Russia Revives Its Botnet to Hit Swing-State Democrats

Old networks are lighting back up with MAGA propaganda in key races, say security pros.

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Russian trolls and bots are coming back online ahead of the midterms—this time, amplifying right-wing vitriol on Gab, Parler, Gettr, and other minor social media platforms serving far-right audiences. Cybersecurity researchers have identified the reactivation of inflammatory accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a propaganda group associated with the Kremlin that has interfered in US elections since at least 2016, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Some of the Russia-linked accounts are attempting to undermine Democrats in close races, posting a series of racist cartoons about Sen. Raphael Warnock, according to social network analysis company Graphika. Others are boosting Republicans in tight races, such as Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. Tellingly, they’re posting a lot about the Russian war in Ukraine—arguing that President Joe Biden is wasting money on military aid to Ukraine to the detriment of “working class Americans.” And, as always, they lavish praise on former President Donald Trump. 

Gab and other nontraditional platforms are much smaller than Facebook, where the 2016 Russian influence campaign reached millions of voters. But users of the far-right platforms are seen as more susceptible to incendiary political commentary. “You can engage the audiences in much more targeted influence ops because those who are on these platforms are generally U.S. conservatives who are maybe more accepting of conspiratorial claims,” said Brian Liston, a senior intelligence analyst with cybersecurity research firm Recorded Future.

It’s difficult to measure the impact these accounts will have on the election, the Times warns—just as it’s still unclear how much Russian influence truly swayed the outcome in 2016. But perhaps Russia has concluded it doesn’t need to work so hard to promote its interests among the US electorate, since Fox News host Tucker Carlson is already doing so for free. Earlier this year, David Corn reported on a leaked memo from a Kremlin agency to Russian media outlets:

“It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally,” advises the 12-page document written in Russian. It sums up Carlson’s position: “Russia is only protecting its interests and security.”

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