When it comes to Russian propaganda, things are seldom what they seem. Consider the case of the Internet Research Agency.
The shadowy St. Petersburg-based online-influence operation came under fresh scrutiny this week after Facebook disclosed that entities linked to Russia had placed some 5,000 phony political ads on its platform during 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 ads, the company says.
Of course, things aren’t as simple as that. Russian corporate records indicate Internet Research Agency has been inactive since December 2016. But that doesn’t mean that Russians no longer engage in such activity. According to Russia researchers at the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress, there’s reason to believe the Internet Research Agency is operating under a new name: Glavset.
A Russian tax filing reveals that Glavset, which launched in February 2015, operates out of the same office building—55 Savushkin Street in St. Petersburg—that once housed the Internet Research Agency. The filing lists Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, former head of the Internet Research Agency, as its general director.
These ties undermine the idea that IRA is no longer a threat, says Diana Pilipenko, principal investigator on CAP’s Moscow Project. “It’s there,” she says. “It’s alive and well and operating.”
Glavset’s ties to IRA have been reported in Russian media. Russian outlets have been following so-called troll farms, businesses that create fake social-media accounts to spread propaganda, since 2015, when an undercover mole documented an account of her time working for IRA in a Russian newspaper. Those ties are less well known in the US.
It’s not clear whether Glavset purchased political ads on Facebook, or any other platform. A Facebook spokesman could not immediately say whether Facebook uncovered any ads placed by Glavset in the investigation it revealed Wednesday. That probe found 470 inauthentic pages and accounts affiliated with Internet Research Agency; Facebook turned that information over to special counsel Robert Mueller
Pilipenko says establishing the connection between IRA and Glavset—and identifying other entities connected to IRA—is crucial to understanding the scope of Russian propaganda efforts on Facebook and other social-media platforms.
“If Facebook has only identified ads purchased by one of these companies, there needs to be an immediate investigation into activity by everything in this ‘Kremlebot’ empire,” Pilipenko says. “This may just be the tip of the iceberg.”
Investigators probing Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election are asking similar questions, of Facebook and other internet companies. On Thursday, Democratic Senator Mark Warner called on Twitter to share what it knows about Russian entities purchasing ads on its platform. Twitter did not answer WIRED’s request for comment. Meanwhile, Google said it has found “no evidence this type of ad campaign was run” on its platform. Finding this evidence, of course, requires knowing what to look for. As recently as July, Facebook was saying the same thing.
For now, Facebook has remained tight-lipped about how exactly it discovered the connection to Internet Research Agency. It is also not saying much about the substance of the ads or their reach, except to say they cut across the ideological spectrum and contained content related to divisive social issues like immigration and LGBT rights. But that’s more forthcoming than some other tech giants. This unwillingness to share means that while every platform is facing the same threat, they are all working in silos to fix it. That may be good for one-upping the competition, but maybe less so for democracy.