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Russian bots, trolls test the waters

The USAReally website, seen on a phone screen in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, has grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks. Associated Press
The USAReally website, seen on a phone screen in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, has grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks. Associated Press
Published Jul. 15, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The sponsors of the Russian "troll factory" that meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign have launched a new American website ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

A Russian oligarch has links to Maryland's election services. Russian bots and trolls are deploying increasingly sophisticated, targeted tools, and a new indictment suggests the Kremlin itself was behind previous hacking efforts in support of Donald Trump.

Many Americans are wondering: Is the Kremlin trying yet again to derail a U.S. election?

While U.S. intelligence officials call it a top concern, they haven't uncovered a coordinated Russian plot to mess with the campaign. At least so far.

It could be that Russian disruptors are waiting until the primaries are over in September — or it could be they are waiting until the U.S. presidential vote in 2020, which matters more for U.S. foreign policy. In the meantime, an array of bots, trolls and sites like USAReally appear to be testing the waters.

The site was launched in May by the Federal News Agency, part of an empire allegedly run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin that includes the Internet Research Agency — the "troll factory" whose members were indicted by U.S. special investigator Robert Mueller this year.

USAReally's Moscow offices are in the same building as the Federal News Agency. The original troll factory was also initially based with Federal News Agency offices in St. Petersburg. Associated Press reporters were not allowed inside, and troll factory employees declined to be interviewed.

The USAReally site appears obviously Russian, with grammatical flubs and links to Russian social networks.

It says it's aimed at providing Americans "objective and independent" information, and chief editor Alexander Malkevich says it's not about influencing the midterm election. Yet his Moscow office is adorned with a Confederate flag, Trump pictures and souvenirs and a talking pen that parrots famous Trump quotations.

"Disrupt elections? You will do all that without us," he told the Associated Press. He said Americans themselves have created their own divisions, whether over gun rights, immigrants or LGBT rights — all topics his site has posted articles about.

While security services are on high alert, "the intelligence community has yet to see evidence of a robust campaign aimed at tampering with election infrastructure along the lines of 2016," Christopher Krebs, the undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about.

National Intelligence Director Dan Coats said Friday that warning lights about overall cyber-threats to the U.S. are "blinking red" — much like "blinking red" signals warned before 9/11 that a terror attack was imminent.

Coats said that while the U.S. is not seeing the kind of Russian electoral interference that occurred in 2016, digital attempts to undermine America are not coming only from Russia. They're occurring daily, he said, and are "much bigger than just elections."

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