DOJ seizes ‘bot farm’ operated by RT editor on behalf of the Russian government

July 9, 2024
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The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it seized two domain names and more than 900 social media accounts it claims were part of an “AI-enhanced” Russian bot farm. Many of the accounts were designed to look like they belonged to Americans and posted content about the Russia-Ukraine war, including videos in which Russian President Vladimir Putin justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The Justice Department claims that an employee of RT — Russia’s state media outlet — was behind the bot farm. RT’s leadership signed off on a plan to use the bot farm to “distribute information on a wide-scale basis,” amplifying the publication’s reach on social media,” an FBI agent alleged in an affidavit. To set up the bot farm, the employee bought two domain names from Namecheap, an Arizona-based company, that were then used to create two email servers, the affidavit claims. The servers were then used to create 968 email addresses, which were in turn used to set up social media accounts, according to the affidavit and the DOJ. 

In early 2023, a member of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) created a private intelligence organization whose membership included the deputy editor and other employees of RT, the affidavit claims. The organization’s true purpose “was to advance the mission of the FSB and the Russian government, including by spreading disinformation through the social media accounts created by the bot farm,” the DOJ claimed in a statement. In other words, the goal was not to expand RT’s audience but to spread disinformation on behalf of the Russian government using RT’s bot network, according to the DOJ.

The effort was concentrated on X, where profiles were created with Meliorator, an “AI-enabled bot farm generation and management software,” according to a joint cybersecurity advisory published by the US, Canadian, and Dutch governments. Meliorator had an obfuscation technique designed to bypass X’s verification methods, the cybersecurity advisory claims. 

Each bot’s profile had an identity or “soul” based on an archetype or persona. They were given biographical information, political ideologies, and a location. For example, one account purported to be a Bitcoin enthusiast and free speech absolutist from Minneapolis who was opposed to the New World Order. A “thoughts” tab allowed the operator to control the bots’ online behavior based on their soul or archetype. 

The alleged scheme violates the Emergency Economic Powers Act, which lets the president impose economic sanctions on certain foreign actors and governments. Under the IEEPA, the executive branch has imposed a number of orders and regulations governing Americans’ transactions with Russian nationals and the Russian government, including an executive order that prohibits US persons from providing funds, goods, or services “to or for the benefit of” Specially Designated Nationals without obtaining authorization from the Treasury Department.

The investigation is ongoing.

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