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Russian trolls target US support for Ukraine – The Washington Post

09.04.2024, 12:25

Kremlin-linked political strategists and trolls have written thousands of fabricated news articles, social media posts and comments, according to a trove of internal Kremlin documents obtained by a European intelligence service and reviewed by The Washington Post.

These comments promote American isolationism, stir fear over the United States’ border security and attempt to amplify U.S. economic and racial tensions in an ongoing campaign that seeks to influence congressional and other political debates to stoke anti-Ukraine sentiment.

One of the political strategists, for instance, instructed a troll farm employee working for his firm to write a comment of “no more than 200 characters in the name of a resident of a suburb of a major city.”

The strategist suggested that this fictitious American “doesn’t support the military aid that the U.S. is giving Ukraine and considers that the money should be spent defending America’s borders and not Ukraine’s. He sees that Biden’s policies are leading the U.S. toward collapse.”

The documents — numbering more than 100 and dating between May 2022 and August 2023 — were provided to The Post to expose Kremlin propaganda operations aimed at undermining support for Ukraine in the United States, as well as their scale and methods.

“It is Russia’s top priority to stop the weapons, so they are throwing things at the wall to see what sticks,” said one Republican staffer on Capitol Hill. “We are seeing a broad-based campaign that has multiple lines of effort, some of which work better than others. The Russians don’t care. They are just trying to seed the environment.”

Many of the documents contain metadata showing they were written by members of a team working for Ilya Gambashidze, head of the Moscow PR firm Social Design Agency.

The United States imposed sanctions on Gambashidze last month for his involvement in “a persistent foreign malign influence campaign” at the Kremlin’s direction, including the creation of websites designed to impersonate legitimate media outlets.

Neither Gambashidze nor Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to a request for comment.

Plans by Gambashidze’s team refer to using “short-lived” social media accounts aimed at avoiding detection. Social media manipulators have established a technique of using accounts to send out links to material and then deleting their posts or accounts once others have reshared the content. The idea is to obscure the true origin of misleading information and keep the channel open for future influence operations, disinformation researchers said.

The Kremlin turned in earnest to undermining American support for Ukraine in January 2023. Sergei Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, called in the team of political strategists already working on campaigns to weaken backing for Kyiv in Europe, including Gambashidze, and asked them to expand their efforts, the documents show. The strategists employ dozens of troll farm employees and translators.

The Moscow spin doctors were soon ordered to create media content for Americans that would promote corruption allegations involving the Ukrainian leadership — “the sale and theft of weapons” given to Ukraine, one document shows.

The strategists were told to cultivate an environment in which “Americans are not ready to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of the conflict in Ukraine,” as well as representing Russia’s increasingly close relationship with China as a new threat “created by the U.S.’s own activities.”

As the Biden administration prepared once again this spring to try to push supplemental funding for Ukraine through Congress, sites linked by Microsoft and other social media researchers to the Kremlin campaign launched fresh attempts to spread misleading content over immigration and the border with Mexico.

As the Kremlin spin doctors worked, they closely monitored opinion polling in the United States and a decline in support among Americans, especially Republicans, for Ukraine. They also conducted twice-monthly surveys with a mechanism they called “river sampling” — conducting internet polls through online advertising and social media networks such as Facebook and TikTok. The results, showing small declines in support for Ukraine, seem wholly unreliable but were passed along to the strategists’ Kremlin masters as measures of success.

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