Looking At Russian Social Media Influence
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump and his White House have offered conflicting messages this week about the extent of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential campaign. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others have warned that Russians are already at work to influence this year's elections. Then and now, much of that effort has been carried out on social media and websites that look like reputable news outlets. Some are polished and well-funded like RT, Russia Today; others, not so much. Two months ago, a new site was launched from Russia, usareally.com.
ALEXANDER MALKEVICH: Our project is little.
SIMON: Alexander Malkevich runs the site.
MALKEVICH: ...Little media project with just 10 or 12 working in the Moscow office and about 20 people who are writing for us in the United States.
SIMON: USA Really was formed by the Federal News Agency, which has ties to Vladimir Putin's government. Malkevich also works for that government as an adviser on mass media, though it's unclear what the exact connection between his website and the Kremlin might be. Malkevich spoke to us from the offices of USA Really in Moscow and told us his team wants to tell stories that mainstream American media won't tell.
MALKEVICH: We're interested in making media for all, people from left side to extremely right. In our country, in Russia, we have a lot of American media speaking about Russian problems, about Russian life, so maybe it is our answer.
SIMON: Malkevich says he's heard the claims and criticisms of Russian interference in American politics, and they're just fiction - or bad history repeating itself.
MALKEVICH: All those things you are talking about is just from James Bond and a lot spies among us. For us, we consider it as a second edition of witch hunt and the things that McCarthy did in '50s. And I don't think that those pages of your history is the pages that American people have to be proud of.
SIMON: When we asked directly if Russian misinformation is aimed to influence elections, Alexander Malkevich scoffed.
MALKEVICH: You're thinking about American people, American citizen as very weak people because you suggest that a little media from Russia appears and all Americans who reading our articles are immediately influenced.
LACHLAN MARKAY: They cover a lot of, I mean, everything from major news stories of the day involving the Trump administration and Congress to minor local news stories that can sort of fit into the conspiratorial, very divisive cultural criticism that is sort of characteristic of a lot of these Russian media organizations.
SIMON: Lachlan Markay is a White House correspondent for The Daily Beast. He's covered USA Really and told us how stories on their website can aggravate divisions in America.
MARKAY: One that really stuck out at me was a story about the FBI honoring its LGBT employees. And there was a story, in very poorly written English that wondered why they were honoring the gay and lesbian people who worked for the FBI but not, quote, "the straights" who work for the FBI. That stuck out at me because it was a weird story in broken English written about an issue that tends to stoke political and cultural divisions. And that was something we saw a lot of in the social media disinformation campaigns during the election was the discussion surrounding things like Black Lives Matter, which were very much in the news and very divisive. And it's very easy to sort of stoke outrage from either side on an issue like that.
SIMON: So the idea of running a story like that would be to - what? - have it retweeted, passed along by email, Facebook, other social media platforms to as many people as possible.
MARKAY: Yeah. I think it appeals to a certain subset of, you know, if you're not being too charitable, trolls that inhabit sort of social media and digital spaces, something that is likely to be shared and passed around among, you know, say, a hardcore group of right-wing political commentators. It probably won't have much reach outside of that. But for a site like that, if you're able to get a more popular but perhaps equally fringe-oriented news organization - a place like Alex Jones' Infowars or The Gateway Pundit or some of these popular but fringy pro-Trump organizations. If you get one of them to pick up on it, you could potentially expand the reach of some piece of content dramatically.
SIMON: Don't they also run articles that might appeal, if that's the word, to people on the left?
MARKAY: They do. And I think that speaks to a broader and very fascinating phenomenon of the last two or three years in American politics of the melding, sort of, of elements of the far left and far right on issues such as military non-interventionism or free trade. I think there is a strange confluence that you see on other Russian media channels, such as RT, that very often do take a, in some senses, left-wing position on certain - especially geopolitical issues. I think you saw that a lot on Syria, for instance. People who were disinclined to support military intervention or further military action happened to be aligned, in many cases, with the position of the Russian government.
SIMON: Offhand, what you describe and what I've read myself doesn't suggest, let me put it this way, a first-class media organization. What should Americans who come to the site, USA Really, know about the site, think about it?
MARKAY: Well, you know, I agree with you that it is a relatively amateurish looking site. I wish I had your confidence in the ability of many Americans to discern when someone is either pushing an agenda or maybe pushing something that's outright false.
SIMON: Lachlan Markay, White House correspondent for The Daily Beast. We also heard from Alexander Malkevich, who runs the Russian news site USA Really. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.