Anatomy of a Russian 'Troll Factory' News Site
When browsing through stories on the newly-established media outlet USAReally.com, you may think that you are reading a procedural-generated site that exists entirely from search engine optimization tricks, stealing articles from more established outlets and reposting them as if they were original. However, a closer inspection shows that there are no advertisements on the site — no banners, pop-ups, Google AdSense frames, or any other sign of monetization.
In fact, USA Really is the newest venture of the infamous St. Petersburg Troll Factory, better known by a variety of metonyms and other designations, such as Olgino (northwestern district of St. Petersburg, where the first “troll factory” office was located), Savushkina (reference to 55 Savushkina, the address for a non-descript office building housing some of the functions of the operation), and the IRA (short for the Internet Research Agency, the legal name for the operation).
What can we learn about USA Really by looking at its content, how the site was set up, and the context of how previous astroturfed news sites were operated by the St. Petersburg Troll Factory?
Obvious Russian Origin
There has been no shortage of research concretely linking USA Really to the St. Petersburg Troll Factory, most notably in an April investigation written by Lawrence Alexander. A quick survey of this evidence includes the fact that unredacted WHOIS registration information for the site gives information for a Russian man in St. Petersburg whose organization is the Federal Agency of News (FAN) — a news “agency” that has long been known to be part of the Troll Factory.
Additionally, before the site was launched, FAN announced that they would soon establish a site called USA Really, and a number of sites operating within the Troll Factory ecosystem heralded the start of the American-focused outlet.
In short, it was not an open secret that USA Really was operated by the Russian Troll Factory, as it was not even a secret. Rather, the largest website operated by the Troll Factory literally made a public announcement that it was starting the site a month before it was launched.
USA Really posted its first article on May 21, signalling a trend that would continue until the time of this article’s publish date (June 7): complete incompetence, along with a focus on crime and disorder in the United States. Along with the obvious focus on a school shooter, the headline of this inaugural article mixes up quotation marks (used in English) and angled marks (used in Russian and other languages), showing that the writer may not have even proofread his or her headline before posting.
As of June 7, USA Really has published 269 articles, averaging about 16 articles per day. These 269 articles include both “original” articles, polls, and announcements along with posts lifted from regional newspapers across the United States.
The content of these 269 articles ranges, but is generally concentrated into a few categories (note: all titles, grammatical errors intact, are exactly as they appeared on USA Really as of June 7):
- Sensationalist, click-bait, “oddity” articles that are largely apolitical.
- Examples: “The Police Looking for Masturbator Pedophile“, “Very Unusual Attacking with Scissors Was Happened in Florida“, “Man won $100,000 due to a good fantasy“, “The Strange Sounds Phenomenon Annoy Residents in the USA“, “Doctors Are Forced to Amputate Clinton’s Leg“ [note: the Clinton in question has no relation to the former President or his family]
- Conservative, pro-Trump articles and editorials.
- Examples: “The UN Report On US Poverty: Politicized Spin By Trump’s Globalist Enemies” [editorial], “FBI: Let’s Celebrate Pride Month, Straights do not Matter“, “Is John Kerry The Traitor?“, “Trump Stays True to His Word to Build the Wall“, “Soros’ Bid to Overhaul Criminal Justice System Hits a Wall in Calif“
- Apolitical articles on current events.
- Articles showing non-stop chaos in the United States, from cultural, political, natural, crime-related factors.
- Pro-separatist articles, largely as editorials.
- Conspiracy-focused articles, either explicitly or implicitly, with a focus on “human trafficking” of children serving as a dog whistle for “Pizzagate” and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
- Articles critical of U.S. police and immigration policies
While there are a number of articles on USA Really that are categorically untrue or rooted in conspiracy, many are basically correct–which should be expected, as the vast majority of articles on USA Really are heavily plagiarized from more reputable news outlets.
USA Really Incompetent
Writing about sixteen articles per day on topics in the United States is one thing, but actually producing compelling content that can influence the minds of Americans is a totally different matter. Many of the so-called “fake news” sites that found viral success on Facebook and other social network platforms in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election left much to be desired when it comes to site design and eloquent writing–for more information on these sites, see the analysis of Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News. However, these sites were occasionally able to garner success by demonstrating some basic competency in using a compelling hook to draw in readers, such as a shocking headline or interesting image accompanying the story in social media previews.
It is difficult to make the case that USA Really has shown any competency in these areas, and its site has only gained attention because of its obvious, public origin in St. Petersburg. A sampling of some of the headlines and preview photographs accompanying the stories, which would be visible in social media previews, can be seen below. Many of these headlines, to put it mildly, are difficult to parse, even when it comes from native or near-native English speakers who have contributed editorials to the site.
A History of Incompetence
USA Really is far from the first news site created by the St. Petersburg Troll Factory, though it is one of the most awkward. When creating content in Russian, sites from the Troll Factory are, at the very least, competent. For example, in 2014, they created the site “YaPatriot.ru” (I am a patriot”), with content aimed against Russian opposition figures, such as Aleksey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov. Considering how the Troll Factory employees were far more well-versed in the Russian language and political scene, the content on this site was leaps and bounds more interesting to the average Russian than any of the USA Really content is to the average American. For example, YaPatriot included a comic book drawn by an employee that shows anti-corruption activist Aleksey Navalny as a pro-Western super hero, portraying him as an enemy of Russia and paid agent of the West.
Other “news” sites ran out of the Troll Factory resemble USA Really in that they are astroturfed, pretending to be a grassroots, local site, but actually being directed from the top-down in St. Petersburg. The now-defunct site “Who is Who” pretended to be a Ukrainian site looking to improve the country by exposing internal corruption, but was actually ran entirely out of St. Petersburg. Some of the stories on this site included, as detailed by Lawrence Alexander back in 2015, an imagined story about a mother who had to steal groceries to survive in Kyiv and an anti-Semitic spiel about the leadership of Ukraine.
We do not have to speculate on how the Troll Factory is ran, as several years ago Russian journalists obtained leaked documents from Savushkina 55. These include actual guidelines, templates, and productivity requirements for employees. Practices have surely changed in the last three years, but some things seem to have remained the same, such as the quota system that values quantity over quality. Most of the articles with the author listed as “USA Really” hover around the same word counts (200-350 words), heavy on quotations and copy-pasted portions of other articles. For example, an article about a police bust in Missouri liberally plagiarizes the Springfield News-Leader. Below, the USA Really article (left) is compared with sections of the Springfield News-Leader article (right), with color-coded sentences to show the direct plagiarization.
Much Ado About Nothing
A number of analysts and news outlets have raised alarm about USA Really, calling it a “Russian op designed to sway U.S. voters” and “RT on steroids“. Facebook and LiveJournal, for example, blocked USA Really’s pages soon after McClatchy published an article about the operation, leaving the Troll Factory startup to Twitter, where it tweets out links to its articles to little engagement (other than people replying with nasty messages about Russian trolls) and sarcastically likes tweets about its origins and behavior.
If ‘information warfare experts’ truly believe that USA Really, a site that plagiarizes the vast majority of its articles and writes in barely-functional English, is a threat to the minds of American voter in midterm elections, then either the American information space is in a decrepit state, or analysts should re-examine what constitutes a true danger worthy of public attention.
Update: FAN published an interview on June 5 with two of the people working at USA Really, where they spoke (in Russian) about how they were being censored by America. In the background, a map can be seen with various labels on each state, signifying different problems. This map was not a secret, as Aleksandr Malkevich, the head of USA Really, explained the system and each of the problems.
Some of these problems include immigration (red), secession (yellow), second amendment/mass shootings (mauve), “the race question” (dark blue), poverty (green), crime (light blue), taxes (brown), unemployment (dark grey), and bankruptcy. Missouri, for example, is apparently concerned with crime according to the map, while Utah has no markers at all. The interview also showed the office of USA Really, which is practically a self parody.
With this interview, the fact that FAN publicly announced the launch of USA Really ahead of time, and how the site seems mostly concerned about talking about being censored by American authorities, it is difficult to take the actual content they produce seriously. The real audience of USA Really may actually be Russians reading and watching Russian-language articles about American censorship of the site, rather than actual American voters.