financier Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The newly-identified activity discussed in this report shows that suspected Russian actors retooled and doubled down on efforts to target far-right American audiences after their previous activities were disrupted ahead of the 2020 U.S. election. The actors’ continued presence on alternative platforms that lack rigorous policies on foreign interference has also allowed them to create a direct line to these communities, through which to deliver a stream of tailor-made political content. The sometimes skeptical reaction they received, however, and a failure to achieve significant traction illustrates the operators’ long-standing struggle with content quality and authenticity.
Our report details the following key findings:
- Graphika has identified a sustained effort to target far-right communities on alternative online platforms. The campaign is most active on patriots[.]win (a discussion forum previously hosted on Reddit as r/The_Donald and then independently at thedonald[.]win), where it utilizes a set of 20 inauthentic accounts as messaging vectors and amplifiers. All but one of the accounts were created in a three-hour window on Nov. 5, two days after the U.S. election.
- The actors also use accounts on Gab and Parler that were an active part of the earlier NAEBC operation. On multiple occasions, these assets have posted the same unique content as the newly-discovered accounts, usually closely after but sometimes before it appeared on patriots[.]win. In one instance, the same photo of a political stunt in New York was posted to patriots[.]win and Gab within 26 seconds.
- The campaign made a concerted effort to disseminate a series of political cartoons which Graphika was not able to identify elsewhere online. This suggests they could be original content created or commissioned directly by the actors. At least one of the cartoons repurposed an image used by Russian actors to target the 2016 U.S. election.
- The actors have achieved some traction on patriots[.]win and Gab, with 11 posts gathering more than 100 comments and interactions from authentic users. But any efforts to seed content in the wider right-wing community seem to have failed. Graphika was only able to identify four instances of content being organically shared on other platforms, none of which had any success.
- Despite media concerns about covert Russian efforts to instigate and exacerbate riots at the U.S. Capitol, the identified accounts only mentioned the events of Jan. 6 once in a post that received almost no traction online. Additionally, the patriots[.]win operation made no explicit references to QAnon beyond general allegations of child sexual abuse targeted at Biden and support for Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.