Thursday October 1, 2020
Step into My Parler
Suspected Russian Operation Targeted Far-Right American Users on Platforms Including Gab and Parler, Resembled Recent IRA-Linked Operation that Targeted Progressives
Russian operators ran a far-right website and social media accounts that targeted American users with pro-Trump and anti-Biden messaging, according to information from Reuters and Graphika’s investigation. This included the first known Russian activity on the platforms Gab and Parler. The operation appeared connected to a recent Russian website that targeted progressives in America with anti-Biden messaging.
The far-right “Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens,” naebc[.]com, pushed the opposite end of the political spectrum from the ostensibly progressive PeaceData site, but the two assets showed such a strong family resemblance that they appear to be two halves of the same operation. Both ran fake editorial personas whose profile pictures were generated by artificial intelligence; both claimed to be young news outlets based in Europe; both made language errors consistent with Russian speakers; both tried to hire freelance writers to provide their content; and, oddly enough, both had names that translate to obscenities in Russian.
Reuters first tipped Graphika off to the existence of the NAEBC website and its likely relationship to PeaceData. U.S. law enforcement originally alerted the social media platforms to the existence of PeaceData. On September 1, Facebook attributed PeaceData to “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA).” Twitter attributed it to Russian state actors. Social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) have taken similar action to stop activity related to NAEBC on their platforms. To date, Parler and Gab have not taken action on their platforms.
The NAEBC half of the operation was only created in June, and its most recent social media account was just 11 days old at the time it was exposed. The website focused on race issues, especially in the United States: despite claiming to be based in Europe, it posted five times more stories about the U.S. than about all European countries combined. On Gab and Parler - which were the main focus of its social media efforts - it posted strongly pro-Trump and anti-Biden messaging and engaged with content from leading voices on the American far right.
Taken together, NAEBC and PeaceData echoed the IRA’s approach to targeting U.S. audiences in 2016-2017: they pushed users toward both ends of the political spectrum with divisive and hyper-partisan content. Both only posted a very small volume of content that directly referenced the U.S. presidential election, but to the extent that they did so, the content also echoed the IRA’s earlier efforts. PeaceData targeted progressive users with anti-Biden messaging; NAEBC targeted users on the right with pro-Trump messaging. This echoes the U.S. Department of Justice’s assessment of the 2016 IRA operation: “by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (‘Trump Campaign’) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
Unlike in 2016, however, neither effort built up a substantial audience. NAEBC’s various assets attracted around 3,000 followers on Gab and 14,000 on Parler, but in each case they were following substantially more accounts than followed them in return: 11,000 on Gab, 22,000 on Parler.
For comparison, PeaceData’s main English-language Facebook page only had some 200 followers, and its Twitter account had around 3,000 followers. The PeaceData team shut down their site after it was exposed on September 1, leaving a final sign-off headlined, “Fucking awesome,” in apparent confirmation of the Russian-language pun.
These two websites and the associated social media accounts continued Russian efforts to target American audiences with divisive content. They also suggest a desire to “primarily denigrate Vice President Biden,” echoing a recent U.S. intelligence assessment.
Operationally, the greatest novelty of this “NAEBC” operation was the use of Gab and Parler, the first time Russian operators are known to have worked on these platforms. Both platforms are popular among right-wing users: NAEBC’s decision to operate there suggests a desire to target a specific audience. It may also indicate a more welcoming environment than the mainstream platforms: NAEBC maintained an account on Twitter (already suspended), but as of August 26, 2020, it only had 191 followers. Reuters said that Facebook had blocked an attempt to create one NAEBC account. As of September 28, the NAEBC domain had been blocked on Facebook and Twitter; the latter labeled it as “potentially harmful.” As of October 1, NAEBC was still posting on both Gab and Parler; the operation’s false personas had removed references to NAEBC from their biographies. Graphika will update this report if their situation changes.