Researchers have identified a series of Russian information operations to influence American elections and, perhaps, erode support for Ukraine.
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The St. Petersburg building that is said to be the site of the Russian Internet Research Agency. Cybersecurity researchers have tied the agency to a new Russian misinformation effort.Credit…Mstyslav Chernov/Associated Press
Steven Lee Myers, who has reported from Russia and China, writes about misinformation and is based in San Francisco.
The user on Gab who identifies as Nora Berka resurfaced in August after a yearlong silence on the social media platform, reposting a handful of messages with sharply conservative political themes before writing a stream of original vitriol.
The posts mostly denigrated President Biden and other prominent Democrats, sometimes obscenely. They also lamented the use of taxpayer dollars to support Ukraine in its war against invading Russian forces, depicting Ukraine’s president as a caricature straight out of Russian propaganda.
The fusion of political concerns was no coincidence.
The account was previously linked to the same secretive Russian agency that interfered in the 2016 presidential election and again in 2020, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, according to the cybersecurity group Recorded Future.
It is part of what the group and other researchers have identified as a new, though more narrowly targeted, Russian effort ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections. The goal, as before, is to stoke anger among conservative voters and to undermine trust in the American electoral system. This time, it also appears intended to undermine the Biden administration’s extensive military assistance to Ukraine.
“It’s clear they are trying to get them to cut off aid and money to Ukraine,” said Alex Plitsas, a former Army soldier and Pentagon information operations official now with Providence Consulting Group, a business technology company.
The campaign — using accounts that pose as enraged Americans like Nora Berka — have added fuel to the most divisive political and cultural issues in the country today.
It has specifically targeted Democratic candidates in the most contested races, including the Senate seats up for grabs in Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania, calculating that a Republican majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives could help the Russian war effort.
The campaigns show not only how vulnerable the American political system remains to foreign manipulation but also how purveyors of disinformation have evolved and adapted to efforts by the major social media platforms to remove or play down false or deceptive content.
Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued an alert warning of the threat of disinformation spread by “dark web media channels, online journals, messaging applications, spoofed websites, emails, text messages and fake online personas.” The disinformation could include claims that voting data or results had been hacked or compromised.
The agencies urged people not to like, discuss or share posts online from unknown or distrustful sources. They did not identify specific efforts, but social media platforms and researchers who track disinformation have recently uncovered a variety of campaigns by Russia, China and Iran.
Recorded Future and two other social media research companies, Graphika and Mandiant, found a number of Russian campaigns that have turned to Gab, Parler, Getter and other newer platforms that pride themselves on creating unmoderated spaces in the name of free speech.
These are much smaller campaigns than those in the 2016 election, where inauthentic accounts reached millions of voters across the political spectrum on Facebook and other major platforms. The efforts are no less pernicious, though, in reaching impressionable users who can help accomplish Russian objectives, researchers said.
“The audiences are much, much smaller than on your other traditional social media networks,” said Brian Liston, a senior intelligence analyst with Recorded Future who identified the Nora Berka account. “But you can engage the audiences in much more targeted influence ops because those who are on these platforms are generally U.S. conservatives who are maybe more accepting of conspiratorial claims.”
Many of the accounts the researchers identified were previously used by a news outlet calling itself the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens. Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, has previously linked the news outlet to the Russian information campaigns centered around the Internet Research Agency.
The network appears to have since disbanded, and many of the social media accounts associated with it went dormant after being publicly identified around the 2020 election. The accounts started becoming active again in August and September, called to action like sleeper cells.
Nora Berka’s account on Gab has many of the characteristics of an inauthentic user, Mr. Liston said. There is no profile picture or identifying biographical details. No one responded to a message sent to the account through Gab.
The account, with more than 8,000 followers, posts exclusively on political issues — not in just one state but across the country — and often spreads false or misleading posts. Most have little engagement but a recent post about the F.B.I. received 43 responses and 11 replies, and was reposted 64 times.
Since September the account has repeatedly shared links to a previously unknown website — electiontruth.net — that Recorded Future said was almost certainly linked to the Russian campaign.
Electiontruth.net’s earliest posts date only from Sept. 5; since then, it has posted articles almost daily ridiculing President Biden and prominent Democratic candidates, while criticizing policies regarding race, crime and gender that it said were destroying the United States. “America under Communism” was one typical headline.
The articles all have pseudonyms as bylines, like Andrew J, Truth4Ever and Laura. According to Mr. Liston, the website domain was registered using Bitcoin accounts.
For its contact information, electiontruth.net lists a cafe inside a converted gas station in Cotter, Ark., a town of 900 people on a bend in the White River. The cafe has closed, however, and been replaced by Cotter Bridge Market, a produce shop and deli whose owners said they knew nothing about the website. No one at Election Truth responded to a request for comment submitted through the site.
Mr. Liston said that links to electiontruth.net appeared to be closely coordinated with the accounts on Gab linked to the Russians.
In another campaign, Graphika identified a recent series of cartoons that appeared on Gab, Gettr, Parler and the discussion forum patriots.win. The cartoons, by an artist named “Schmitz,” disparaged Democrats in the tightest Senate and governor races.
One targeting Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is Black, employed racist motifs. Another falsely claimed that Representative Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio, would release “all Fentanyl distributors and drug traffickers” from prison.
The cartoons received little engagement and did not spread virally to other platforms, according to Graphika.
A recurring theme of the new Russian efforts is an argument that the United States under President Biden is wasting money by supporting Ukraine in its resistance to the Russian invasion that began in February.
Nora Berka, for example, posted a doctored photograph in September that showed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine as a bikini-wearing poll dancer being showered with dollar bills by Mr. Biden.
“As working class Americans struggle to afford food, gas, and find baby formula, Joe Biden wants to spend $13.7 billion more in aid to Ukraine,” the account posted. Not incidentally, that post echoed a theme that has gained some traction among Republican lawmakers and voters who have questioned the delivery of weapons and other military assistance.
“It’s no secret that Republicans — that a large portion of Republicans — have questioned whether we should be supporting what has been referred to as foreign adventures or somebody else’s conflict,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of the Digital Forensics Lab at the Atlantic Council, which has also been tracking foreign influence operations.
The F.B.I. and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency did not respond to requests for comment about the Russian efforts. Mr. Brookie called the revived accounts “recidivist behavior.” Gab did not respond to a request for comment.
As before, it may be hard to measure the exact impact of these accounts on voters come Tuesday. At a minimum, they contribute to what Edward P. Perez, a board member with the OSET Institute, a nonpartisan election security organization, called “manufactured chaos” in the country’s body politic.
While Russians in the past sought to build large followings for their inauthentic accounts on the major platforms, today’s campaigns could be smaller and yet still achieve a desired effect — in part because the divisions in American society are already such fertile soil for disinformation, he said.
“Since 2016, it appears that foreign states can afford to take some of the foot off the gas,” Mr. Perez, who previously worked at Twitter, said, “because they have already created such sufficient division that there are many domestic actors to carry the water of disinformation for them.”