The Mueller-indicted Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency is apparently declaring victory in the U.S. election and warning the “citizens of the United States of America” that “your intelligence agencies are powerless.”
“Despite all their efforts, we have thousands of accounts registered on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit spreading political propaganda,” read a statement attributed to the St. Petersburg-based organization. “These accounts work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to discredit anti-Russian candidates and support politicians more useful for us than for you.”
The statement appeared on a website titled the “Internet Research Agency American Division” that popped up over the weekend. Featuring a clip art logo of a green goblin typing on a laptop, and packed with absurd boasts about the IRA’s prowess, the site at first appeared to be a lampoon. But on Tuesday night it posted a previously unseen list of 100 IRA Instagram accounts that Facebook confirmed as authentic.
It’s still not entirely clear if the website is intended as self-parody, a parody of U.S. perceptions of Russian information operations, or an earnest effort to terrify the American citizenry and cast doubt on the midterm results.
“Hundreds of your fellow citizens are our unintentional agents unaware of the fact that they actually act for the good of the Russian ‘troll farm,’” the statement declared. “We have allies and spoilers intervening the political campaigns of the candidates for both parties. The victory of the Democratic party is our top priority in these midterm elections.”
“Soon after November 6, you will realize that your vote means nothing,” the statement reads. “We decide who you vote for and what candidates will win or lose. Whether you vote or not, there is no difference as we control the voting and counting systems. Remember, your vote has zero value. We are choosing for you.”
The public saber-rattling may be a sign that the IRA is still struggling to recover from the exposure and social media bans that began last year, said Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They’re suffering because they can’t build an audience,” said Watts. “It also looks like they’re trying to claim, ‘Yeah, we won this for the Democrats’… This plays into Trump’s narrative and it promotes distrust in American institutions.”
There’s circumstantial evidence that the IRA has lately been trying to insert itself into its own fake news.
Last month an anonymous source offered news outlets including The Daily Beast a tranche of supposedly leaked legal documents about the IRA that turned out to be some old already-public material padded with corrupt ZIP files made from gigabytes of random congressional proceedings.
Days later, a former IRA video blogger who went by “Williams Johnson” reached out to The Daily Beast and nearly two dozen other publications with a dramatic YouTube video claiming he’d mounted a desperate “escape from the troll factory” and now feared arrest. (Former IRA workers have discussed their work openly in the press without being thrown in a gulag.)
The IRA has trolled the Western press in the past. In October of last year the troll farm blasted out emails to news outlets soliciting advance questions for an upcoming “ask me anything” session on Reddit, and even posted a video (also starring Johnson) promoting the event on two of the fraudulent websites it used in its 2016 election interference campaign. When the AMA unfolded two months later, the trolls packed the subreddit with their own fake accounts, and asked themselves the reporters’ questions.
“This is a timely reminder that these bad actors won’t give up—and why it’s so important we work with the U.S. government and other technology companies to stay ahead.”
— Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher
Facebook also seems to be a target of the IRA’s annoyance. Acting on a tip from U.S. officials, on Monday the company shut down 115 suspected troll accounts—30 on Facebook and 85 on Instagram. The troll farm website mocked that effort Tuesday night.
“Facebook and intelligence agencies tried to stop us but they only managed to uncover 1/25 of the whole picture,” it said. The bottom of the post contained a list of about 100 Instagram accounts. Facebook security chief Nathaniel Gleicher said in a statement that most of the accounts on the list were the ones that the company had just deleted.
“We had already blocked most of these accounts yesterday, and have now blocked the rest,” Gleicher said in the statement. “This is a timely reminder that these bad actors won’t give up—and why it’s so important we work with the U.S. government and other technology companies to stay ahead.”
Caches of the IRA Instagram accounts show they’re mostly the same mix as the IRA’s previous work. The conservative account “American Made” featured patriotic posts about guns and flags, while “Bring America Back” pushed more direct pro-Trump content. The left-leaning “John Oliver Explains” primarily packaged quotes from the late-night comedian into square images. Other accounts tried to appeal to black Americans, Muslims, women voters, and fans of the actress Jennifer Lawrence.