Russian Op 1: Fantasy Assassins
The Russian operation’s most outlandish lies
This article is part of a series analyzing the various aspects of the suspected Russian intelligence operation. Our top post summarizes these findings.
On a few occasions, the Russian operation posted stories that appeared designed to appeal directly to the West’s most conspiracy-minded users. These stories were remarkable for their use of high-profile conservative figures —British prime ministerial candidate Boris Johnson and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) — to give the stories star quality.
The articles failed to catch on. Nonetheless, they constituted an attempt to seed false stories among a conservative and conspiracy-leaning demographic that has shown itself vulnerable to false stories in the past. As such, these examples deserve attention.
RU, as in “Rubio”
One outstanding fake story surfaced on August 1, 2018. It began with a post to online repository funnyjunk.com by an account that was created that day, posted one meme, and became inactive immediately.
The meme showed an apparent tweet by Rubio, accusing the United Kingdom’s intelligence-gathering agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), of planning to “use #DeepFakes to support Democrats” during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. It coupled it with a popular meme from children’s cartoon Spongebob Squarepants.
The DFRLab conducted a timed search of Rubio’s Twitter account, and of Google, from July 28, 2018, to August 2, 2018. No such tweet exists, either on Twitter or the politwoops collection of deleted tweets — although ironically, a separate Rubio tweet on July 30, 2018, referenced the danger of deep fakes, especially from Russia. It is likely that the Russian operation photoshopped the tweet to make it suit the chosen narrative, and drive a wedge between U.S. conservatives and the United Kingdom.
On August 2, 2018, a Facebook account that has been confirmed as being part of the Russian operation amplified the Funnyjunk meme, posting it to three separate groups.
The story picked up more speed on August 3, with the simultaneous posting of an English-language article to the websites homment.com (Berlin), indybay.org (San Francisco), cssforum.com.pk (Pakistan), and ozpolitic.com (Australia).
The brief article included an image of the “tweet,” and expanded on Rubio’s alleged claim, arguing the British government would “have to find a much more convincing explanation of their actions” than a simple denial. It was written in flawed, non-native English, characteristic of this operation:
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in his Twitter accused British secret services of intention to use deep fakes to throw mud at Republicans during the 2018 midterm elections to the U.S. Congress due to take place in early November…
A reverse image search of the “screenshotted” tweet revealed that it appeared in articles in French, German, and Spanish on multiple forums simultaneously. The items in French and Spanish, and some of the German versions, were direct translations of the English article.
In each case, where author data were available, the articles were posted by accounts that were created the same day, published one article, and never returned to the site. The forums included homment.com, nexusboard.de, reddit, rankia.com and globedia.com, all of which the Russian operation used repeatedly. All these indicate that this story was part of the broader operation.
Most remarkably, three weeks after the fake appeared online, the German-language service of Kremlin broadcaster RT ran a separate article on it, alleging that Rubio had “warned of British interference in the midterm elections.”
The RT article wrote that it was “astounding” that Rubio had accused GCHQ of “doing what Moscow and others are accused of.” As proof of its claim, RT included the same screenshot but added that “Rubio may have been warned by Republican HQ to take the accusation back and not trigger a new diplomatic row between London and Washington, because the tweet of July 30 is no longer active.”
RT’s injection gave the story a little more traction and was picked up by a number of small German-language aggregators. Overall, however, the Rubio claim performed poorly. The posts gained few reactions and were not picked up by other media.
On June 19, 2019, as a result of the DFRLab’s research, Rubio tweeted that “the image [of a tweet] is a fake,” and called the operation a “Putin disinformation campaign.” In response, RT appended an editor’s note to its German article, saying that “In a tweet of June 19, 2019, Senator Rubio disputes that he created the above tweet.” No further correction had been posted by the time this article was published.
The Russian operation’s most remarkable claim was that “radical opponents of Brexit” were planning to assassinate Johnson, and that the Spanish intelligence services had exposed the plot.
The story started on August 8, 2018, while the Rubio claim was still ongoing. It began with a post on a Spanish-language Facebook account run by the operation.
The post shared a letter addressed to conservative politician Rafael Merino López, president of the Spanish parliament’s Interior Committee at the time. The signature block attributed the letter to one “Josep Borrel Fontenelles,” and was sent under the letterhead of the Spanish Foreign Minister. This is the first indicator that it was a forgery, because the current Spanish Foreign Minister’s actual surname is “Borrell,” not “Borrel.”
The letter claimed that Merino had informed Borrell of a “possible attack on Boris Johnson by radical Brexit opponents who want to stop him being nominated prime minister” two days earlier, and that Borrell would alert the British authorities.
The letter was a fantastical forgery. Setting aside the fact that it was posted by an impersonation account and failed to spell the minister’s name, the content was wholly implausible. To say that Spanish intelligence had better sources inside the “Remain” camp than the British did is self-evidently absurd and rendered more unrealistic by the claim that the Spanish had no ability to tell their own foreign ministry or Britain’s counter-intelligence directly about it.
Typical of this operation, a Spanish-language article based on the forged letter was quick to follow. On August 9, a newly created user account shared it to six different subreddits; the same day, newly created user accounts shared it to Spanish-language forums globedia.com, burbuja.info, and articulo.org. None gained traction.
The next phase came on August 13, when an English-language translation of the Spanish article appeared on Medium. It was posted by an account called “Matt Porter” that only published this one article. It appeared to have been written by a fluent, but non-native, speaker:
“Recently, several key players in the government resigned in token of May’s policy rejection.”
“If now people who are still unsatisfied with the results of the referendum of 2016 have a hope for a soft break with the EU or even the complete cancellation of Brexit, there’s no chance of any give-ups or compromises with Johnson as the PM.”
The same day, an account called “pormatt” posted the English-language article to forums including cssforum.com.pk, homment.com, talk-uk.com, talk247.net, debatepolitics.com, and defendingthetruth.com. Yet again, those sites that provided user information showed that the accounts were created that day, posted the one article, and never returned.
Two days after the “pormatt” accounts burned and died, a separate user account, “Illinoiss,” posted a meme based on the “Matt Porter” article to funnyjunk.com. The meme provided a link to a site called able2know.org, but the link was broken by June 2019. Yet again, the user account was created that day, posted one item, and then abandoned.
As with the Rubio “tweet,” the Russian operation’s pseudo-Irish Facebook account then amplified the Johnson meme by sharing it to a number of meme and politics groups.
This behavior was entirely typical of the Russian operation. Equally typical was the lack of impact for either story. Despite the operation’s multilingual efforts and in part because of the operators’ attempts to hide their tracks, neither story appears to have been picked up by any bona fide news outlet.
These stories stand out for the sheer audacity of their fakes and for the apparent desire to inflame American conspiracy-minded conservative communities against the United Kingdom and similar UK-based communities against the Remain camp.