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Russia Spread Disinformation Related to Yovanovitch and Steele

Alyza Sebenius

(Bloomberg) -- A Russian-linked operation aimed at dividing Western allies spread disinformation on social media for three years on such topics as the “Steele dossier” and the performance of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, according to a new report.

Hundreds of accounts on multiple internet platforms amplified 44 narratives in at least six languages over the course of the effort, which targeted relationships between the U.S. and U.K, as well as the U.S. and Germany, among other Western allies, according to a report released Tuesday by Graphika, a company that uses artificial intelligence to map and analyze information on social media.

Two of the false narratives focused on American political controversies, “the smear campaign” against Yovanovitch in 2019 and “the dossier of claims against U.S. President Donald Trump in early 2017,” Ben Nimmo, the head of investigations at Graphika, wrote in the report. Yovanovitch, who was removed from her post in May, testified in the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment investigation hearings against Trump. The dossier was part of the false story that U.K. intelligence officials interfered in the 2016 election, according to the report.

“It looks like this operation leverages U.S. political stories to cause trouble between America and its allies,” Nimmo said.

Still, Graphika’s research concluded “none of these stories gained significant traction. This operation struggled to place its content in front of real users, perhaps in part because of the measures it took to hide the true identity of its operators, such as the use of single-use burner accounts.”

The disinformation effort ran from October 2016 to October 2019 and was part of a broader, Russian-based operation known as “Secondary Infektion,” according to Graphika. Facebook Inc. and Reddit have previously removed accounts related to the operation.

The report comes after Russia spread disinformation ahead of the U.K. election last week and American intelligence agencies have warned that foreign actors will seek to influence voter perceptions ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Starting in October, accounts related to Secondary Infektion amplified leaked trade documents in the run-up to the Dec. 12 U.K. election. Nimmo wrote that the U.K. element of the operation appeared to be the only narrative among the disinformation stories in the report that gained significant traction on social media.

“All the earlier stories were based on forgeries,” he wrote. “Some were carefully crafted, others were laughably inept, but all were false. Almost all these stories fell flat. By contrast, the leak of genuine U.K. trade documents was one of the headline moments of the U.K. election campaign and made the news well beyond British shores.”

The disinformation campaign also touched on a topic of special interest to Russia. “A cluster of articles spread alarming rumors about the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, games from which Russia had been banned for doping,” according to the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alyza Sebenius in Washington at asebenius@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Martin at amartin146@bloomberg.net, Andrew Pollack, Sara Forden

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