Mercenary chief Wagner says he is also behind the Russian information war

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For years, the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy St. Petersburg-based company, has been waging a Russian information war around the world, using fake social media accounts and other forms of disinformation to exploit divisions in Western society, they say analysts and governments.

Almost a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the man behind the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary force fighting on the front lines, has claimed to have also founded the Internet Research Agency.

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Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin’s admission, more of an acknowledgment than a revelation, confirms his role at the center of Russia’s aggressive interventions on the world stage, on the ground and online.

Prigozhin – who the US government estimates has deployed about 50,000 fighters to Ukraine, many recruited from prisons – boasted in November that he is interfering in US congressional elections and intends to continue to do so.

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“Gentlemen, we have interfered. We interfere and we will interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way as we can,” he told Russian media a day before the elections. The claims could not be verified.

Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, earned his reputation as the operator of “troll farms” on the internet. The US Treasury has imposed him in multiple rounds of sanctions and has accused him of interfering in the 2016 presidential election, including in part by funding the Internet Research Agency – which has been accused of stirring up confusion across continents, including in the run-up to it. until “Brexit” and before the elections in the Philippines.

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This week he picked up the US rating and expanded it. “I was never just a financier,” the agency said in a statement released on its press service account in response to reporters’ questions. “I invented it, I created it, I operated it for a long time.”

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“It was created to protect the Russian information space from the uncouth aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian claims from the West,” the statement added.

“Prigozhin is now openly admitting to what the United States has been saying since 2018,” State Department spokeswoman Colleen Smith said in an email. The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014, the Internet Research Agency was part of an effort to paint the Ukrainian government as fascist or neo-Nazi, according to a 2014 investigation by BuzzFeed News. The agency had a budget of more than $10 million and at least 600 employees, according to the investigation.

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Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 US election singled out the company for its attempts to “sow discord in the US political system.” What began as a general program to undermine the US electoral system evolved into a targeted operation that favored then-candidate Donald Trump and belittled Hillary Clinton, Mueller wrote. According to the report, the group bought political ads on behalf of American individuals and entities and posed as grassroots US organizers to stage political rallies.

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By the end of 2016, accounts controlled by the company had reached millions of Americans. A Facebook representative testified that the social media company identified 470 Internet Research Agency-controlled accounts responsible for a total of 80,000 posts over a 2½-year period, reaching an estimated 126 million people.

More recently, the company has been linked to social media accounts criticizing the Biden administration’s agenda. Cybersecurity research firm Recorded Future told the New York Times it has identified a new campaign to undermine the Biden administration’s military aid to Ukraine.

According to a 2018 report by British think tank Demos, social media accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency helped to deepen divisions over Islam in the UK in the months leading up to the country’s vote to leave the European Union to stoke. Philippine news site Rappler connected the company to a broader propaganda ecosystem there.

The effects of such interventions are difficult to measure concretely. But for an oligarch investing in disseminating an image of Russian power, the perception of interference is an end in itself.

Thomas Rid, director of the Alperovich Institute for Cybersecurity Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said the Internet Research Agency’s tangible impact has been grossly exaggerated, in large part because it surfaced in the Mueller report. There is no clear evidence that the group managed to subvert any election, Rid said.

“We are currently witnessing the dismal performance of Russian forces in Ukraine. So why do we assume that an undisciplined, incompetently run facility in St. Petersburg would be able to disrupt elections around the world?” Rid said in an interview. “The entire narrative and collective discussion of disinformation occupies such a large space that it is more impactful than the actual operation being carried out.”

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Any public statement by Prigozhin, who openly claims to be in the business of disinformation, should be taken with a grain of salt, Rid said.

Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.

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