Five days later, an image of that purported list appeared in a post on the website Medium and on some other self-publishing platforms in locations as disparate as Germany, South Africa and San Francisco. In less than a week, the Medium essay had been translated into Spanish and German and posted to other websites.
Now, a social media analysis firm, Graphika, has traced those posts to a Russian disinformation campaign — in the first evidence that a network of accounts involved in spreading disinformation before the 2016 presidential election also participated in circulating the false claims about Yovanovitch that earlier this year led to her recall from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
The smear campaign against the American diplomat lies at the heart of the impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Those proceedings come to a head Wednesday with an expected House vote on two articles of impeachment.
Graphika, which outlined its analysis in a report on Tuesday, said it could not say with precision who in Russia might be responsible for circulating the posts claiming to show the do-not-prosecute list. The State Department has denied that such a list existed, and Lutsenko has since sought to clarify what he reportedly told Solomon.
The Russia-based operation, which also sought to blame Britain for interfering in the 2016 election, represents a warning about the evolving methods and wide-ranging goals of disinformation as Americans enter a volatile election season, four years after Russian actors used social media to sow discord and boost Trump’s candidacy for the White House. The “known Russian operation," as Graphika called it, involved doctored visuals and sought to cover its tracks using single-use accounts on discussion forums and other crowdsourced websites, as well as on the news aggregation site Reddit.
The apparent aims of the digital deception underscore the parallels between Russia’s campaign of disinformation and the GOP’s embrace of debunked theories that paint Trump as the victim of British spooks and deep-state saboteurs.
Graphika identified 44 stories launched by the operation between October 2016 and October 2019, many of them “demonstrably false, based on forged documents or non-existent interviews.” The falsehoods touched on everything from Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency in 2016 to rumors about the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, from which Russia was barred because of its state-backed doping program.
Meanwhile, Graphika’s report notes, “all were amplified by networks of fake accounts across a wide range of social platforms.”
The firm made the discoveries as part of its probe of accounts on Reddit connected to the circulation of a leaked version of U.S.-U.K. trade negotiations, which became a flash point in Britain’s just-completed election. Earlier this month, Reddit said the activity was “part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.”
The attribution to Russia was established by Facebook in May when the tech giant took down a cluster of accounts, pages and groups that formed “part of a network emanating from Russia that focused on Ukraine.” Analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab dubbed the campaign “Secondary Infektion” because it was “strongly reminiscent of the Soviet-era ‘Operation Infektion’ that accused the United States of creating the AIDS virus.”
How the image of the faked do-not-prosecute list influenced events in the United States is uncertain. The image did not appear to have been widely circulated before an American audience, Graphika cautioned.
Nonetheless, its report notes, “This was a sophisticated and well-resourced operation.”
In particular, attempts to boost claims of a do-not-prosecute list and to paint Britain as hostile to Trump show how foreign actors used the twists and turns of American news reporting to launch elaborate disinformation campaigns. Those campaigns sought to demonize Western diplomacy in Ukraine and frame other countries for interfering in the 2016 election.
Thirteen names appear in plain black typeface, on a page enclosed in plastic and fastened to a business card. They are Ukrainian politicians, journalists and bankers, among other figures.
A post on Medium, by the user @tosealy, produced an image of the fictitious list of untouchables on March 25. Three days later, an account flagged as part of the Russia-based operation posted the Medium essay in a comment below a link on Reddit to a Politico article about Eastern Europe.
The same day, translations of the Medium essay in Spanish and German began appearing on other fringe websites. The publishing platforms enlisted to spread the claims were the same as those used in the “Secondary Infektion” operation, bolstering Graphika’s analysis that the campaign had Russian fingerprints.
The Medium essay claimed without evidence that a photo of the do-not-prosecute list was spreading on Facebook. The post, which did not appear to be written by a native English speaker, cast the leak as an outgrowth of a disagreement between Trump and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The list of names mentioned in Solomon’s interview, the essay claimed, “has magically appeared on the web.”
But the image did not appear elsewhere on the Internet, and the author’s account had no other posts on Medium. The same essay appeared that day on other blogs and self-publishing platforms, based across the West. The story was also posted in a BuzzFeed News forum.
Allegations about the list are significant because they inflamed the false narrative that Yovanovitch was involved in covering up wrongdoing in Ukraine. In fact, she said in sworn testimony last month, Ukrainians threatened by her anti-corruption work were the ones who sought her dismissal. They found an ally in the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who conducted what witnesses described as a “campaign full of lies and incorrect information” against the diplomat, who was recalled on May 20.
“The Solomon story is the seed, and you have different actors jumping on it for different reasons,” said Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s director of investigations. “Conservative politicians and media in the U.S. find it useful for their purposes, and, separately, it gets a fairly brief and remarkable life in Russian media.”
In an email to The Washington Post, Solomon said he is not responsible for Russian disinformation based on his reporting. The only clarification sought by Lutsenko, he said, was that the inventory of those not to be prosecuted was transmitted orally, rather than as a physical document. Yovanovitch has called the notion that she disseminated such a list a “fabrication.”
The posts trumpeting false claims of a do-not-prosecute list were not shared broadly on social media. They served a different purpose, however. When a Russian-language version of the post appeared on two websites, under different bylines and about an hour apart, it sourced the photo not to “Facebook communities” — as the English-language version had — but to “the Western press.” The elaborate set of translations served as the backbone of the fabrication about the image’s origins, Nimmo said.
One of the outlets that ran with the story, Begemot (“hippopotamus” in Russian), is “full-fledged Kremlin media,” said Marcel H. Van Herpen, director of the pro-European Union Cicero Foundation and the author of several books about propaganda and modern Russia. The site is quick to amplify divisions between Washington and Kyiv, for instance seizing on Trump’s choice of words earlier this month when he referred dismissively to Ukraine as “some place.” The audience seems to be both Ukrainians and Russians, Van Herpen said. The other website is published mostly in Ukrainian.
The Russian-language version of the article was picked up on social media, including on March 29 by four Russian and Ukrainian-language Facebook pages operated from Ukraine, which looked like news aggregators, Nimmo said. The same day, a member of Ukraine’s parliament shared an image of the English-language article — a move that gained notice on several Russian-language websites.
Nimmo said the operation shows how closely Russian actors are “watching what’s going on and what’s being said in the U.S. about Ukraine.” Rather than an effort to interfere in American politics, he said, it appeared to be an attempt to use existing discord to “smear American operations more generally.”
A quest to convince conservatives that the British interfered in the 2016 election followed a similar playbook as the do-not-prosecute narrative. The attempt to frame Britain got underway in early 2017, amid initial revelations about Russian election meddling and the publication of the Steele dossier, a file of claims about Trump and Russia, some of them unverified, prepared by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.
The operation also made use of single-use accounts on self-publishing platforms such as Medium. It sought to gain credibility by creating the appearance of attention in the Western press. And it involved accounts that Reddit attributed to the known operation emanating from Russia, again buttressing Graphika’s conclusions about the origins of the disinformation campaign.
The content of the campaign seems far-fetched, at times even satirical, using outdated expressions like “peacockery," meaning a showy display. But its scale, according to Graphika, “suggests a serious intention to turn U.S. Republicans against the United Kingdom.”
The Steele dossier has figured centrally in claims by Trump and his congressional allies of FBI wrongdoing in the bureau’s investigation of his 2016 campaign. (A Justice Department inspector general’s report last week contradicted some of their allegations while finding “serious performance failures” compelling changes at the FBI.)
The operation unearthed by Graphika provides new evidence of a long-running effort to paint Britain as hostile to Trump, with a particular focus on the nation’s intelligence services.
The apparent attempt to frame Britain, Nimmo said, is consistent with the Kremlin’s effort to deflect attention from revelations about its own meddling. Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and former White House adviser, warned lawmakers last month that charges of Ukrainian interference — leveled by Republicans in Congress — were part of a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
“The Kremlin will always accuse someone else,” Nimmo said.
Two Reddit accounts attributed to the Russian operation posted links in May 2017 to what appeared to be the same article, about relations between Trump and British intelligence officers, on fringe online publishing platforms. Earlier postings of the article, including on Medium, were all by authors who had no additional publications, suggesting they were set up solely to disseminate the fake story. The article also made its way to a libertarian Facebook page called “Liberty Evolution,” though it attracted little engagement.
The article on Medium, written in flawed English, alleged that Britain’s intelligence services had interfered in the American election. For evidence, it pointed to the Steele dossier, published by BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, 2017.
The article made an additional inflammatory claim — that BuzzFeed had also published an interview with an agent from the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, who “unraveled the goals of the surveillance operation against Trump.”
The Medium essay even provided a link.
The link was authentic, but it went to a post published on Jan. 20 on BuzzFeed’s “Community” forum, which allows registered users to post articles of their own on the site.
Titled “MI6 Operative On Anti-Trump Campaign”, the post took the form of a conversation between “Oliverr Stonne,” the name registered for the contributor, and “MI6 operative Richard Jones.”
The agent described his task as “creating the damaging and sensitive information that could harm Trump as a presidential candidate, and now as president-elect.” He said the material could be planted in “the U.S. media that support Clinton,” adding, “We pass all information on Trump to Clinton’s team and the rest is their part.”
Several features of the interview betrayed that it was fabricated, Nimmo said, including problems with articles like “the.” The supposed agent used exaggerated and outdated language, describing former Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitment to the European Union as “just a peacockery."
The architects of the deceptive operation appear to have taken additional steps to place the seemingly bogus interview in pro-Trump forums. A newly created account on Reddit posted it repeatedly to well-trafficked subreddits, such as The_Donald, a pro Trump message board that Reddit restricted earlier this year for violating rules against advocating violence. It was also shared on Facebook, by an account that seemed to have been freshly created, on a page focused on American politics.
The specific claims in the sham interview did not gain much traction, in part because of the careful steps taken to avoid detection. As building blocks of a broader campaign to deflect attention from Russian meddling, they have served their purpose, experts said.
“People think of the Russians as vastly more strategic than they really are,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “A lot of this is about just trying lots of stuff, with the expectation that many of the narratives will likely die very quickly. That’s okay because some of them will become viral and powerful. This is the disinformation equivalent of the old Silicon Valley dictum — that basically you fail fast, fail often.”
Craig Timberg contributed to this report.