As it pertains to Russian propaganda, things are rarely what they seem. Consider the case of the Internet Research Agency.
The dark St. Petersburg-based online-influence performance came under new scrutiny this week after Facebook revealed that entities connected to Russia had put some 5,000 bogus political ads on its stage throughout the 2016 election cycle. The IRA, which was the subject of a 2015 New York Times Magazine investigation , may have been behind many of the bogus Facebook advertisements, the company says.
Clearly, things are not as straightforward as that. Russian company documents indicate Internet Research Agency has been inactive since December 2016. But that does not mean that Russians no longer participate in such activity. According to Russia researchers in the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress, there is reason to believe that the Internet Research Agency is working under a new name: Glavset.
A Russian tax filing demonstrates that Glavset, which launched in February 2015, works from the exact same office building–55 Savushkin Street in St. Petersburg–which once housed the Internet Research Agency. The filing lists Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, former leader of the Internet Research Agency, as its general manager.
These ties undermine the concept that IRA is no more a threat, says Diana Pilipenko, chief investigator on CAP’s Moscow Project. “It is there,” she says. “It is alive and well and functioning.”
Glavset’s ties to IRA have been reported in Russian press. Russian outlets have been after so-called troll farms, companies that create bogus social-media accounts to spread propaganda, because 2015, when an undercover mole documented an account of her time working for IRA at a Russian newspaper. Those ties are less well known in the usa.
It is not clear whether Glavset bought political advertisements on Facebook, or another platform. A Facebook spokesman couldn’t immediately say whether Facebook discovered any advertisements placed by Glavset from the analysis it revealed Wednesday. That probe found 470 inauthentic pages and reports connected with Internet Research Agency; Facebook turned that information over to special counsel Robert Mueller
Pilipenko says establishing the link between IRA and Glavset–and identifying other things attached to IRA–is imperative to understanding the range of Russian propaganda efforts on Facebook and other social-media platforms.
“If Facebook has just identified advertisements purchased by one of those companies, there has to be an immediate investigation into action by everything in this ‘Kremlebot’ empire,” Pilipenko states. “This might just be the tip of the iceberg.”
Investigators probing Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 election are asking similar questions, of Facebook and other online businesses. On Thursday, Democratic Senator Mark Warner called on Twitter to discuss what it knows about Russian entities buying ads on its own platform. Twitter didn’t respond WIRED’s request for comment. Meanwhile, Google stated it has found “no evidence this sort of ad campaign was conducted” on its own platform. Locating this proof, of course, requires understanding what to search for. As recently as July, Facebook was saying the same thing .
For the time being, Facebook has stayed tight-lipped about how it found the link to Internet Research Agency. It’s also not saying much about the substance of their advertisements or their reach, except to say they cut across the ideological spectrum and comprised articles associated with divisive social issues like immigration and LGBT rights. But that is more forthcoming than another tech giants. This unwillingness to discuss means that while each stage is facing the same threat, they’re all working in silos to repair it. That may be useful for one-upping the competition, but not so for democracy.