Suspected Russian operatives have used far-right media platforms to denigrate Democratic candidates in Georgia, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania in a renewed effort to influence voters in next week’s midterm elections, private researchers said Thursday.
The alleged Russian influence operation included six political cartoons spread in the last week on a pro-Donald Trump online forum, according to social media analysis firm Graphika, which discovered the activity.
The cartoons include a racist depiction of Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and a cartoon suggesting Ohio Senate candidate Tim Ryan will release drug traffickers from prison.
The cartoons got little engagement from authentic users, but the analysts are exposing the network of fictitious accounts now because the suspected Russian trolls have been effective in targeting Americans in the past.
It’s the latest evidence that foreign operatives are once again looking to exacerbate Americans’ political divisions heading into the November 8 midterms. Chinese government-affiliated have also promoted misinformation about the integrity of American elections, mirroring the Russian playbook, according to the FBI and private researchers.
On the far-right platform Gab, Graphika also found the trolls promoting content published by an organization linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful Russian businessman allegedly behind the infamous Russian “troll factory” that sowed discord in the 2016 US election.
The analysts don’t tie the online postings directly to the Russian government. The activity, however, has the hallmarks of other alleged Proghozhin operations, whom US officials accuse of being at the center of past Russian interference efforts.
Bloomberg News first reported on the influence operation.
By using “alt-tech” platforms popular with far-right activists, the suspected Russian operatives have “a direct line to their target audience,” Jack Stubbs, Graphika’s vice president of intelligence, told CNN.
The Prigozhin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, used a stream of Facebook and Twitter postings to sow discord and interfere in the 2016 presidential election, according to a 2018 Justice Department indictment.
US Cyber Command, the military’s hacking unit, in 2018 conducted an operation to temporarily block internet access for the IRA out of concern for the troll farm’s potential for meddling in the 2018 midterm election. It’s unclear if the command has taken similar action this midterm cycle; command officials do not comment on ongoing operations.
Thursday’s report is the first time that Graphika researchers have seen the network of suspected Russian trolls directly engage with other parts of Prigozhin’s media empire.
The Russian tycoon, who also established a mercenary group that has been fighting in Ukraine, has been using the war to jockey for increased influence inside the Kremlin, CNN previously reported.
CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan contributed reporting.