Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
The story that appeared on the Hill website on March 20 was startling.
Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine, had given a “list of people whom we should not prosecute” to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, according to a write-up of an interview Lutsenko gave to the conservative columnist John Solomon.
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.
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