A Twitter DM and the promise of money: An American Putin critic tells us how they became an unwitting tool of a Russian state influence operation

  • Facebook announced on Tuesday it had uncovered an operation on its site linked to Russian's Internet Research Agency, which interfered in the 2016 US election to help elect President Donald Trump.
  • The target audience of the operation, called Peace Data, was "Democratic Socialists, environmentalists, and disgruntled Democrats," according to an analysis by the social media experts at Graphika.
  • An American writer for the site told Business Insider they had no idea it was a Russian operation, saying they were lured by the promise of $200 an article.
  • "I'm confused," the writer said in an interview. "And I'm kind of mad at myself for letting this happen and not being a little bit more critical. I'm obviously no fan of Putin; I think he's close to being a fascist, if not openly a fascist. It's just weird."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

How does a critic of Vladimir Putin — an American leftist who thinks the Russian president is a borderline fascist — come to write for a covert Kremlin influence operation?

It started with a direct message on Twitter, they told Business Insider in an interview on Tuesday, and an offer that few freelance writers can afford to refuse: money.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced it had removed pages from its site "linked to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency," a troll farm run by a Russian company led by an oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, popularly known as "Putin's chef."

In 2016, the IRA "used social media to conduct an information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States," with a specific aim of electing President Donald Trump, according to a report by the US Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence.

In 2020, it's doing much of the same thing, in this case launching a website, "Peace Data," that used social media, and a decent rate of $200 an article, to recruit progressive writers in the US and UK to write about everything from QAnon to Belarus.

The target audience, per an analysis by the social media experts at Graphika, was "Democratic Socialists, environmentalists, and disgruntled Democrats."

Some of that content also served an obvious geopolitical purpose, with a thin "anti-imperialist" veneer: the article on Belarus, for example, dismissed opposition to that country's long-serving dictator as a Western regime-change operation. And some of it was republished on sketchy conspiracy websites, such as Global Research, with a long history of promoting Russian foreign policy.

But other content, and its authors, appeared to provide little more than a "legitimate" cover for the less credible. Another, perhaps more cynical interpretation: the more defensible content could have been published to delegitimize it, associating liberal politics — and not just pro-Trump bot accounts — with Russian propaganda, making the problem one of "both sides."

Peace Data, for its part, denies being Russian propaganda at all, posting a statement on Tuesday claiming to be "shocked and appalled" at the accusation. Its purported editor, "Jake Sullivan," did not respond to an email requesting supporting evidence or comment on the fact that his photo appears nowhere else on the internet but the website of a Russian shipping company, where he is identified as a satisfied customer named "Sergey."

One unwittingly duped writer spoke to Business Insider on Tuesday about how they came to write for a Russian troll farm — and how they found out they were being used.

They requested that we not use their name so they might not be forever associated with being a pawn of a government they actually oppose. We'll call them "John," and we started by asking why they did not want their name published.

Charles Davis:
May I ask why that is? Obviously, maybe you don't want people Googling you and having this be at the top of the results for the next year.

John:
I'm still getting my bearings in the media world and I feel like this would pretty much ruin whatever potential I have left, I guess.

Davis:
I was a freelance writer myself. Somebody's offering you money to write and presumably a light editing touch and you're like, "Hell yeah, why not?"

John:
Exactly. I lost my job in March, so I needed money… I was pretty desperate to get any type of income I could. Around mid-July, late-June, one of the fake editors DM'd me on Twitter and said, "We can offer you $200 to write articles for us. And we'd like you to write them on a weekly basis." So I was pretty happy to be getting my work published, as you know it's pretty hard to get your stuff published as a freelancer, especially starting out. That's pretty much how it started.

I obviously looked at them. What they described it to me as was a new global news publication or organization and they were looking for young, aspiring writers to be columnists for them. So I was like, "Oh, this is a perfect opportunity."

I didn't do too much digging, but from what I saw on their page and past articles they seemed, you know, decent at least? And I was trying to get my work published.

Davis:
And was that $200 a piece?

John:
What they did is they offered me $200 — they said $200 to $250 an article. And then upon getting them published they only paid me about $100 per article. And I was like, you know, I've been paid less to write.

Davis:
How did they pay you?

John:
PayPal.

Davis:
This guy named "Jake Sullivan," this supposed editor in chief — it's funny, if you do a Google reverse-image search, the only other instance of him existing is a customer testimonial on some Russian shipping website.

John:
That makes me feel better.

Davis:
How do you think they found you? And, looking back, what do you think that means?

John:
I had an article that did pretty well on social. I guess that's how they found me.

Davis:
How much in total did you get from them?

John:
I wrote three pieces for them for $300 total.

There were some red flags that were initially raised for me. One was they were DMing me on Twitter, telling me to write for them. But I was just happy that someone would want to publish my work.

The other was I noticed that two of their editors had like the exact same picture — not the exact same, but it looked like they were twins or something. It just looked weird.

The third was my first article was republished at a conspiracy blog, which I didn't sign off on that and had no control over that. They just said, "We're going to republish your article. Here's the links where it's been republished."

Davis:
How did you find out [it was a Russian influence operation]? By opening up Twitter today?

John:
Somebody from [another outlet] reached out to me and then I was like, "Oh, what the f—?" It's been a weird day, I'll say that.

Davis:
I know you're not a Putin apologist or anything. How does it make you feel that someone like you, critical of Putin, was used by what looks to be a Russian influence operation, cynically exploiting you? I'm going to speculate here, but sometimes [these sites] publish completely legit, solidly progressive commentary — 80% of it could be legit — and then there's like that 20% that is "and this is why we must defend [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad."

John:
Sure. I mean, [I'm feeling] a lot of emotions, obviously. One, I'm confused. And I'm kind of mad at myself for letting this happen and not being a little bit more critical. I'm obviously no fan of Putin; I think he's close to being a fascist, if not openly a fascist. It's just weird. It's hard to comment on it today because it's happening as we speak.

Davis:
Obviously, there's been a debate over the extent of what Russian interference was in 2016. Some on the left argue some of this Russia stuff has been overblown, and maybe an excuse for the Democrats blowing the election against Trump.

I wonder what you thought before this, about this Russian interference stuff, and whether this has changed your perspective.

John:
I wouldn't say that it's necessarily swayed me too much. I've been publicly critical of how the media has run away with the Russia stuff; at the same time, I mean, there's no doubt that Trump has ties to Russian oligarchs and business interests over there — that's indisputable.

I think the Democratic Party does rely on it a little bit too much, but I mean, I don't know. I don't want to say it's changed my perspective, but maybe it's probably a little closer to home and will change my perspective down the road. It's a tricky subject, because I don't want to blame all of the United States' problems on Russia. We have our own internal problems. But, I mean, they're definitely f—ing around and sewing dissent and whatnot.

Davis:
Looking back at your own content, what do you think their angle was in publishing you? And maybe there wasn't an angle. I wrote about a Russian operation named Redfish, which started out publishing what was by most accounts a pretty decent documentary on Grenfell Tower and poverty in England. Sometimes that just provides cover for other things they publish — they sneak, you know, that 10% of weird geopolitical things. What purpose did your work serve to them? Just providing a bit more legitimacy?

John:
Yeah, I think it was. I think it was to give a little bit more legitimacy. I mean, I stand by the work, the stuff I've submitted to them. I put in effort. I researched the hell out of them. I double fact-checked it myself.

Broadly, it's to sow dissent. I don't know if it's necessarily just to sow dissent within the Democratic Party. I think people are pretty pissed at the Democratic Party, regardless. It's hard to speculate, but it also could be to discredit the left, you know?

Davis:
Thinking out loud, is that the idea of attracting some legitimate freelance writers? And is the idea, you attract them all to a website, get it exposed as Russian propaganda, and then now make the left the target — "see, the left is Russian propaganda, not just [pro-Trump] MAGA heads."

John:
I think that's certainly plausible.

It's weird. Like, the whole Trump-Russia narrative is that they're in bed together. But I wrote a piece that was very critical of [Trump] and so it's strange to me a government that supposedly supports the president, and helped him get elected, would be publishing stuff that's the antithesis of that.

Davis:
What would you say to the people at "Peace Data"? Have you reached out to them since the news broke?

John:
Not since news broke. The last article I wrote, I was like, "I'm not writing for you guys anymore." Then they reached out to me for pitches and I basically ignored them.

But it's on me. I should have been smarter. I blame myself, really, more so than them because they're politically motivated. It was my fault for letting the promise of getting more work published, and money — it kind of clouded my judgment a bit.

This transcription was lightly edited for clarity.

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