New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.

USA Really launched with a goal of stopping disinformation about Russia. A video it ran features an American flag and a Confederate flag alongside a MAGA poster of Donald Trump.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.

Malkevich sits on the Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media and communication. He is also running the show at USA Really, according to an FAN video on the project. The video features shots of a USA Really office space adorned with an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a framed “Make America Great Again” poster of President Donald Trump.

When permits for USA Really’s White House rally were denied because the group had applied to the wrong D.C. office, it scheduled a different event featuring Malkevich moderating a roundtable discussion. The discussion will take place this Friday at USA Really’s offices at a space across the street from the White House.

Employees at the website referred questions to Malkevich, who did not respond to inquiries.

Though it failed to come to fruition, the proposed rally was a brazen move for a group linked to more surreptitious elements of the Kremlin’s U.S. propaganda efforts. According to security researchers, the FAN has ties to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian social media office that the Justice Department indicted in February for its role in Kremlin efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The FAN once operated out of the same St. Petersburg office building as the IRA, and the news agency took part in a scheme to discredit a New York Times reporter by attempting to link him to Russian neo-Nazis ahead of a Times expose on the IRA.

USA Really publishes content characteristic of Russian social media campaigns in 2016 that aimed to stoke political, cultural, and racial divisions in the U.S. The site and an accompanying page on the publishing platform Live Journal have recently posted on topics ranging from school shootings to gay rights. One recent post complained that the FBI was recognizing its LGBT employees, but not “the straights” in its ranks. It’s also recently published interviews with conspiracy theorists who claim the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and that the Pentagon is developing sonic weapons that can “liquidate the brains of thousands of soldiers at one time.” Needless to say, none of this is true.

The outlet’s emergence comes as U.S. authorities are more heavily scrutinizing the Kremlin ties of ostensibly independent Russian media outlets operating on U.S. soil. The Justice Department recently required that arms of two such outlets, RT and Sputnik, register with DOJ under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

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That didn’t stop USA Really from alleging a deep state plot to silence the group. It appealed to the Russian government for redress. “We ask the State Duma, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and the government to support [USA Really] in order to protect the interests of Russian media,” FAN wrote in a statement.

In Malkevich’s capacity as a Russian media policy adviser, he has laid out the case for USA Really and similar U.S.-based media organizations. “Our Commission has talked a lot about the discriminatory approach that applies to the Russian media in Europe and the United States,” he wrote on the chamber’s website on Thursday. “And we have repeatedly made proposals on this topic that Russia needs more mass media in order to fight back in the world information war.”

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, Jones received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Michael followed up with three additional emails attempting to recruit this reporter for a writing gig at USA Really. I’m currently weighing my options.