What becomes of a Kremlin troll farm when its fake accounts are repeatedly taken down? It sheds its skin and morphs into something new, all while continuing its efforts to bend public opinion towards a Putinesque view of the world.
Since its much-publicized interference efforts in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (and failed attempts to do the same during the 2018 midterm elections), Russia’s notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA) has faced increasing resistance from Western governments, civil society, and, most consequentially, social media platforms. In response to this scrutiny, the IRA has refined its manipulation efforts via the assembly of a Potemkin-like media conglomerate headed by the website RIA FAN (short for Federal News Agency)—an empire that employs fake personas and an arsenal of Kremlin-friendly Telegram channels masquerading as objective reporting.
Yevgeni Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch, ally of President Putin, and owner of the IRA and the private military company PMC Wagner Group, is alleged to be the financial sponsor behind RIA FAN. The RIA FAN website initially grew its traffic by aggressively engaging in keyword and search engine optimization (SEO) in the hopes of approaching the magnitude of established Russian news agencies such as RT, TASS, or RIA-Novosti. While much smaller than these major Russian outlets, RIA FAN now regularly surfaces on various well-known news aggregators such as Yandex and Lentainform and has become one of Russia’s most frequently cited news outlets.
A glance at the RIA FAN website, however, suggests it is anything but a legitimate media outlet. The website falls under the auspices of Patriot Media Group, a conglomerate that Prigozhin presides over as head of its board of trustees. With the stated intent to counter “anti-Russian media,” the group has instead become an inauthentic “news factory” on par with Prigozhin’s more well-known “troll factory.”
RIA FAN’S Telegram Journalists
Figure 1 shows sample headlines of articles authored by RIA FAN’s bloggers. Content is predominantly critical of the West.
Over the past year, RIA FAN’s geopolitical analyses have been largely outsourced to a group of Telegram channels with a combined following of over 160,000 users. Bloggers for these Telegram channels provide analyses on their respective regions of focus, including Russia’s near-abroad, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while being supported by RIA FAN’s hosting and distribution infrastructure.
The most prolific of these bloggers, “Voice of Mordor,” has a wide presence on the web and produces content for other malign media outlets such as Tsargrad and the FSB-linked outlet NewsFront. Another blogger by the name of “Brussels Snitch,” whose content also appears on Tsargrad and NewsFront, has been previously highlighted by both the Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika for promoting anti-NATO narratives.
The true identities behind these accounts remain largely undisclosed, but one entity, the Latin America focused “Tales from the Favelas” channel (which also makes appearances in Kremlin-connected outlets such as Katehon), traces back to a pair of admins from a student organization at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). It also appears that some of the “bloggers” may be powered by multiple authors, all of whom produce content favorable towards Russia’s geopolitical agenda.
Figure 2 shows Telegram bloggers Rybar (Fisherman) and istanbul_wolf promoting RIA FAN’s “Anti-Terror” and “Networks of Influence” projects, which have enlisted many of the site’s Telegram analysts. In the samples provided, both channels take aim at a close ally of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and Turkish TV Channel TRT in Russian.
Outsourcing expertise to anonymous bloggers and personas with minimal accreditation draws parallels to the way RIA FAN’s war correspondents have operated in relation to the Russian military. RIA FAN correspondents attached to PMC Wagner contingents have been largely exempt from the military regulations enforced upon competing Russian news outlets, which has allowed RIA FAN to gain first-hand, exclusive coverage of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Similarly, RIA FAN’s stable of foreign policy Telegram bloggers have been cited and amplified by Kremlin-aligned outlets despite not disclosing any journalistic credentials—not to mention the sources of their seemingly prescient information.
Figure 3 shows RIA FAN’s bloggers from a reduced network of over 3500 Telegram accounts. Clusters are divided by modularity classes, which are determined by grouping accounts based on mutual interactions. Accounts with less than 5 interactions have been filtered out. The font size of each blogger is determined by the number of inward and outward edges (lines). Most of RIA FAN’s bloggers cover international issues.
The potential for these personas to influence audiences extends beyond the websites attached to the Patriot Media Group to the Kremlin’s overt media outlets as well. For example, a comment on Telegram posted by the RIA FAN blogger “Pinochet Echo’” regarding the recent protests in Colombia was cited by a top RT en Español host, Inna Afinogenova. Afinogenova, who heads the widely popular YouTube channel “Ahi les Va!,” sought to malign the news outlet Semana and amplify anger against the Colombian establishment. The real identity and credentials of Pinochet Echo do not appear to be publicly available.
Old Habits Die Hard: Inauthentic Behavior from the IRA to RIA FAN
Listed on the editorial page of RIA FAN’s website are the alleged names and faces of the agency’s current roster of authors and editors. Among the collage of faces lies the incongruent portrait of one Anna Kovaleva, whose features stand out from those of her colleagues.
Figure 4 shows a reverse facial recognition search on one of RIA FAN’s author pictures indicating the use of Generative Adversarial Network (GAN). The author has posted close to 5K articles since late 2019.
The Anna Kovaleva name is accompanied by what appears to be, based on a reverse facial recognition search, the inauthentic portrait of an artificially generated person. The portraits of her surrounding colleagues, on the other hand, appear to be authentic and trace back to real people associated with the corresponding identities. Kovaleva has produced close to 2,000 articles per year since 2019—an astounding output that far exceeds that of the site’s verifiable authors. While it is certainly possible that Kovaleva is a real person in the employ of RIA FAN, her prodigious outputs on topics ranging from sports, to fashion, to geopolitics suggest that multiple bloggers may be posting under the Kovaleva persona.
Figure 5 shows JPgazetta Author Evgeny Klimenko, who appears to be represented by an inauthentic image similar to that of Kovaleva’s.
A broader examination of the Patriot Media Group indicates that obfuscation is endemic across the conglomerate. JP Gazeta, a sister website to RIA FAN, teems with what appear to be fake content creators with profiles of blatantly edited, altered, or artificially generated portraits. Furthermore, Patriot Media Group websites like RIA FAN and JP Gazeta frequently link to one another as sources, boosting each other’s traffic and visibility across search engines and collectively reducing the gap between them and far larger and more legitimate news organizations.
RIA FAN—and the broader Patriot Media Group—seeks to establish a tentpole media empire in Russia despite possessing little regard for authenticity, transparency, or integrity. While the websites already serve as platforms upon which to broadcast Kremlin narratives, they also launder the activities of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is currently under U.S. sanctions. The recently released Prigozhin-bankrolled film “Tourist”—whose plot whitewashes the atrocities committed by Prigozhin’s own Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic—has been disproportionately covered and lauded by RIA FAN, serving as the latest example of “journalism” in a society where powerful oligarchs are allowed to front as extensions of state power.
And as an extension of state power, Prigozhin has iterated on the troll factory concept and surrounded it with multiple faux websites—all with the purpose of deceiving onlookers both at home and abroad. With RIA FAN, the normalization of a Potemkin-like news enterprise powered by false personas and anonymous contributors continues to lead the country’s media industry into streamlining the preferences and illegal activities of its malign oligarchs.