The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a prominent troll farm that the US government has sanctioned for meddling in American elections, was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian private military company Wagner, according to CNN.
This Tuesday, Wagner Telegram channel published a statement from Prigozhin, asking him to react to the suggestion that he was the founder of the agency.
“I react with pleasure,” Prigozhin said in the statement. “I’ve never just been the financier of the Internet Research Agency. I invented it, I created it, I managed it for a long time. It was founded to protect the Russian information space from boorish aggressive propaganda of anti-Russian narrative from the West.”
The US Treasury Department sanctioned the IRA in 2018, accusing it of having “created and managed a vast number of fake online personas that posed as legitimate US persons to include grassroots organizations, interest groups, and a state political party on social media.”
“Through this activity, the IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online. The IRA also organized and coordinated political rallies during the run-up to the 2016 election, all while hiding its Russian identity. Further, the IRA unlawfully utilized personally identifiable information from US persons to open financial accounts to help fund IRA operations.”
Prigozhin’s remarks on Tuesday follow his confession of intervening in the US political process some months prior and his promise to do so once more, which looked to be the first acknowledgment of a high-level influencing campaign from a Kremlin-affiliated individual.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said in November, one day before the US midterm elections. “Carefully, precisely, surgically, and in our own way, as we know how. During our pinpoint operations, we will remove both kidneys and the liver at once.”
Despite Prigozhin is not a member of the Russian government, he is close to the president and has earned the nickname “Vladimir Putin’s chef” since he started providing cuisine for Kremlin events.
When the IRA attempted to influence the 2016 US presidential election, Prigozhin had not yet acknowledged his role. Information about these efforts was revealed in a federal indictment against 13 Russian citizens that was made public in February 2018.
The indictment detailed how the corporation created a sizable network of false American activist organizations and exploited real Americans’ identities that had been stolen in an effort to destabilize the US political system.
According to the indictment, the group, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, began monitoring the social media pages of real American activist organizations in 2014, before setting up fake pages and personas that became, the indictment says, “leaders of public opinion.”
In an effort to further polarize America ahead of the 2016 election, the IRA posted from accounts offering commentary on every side of the biggest social and cultural issues of the day.
The IRA is responsible not only for interfering in the US elections. The troll factory actively conducted an anti-Ukrainian campaign and expanded its activities to Europe. For example, in 2018, The Times published an investigation alleging that the Kremlin, with the help of a “troll factory,” was conducting a campaign to misinform British teenagers in order to manipulate public opinion. It created 2,848 accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
But since the IRA’s early years, Prigozhin has changed.
He used to mostly operate in the shadows, but in recent months, he has become more well-known for his harsh public criticism of Russian military officials for their mistakes in Ukraine while also providing thousands of Wagner forces, many of which were recruited from prisons, for Russian bloody offensive operations in the east of Ukraine.
Wagner fighters captured the small town of Soledar in the Donetsk region in recent weeks and have played a key role in Russia’s fight for Bakhmut, backed by artillery support from regular Russian forces and at the expense of hundreds of casualties in each assault.
Prigozhin has also deployed his shock troops to conflict zones including Syria, the Central African Republic, and Libya.
It is necessary to mention that Prigozhin himself has denied this connection with IRA for the long period. In August 2022, he even filed an honor and dignity suit against the British newspaper The Guardian and Tom Read, the chief executive officer of the UK’s Government Digital Service. Prigozhin did not like the article Troll factory’ spreading Russian pro-war lies online, says UK, which stated that a “troll factory” was allegedly connected to him.
Prigozhin felt that the information that he was the founder of the IRA was untrue. Prigozhin demanded 1 million euros from each of the defendants as compensation for moral damages. The lawsuit was filed in the Kuibyshev District Court of St. Petersburg.
This behavior not only demonstrates the cynicism and deceitfulness of Putin’s associate, but also proves once again that the statements of recent years about the danger of such news agencies were true. Accordingly, Russia’s troll factories and the information campaigns they conduct pose a threat to international peace and security.
Prigozhin’s confession now looks more like an attempt to draw additional attention to his persona, which is rapidly losing influence in Putin’s inner circle after months of heavy losses during the storming of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
But one thing is clear. Interference in the US elections or Brexit in Britain, interference in other electoral processes in Europe, and subversive information activities over the past 8 years are part of Russia’s state policy that has been controlled at the highest level.
Moreover, Prigozhin’s career perfectly illustrates the progressive degradation, militarization, and transformation of Russia into a fascist autocracy. Prigozhin was a “chef” who was responsible for Kremlin’s catering. When Russia began to escalate its hybrid aggression, Prigozhin turned into a bot farm organizer responsible for information influence and subversion. When Russia threw off its mask and started the largest war in Europe since World War II, Prigozhin became the frontman of a criminal organization responsible for aggression, murder, and torture – including against his own mercenaries.
Photo: AP (Yevgeny Prigozhin with Vladimir Putin in 2011)