Anonymous Wikipedia users engaged in a lengthy campaign this year to alter and whitewash the online biographies of two people at the center of an alleged Russian plot to infiltrate prominent conservative groups in America.
Starting in early spring 2018, the users, one of which maintained an account on Wikipedia’s Russian-language site, made a series of edits to bios for Maria Butina, a Russian national accused of conspiracy and illegal foreign influence, and Paul Erickson, a Republican political activist whom Butina allegedly roped into her espionage campaign and with whom she allegedly traded sex for political access as a “necessary aspect of her activities.”
The edits sought to discredit reporting on the FBI investigation into one of Butina’s alleged co-conspirators, and to scrub details of Erickson’s and Butina’s business history. It also downplayed attempts by Erickson to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, allegations of fraud against Erickson, and Butina’s ties to a Russian political figure instrumental in her efforts to ingratiate herself with prominent political groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The identities of the people behind the Wikipedia editing campaign are not known. But other users on the site—including a veteran editor who says his mission is to “combat promotional editing”—publicly speculated that the accounts were part of a coordinated “sockpuppet” editing campaign. Sockpuppets are online identities created by a single person to covertly manipulate information.
Details gleaned through a review of Wikipedia’s edit logs link two of the accounts to the Washington D.C. university where Butina studied before she was arrested last week. The edits suggest that months before her life blew up, someone close to, or allied with, Butina knew what investigations into her and her associates might uncover and launched a clandestine campaign to expunge the record or at least downplay it.
The edit campaign began in March when an anonymous Wikipedia user made a series of five edits to Butina’s page. The edits included adding details of her biography and noting the Russian spelling of Right to Bear Arms (Право на оружие), the non-profit gun rights group she founded in 2011 to “improve weapons culture” and provide gun owners with access to free legal advice.
The account’s only identifying information was an IP address traced to web servers at American University, the school where Butina studied from mid-2016 through the spring of 2018, and which federal prosecutors say she used to obtain a U.S. student visa. In April, another Wikipedia account sprouted up and made four edits to Butina’s page. That account also used an IP address associated with AU.
A spokesman for American University confirmed that the IP addresses were associated with the school's network, but declined to comment further, citing student privacy concerns.
Neither Erickson nor an attorney for Butina responded to requests for comment on the Wikipedia editing campaign.
The first anonymous Wikipedia user made its final edit at 9:36 PM on the evening of March 23. Six minutes later, a new account with the handle Caroline456 was created—with a sister account on Wikipedia’s Russian language site—and picked up right where the AU account left off.
Caroline456 eventually made nearly 50 edits to Butina’s and Erickson’s Wikipedia pages—and no others. Among the changes were attempts to expunge Butina’s page of potentially incriminating information about her ties to Alexander Torshin, a Russian central bank official on whose behalf Butina was allegedly attempting to influence and infiltrate U.S. political organizations. In early 2016, Torshin and Butina boasted that Trump’s famously gun-friendly son, Don Jr., was “ready for cooperation with Russia.”
The edits also attempted to downplay news of a federal investigation into Torshin, his involvement in efforts to arrange a back-channel meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in the early days of the Trump campaign, and whether Russian money had found its way into American elections by way of the NRA. Caroline456 focused particular attention on citations of a January story by McClatchy, which first reported on that FBI investigation.
Caroline456 edited Butina’s page to say that the McClatchy story had been “debunked by the Wall Street Journal,” as evidenced by a Kim Strassel column that dubbed McClatchy’s reporting “fake news.” Caroline456 also wrote that the McClatchy story was “retracted,” which was inaccurate as the headline of the piece was changed but the story was not taken back.
Additional Caroline456 edits attempted to minimize links between Butina and Erickson, with one late-March edit attempting to downplay Butina’s involvement in a South Dakota company Erickson allegedly set up to fund her studies. Erickson’s bio on Wikipedia originally stated that he and Butina had jointly incorporated that company, Bridges LLC, a claim supported by a 2017 annual report which listed Butina as a beneficial owner.
“Incorrect information,” wrote Caroline456. “Erickson is an agent of Bridges, LLC. It has nothing to do with partnership or ownership with Butina.”
Caroline456 also uploaded a pair of photos of Butina, and indicated in licensing information that they were originals. But when another Wikipedia edtori questioned their ownership, Caroline456 walked back those initial claims and asked for both of them to be deleted.
The editing campaign raised red flags in the eyes of Bill Beutler, the president of digital consulting firm Beutler Ink. “Caroline456 seems very likely to be a paid agent, most likely of Erickson, and while it’s impossible to tell, I’d say they are not quite as wiki-savvy as they imagine themselves to be,” Beutler, a longtime Wikipedia contributor who edits the site The Wikipedian, told The Daily Beast. “They made no efforts to cover their tracks. The account edited basically three pages: Erickson’s, Butina’s, and their own talk page defending their actions.”
Throughout its dozens of edits, Caroline456 denied any personal connection with Butina or Erickson. “I do not have any close relations with any of this characters,” the user wrote in response to an inquisitive Wikipedia editor who questioned the user’s impartiality.
On April 6, the same day that Torshin was sanctioned for attempts to “subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities,” among other offenses, the same editor pointed to discrepancies in language and writing styles in Caroline456’s edits, and wondered whether Caroline456 was in fact “two people editing under one username.” The editor also questioned whether Caroline456 was a native English speaker.
Caroline456 acknowledged he or she was not. “What’s the problem if I can ask a native English speaker friend to edit my English? You know, it’s kind of uncomrortable (sic) to use her every time for doing that. Are you going to prosecute me for that, too?”
The tirade ended on a strange note. “As I see there are a couple of guys loving BDSM stuff, right?” Caroline456 wrote. “Hey, guys, may be you should drop a bit this great conspiracy theories.”