Reddit users have uncovered an elaborate campaign to seed Reddit’s most popular pro-Trump community with content linked to Russian influence operations, as detailed in a post on Friday night.
Archives show a sustained effort to plant and upvotes links to a site called Geotus.Army, playing off a slang term for the president that is popular at /r/the_donald. Each of the links, visible on this archived page, redirected to articles on a recently launched site called USA Really, a site with well-documented connections to Russian influence operations. The redirect links were operated by a link-shortening service called Rebrandly and have since been taken down, but USA Really articles corresponding to the archived links are readily accessible.
A similar effort took place from a publication called Brutalist.Press; a Buzzfeed report found the publication had submitted more than 500 links to the site over the past year. The site has since been taken down and was based at a Russian IP address, but its broader connection to Russian influence campaigns is unclear.
In June, the cybersecurity firm FireEye found significant ties between USA Really and Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a notorious troll farm named in a recent Mueller indictment. USA Really is operated out of the same St. Petersburg office as the IRA, and much of the technical work on the website was done by employees of the Federal News Agency, which has been linked to both the IRA and the Kremlin.
Reached by journalists, IRA founder Alexander Malkevich denied any involvement with the banned Reddit accounts.
It’s not the first time Reddit has struggled with Russian influence operations, although it’s the first time those operations have directly impacted /r/the_donald. In April, the platform publicly identified and froze 944 accounts linked to the IRA, leaving the accounts visible on the site for research purposes. The accounts were not particularly active in pro-Trump communities, focusing instead on broadly popular memes. In subsequent Facebook influence campaigns, many of the pages focused on left-wing topics like Bernie Sanders or Black Lives Matter.
According to Atlantic Council researcher Ben Nimmo, that disparity makes the recent finding particularly noteworthy. “If these are really troll farm accounts pushing troll farm content, then it confirms that the operation is ongoing and targeting the alt-right,” Nimmo told The Verge. “/r/the_donald is alt-right Grand Central, so if you’re seeding content there, that’s who you’re trying to reach.”
Speaking to Newsweek, the original poster claimed to have removed his account after direct intervention by Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, who posts on Reddit under the username “spez.” “Spez gave me a brief ‘I’m not mad, I’m disappointed’ response,” the poster told Newsweek. “He seemed like he genuinely wanted to do a thorough dive on the reports and I cut that short.”
Reached by The Verge, Reddit declined to confirm that the posts were taken down because of a specific Russia connection, but said they were in violation of site policy. “We are continuing our investigation into suspicious content on Reddit and have taken action against several domains that break our site-wide policies,” a spokesperson said. “As was the case here, we take user reports of suspicious activity very seriously and fully investigate any claims made to us.”