Three months after being indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice, the notorious Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) has launched a new media venture targeting Americans.
This time, however, there’s reason to believe the project named “USA Really. Wake Up Americans” may not be just another influence operation, but rather an intelligence gathering experiment, according to ArcDigital.
UNIAN has already reported on the project back in April when RIA FAN (riafan.ru), a St. Petersburg-based media empire that is known to be an offshoot of the IRA , called on English-speaking journalists and authors to apply for the new venture, which was described as an “information agency” that would combat “growing political censorship imposed by the United States.
As the awkward name suggests, this venture isn’t the most sophisticated operation. However, its existence shows that Russia is still actively pursuing new avenues to reach American audiences (particularly Trump supporters) —and despite all the congressional hearings and headlines about digital manipulation, a clearly Russian-backed project was able to establish (and in at least one case, maintain) a presence on two of the largest social media platforms in America.
And long before the emergence of “USA Really,” the links between RIA FAN and the Internet Research Agency were already thoroughly documented.
The most noteworthy characteristic of @USA_Really’s Twitter profile is that the earliest accounts it followed — and the earliest accounts that followed it back—were almost exclusively embedded within a pro-Trump network. Many of the accounts bear the hallmark characteristics of the Russian-backed accounts that were used to boost Trump during the 2016 election, including “patriotic” symbolism (e.g., flags, eagles, etc) and excessive use of hashtags and emojis, while others featured Christian symbols and imagery.
The pro-Trump, “patriotic” theme characterizing @USA_Really’s Twitter network is particularly apparent when viewing the small group of accounts that were the first to follow @USA_Really.
Of course, the fact that an account follows @USA_Really (or is followed by them) doesn’t necessarily mean anything on its own. It can’t be assumed that any specific user knew that they were following a Russian propaganda account when they followed it, nor can we assign nefarious intent to the act.
With that in mind, it is a pretty damning indictment of Trump and his supporters that a Russian operation targeting Americans knows that it has a receptive audience in pro-Trump social media users — and that it can appeal to Trump supporters by parroting attacks on U.S. institutions like the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
Since it first launched, “USA Really” has published well over 100 articles, averaging nearly 10 per day. The content covers everything from the volcano in Hawaii to uninsured Americans, economic news, and criminal investigations. While much of the content can be described as benign, a significant proportion of articles are distinctly anti-American in their tone, and many of them focus on socially and politically divisive issues such as crime and violence, guns, and police brutality, as you can see in the sample below.
Other articles take aim at the intelligence community, echoing Trump’s conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and peddling misinformation about special counsel Robert Mueller.
Determining the purpose of the new venture is not quite straightforward.
While it’s certainly possible that “USA Really” is exactly what it appears to be—a new channel to bring covert Russian propaganda to an American audience—there’s also reason to believe there may be more going on than meets the eye.
It is important to remember that information warfare is not unidirectional. Weaponizing information and releasing it into the information space is only part of the picture—the other part involves the collection of information and intelligence from target populations. This is achieved through a variety of methods, including cyberattacks (e.g., hacking, malware, and spearphishing), human intelligence collection, mass- and targeted data collection, and leveraging social media capabilities for purposes such as surveillance, social network mapping, sentiment analysis, and geo-tracking.
Digital environments, particularly social media platforms, provide a prime opportunity for gathering detailed and dynamic information about individuals, networks, communication styles, activity patterns, and more—all of which can yield crucial insight about the information environment and the actors operating in it. This information can then be used for purposes such as target audience analysis (TAA), and to inform future operations and the selection of new targets (individuals and groups).
For one thing, it’s possible “USA Really” left such obvious digital footprints connecting it to the Internet Research Agency because it wanted to be noticed so it could identify who is tracking these types of ventures and how they are doing it. Want to avoid being detected in the future? Learning how you’re being detected now is a good start.
It may also be the case that “USA Really” has included (or plans to include) malicious code in some of the links to its articles, in the hopes of installing tracking cookies, spyware, or other types of malware on the computers of those who click the link. This would allow for the collection of vast amounts of personal data, as well as valuable information on user behavior and online preferences, all of which could be used to develop profiles for a variety of purposes.