NEW YORK: Alexander Malkevich is an information warrior for Russia.
Over the weekend, he sat in an oyster bar in the basement of Grand Central Station in New York City and related the endless difficulties facing his English-language website, USA Really, which is financed by unnamed pro-Kremlin Russians.
USA Really has all the markings of a Russian troll factory trying to undermine US democracy, spinning conspiracy theories, aggregated news and opinions with an aim to show America in a state of near-chaos. Facebook and Twitter have shut down its accounts. When Malkevich's website called for a rally June 14 to support President Donald Trump, it fizzled for lack of a correct city permit.
Yet at the end of what Malkevich described as a five-day trip to promote USA Really in the United States, he voiced some satisfaction: “We have become a discussed project in American media. It is good," he said.
In a lengthy interview, Malkevich mocked US press freedom guarantees and said US authorities feared him even as US government-financed media, like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, broadcast what he contended were a torrent of negative news about Russia.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress Feb 13 that Russia is conducting campaigns to create wedges in US society and “exacerbate social and political fissures”. The remarks followed a joint intelligence assessment in early 2017 that Russia was using “state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or 'trolls'” as part of an influence campaign in the United States. They concluded that these Russian-backed operations favoured Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Malkevich voiced pique at US information broadcasts toward his country. He picked up his smartphone and read headlines from Siberia. Reality, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Russian service. “Siberian cities are the most dirty in Russia”, and “People are falling ill”.
He looked up with disgust: “They write about only bad things.”
The stories are true, though, and that is different than the strange amalgam on usareally.com of click-bait type articles – “Man served his friends tacos made from his severed limb” – conspiracy theories, stories highlighting crimes by immigrants and essays calling on states like Louisiana to secede from the Union and California to break up into three parts. Another article called Vermont a “smouldering volcano” of discontent. Some of the content is lifted from US outlets. Other articles seem as based in fantasy as fact.
A longtime national security official in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations, Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr, said Russian information campaigns “are not at all innocuous" because they aim to sow discord among the US citizenry.
“What the Russians have been trying to say, and the Soviets before them, is that the American model is sort of immoral and doesn't work, dysfunctional and totally undesirable. They are trying to demonise us,” Bloomfield said.
Russians have none of the protections that cloak people in the United States, where the First Amendment gives safe harbour to unpopular opinions, he said.
“Nobody knocks on the door and hauls you into a prison, and nobody poisons your food or shoots you in the back,” he said.
Malkevich, who wore a rose-coloured T-shirt with a quote from John F. Kennedy stating that “change is the law of life”, offered himself as a paladin of free speech rather than a tool of a regime that punishes dissent and sows chaos overseas.
“I'm a public figure. I'm a little bit famous journalist in my country,” he said in slightly fractured English, noting that he is in charge of media matters for the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a type of parallel parliament set up by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2005.
Malkevich said that his project is assisted by the Federal News Agency, an online news aggregator tied to the Russian catering tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin's “chef”. The independent RBC Russian news outlet reported in March 2017 that the Federal News Agency is part of Russia's state-orchestrated “troll” campaigns.
In a sweeping indictment in February, special counsel Robert Mueller charged Prigozhin and 12 other Russians for crimes related to 2016 US election meddling, much of it run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an online influence operation.
The Federal News Agency and the Internet Research Agency held offices in the same four-story building in St. Petersburg until earlier this year.
The indictment said the IRA created fictitious American personas, webpages and social media accounts to reach US voters and fan the flames of division on race, immigration, gun control and other hot issues.
The indictment continues to be in the news. On Monday, Democrats on the House Intelligence committee released a revised list of 3,841 Twitter accounts that it said were linked to the IRA campaign, although it noted that 14 of the accounts may have been hijacked.
Social media companies are watching USA Really warily. Facebook shut down a page linked to the website when notified by a McClatchy reporter earlier this month. Legislators grilled Facebook's founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in two hearings before congress in April about Russian election interference.
“This morning, I received a call from my colleague in Moscow that Twitter banned our account,” Malkevich told McClatchy. The Twitter page for @USA _ Really says “account suspended”, although a company spokesperson would not comment for “privacy and security reasons”.
US authorities cannot take action against the nine website domains USA Really controls, though, because they are all on Russian servers.
The FBI declined to say whether it was looking into USA Really.
Adopting a slightly mocking tone, the bearded Malkevich, 43, said US guarantees of press freedom do not seem to apply to his project, and suggested that US authorities are frightened of him.
“America's famous freedom of press, freedom of media, doesn't work,” Malkevich said. “I cannot explain why Americans are so afraid of little steps by a little Russian media project.”
USA Really has 10 or fewer employees, now based out of Moscow, he said, and will proceed with posting stories in English about the United States.
“I have a lot of plans, a lot of ideas,” Malkevich said.
He departed with a few kind words for Trump, saying he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his summit with North Korea's leader.
“He shows himself as a very big boss,” said Malkevich, offering the knowing look of a man with experience in big bosses. — McClatchy Washington Bureau/Tribune News Service