Sam Thielman

Sam Thielman is an investigative reporter for Talking Points Memo based in Manhattan. He has worked as a reporter and critic for the Guardian, Variety, Adweek and Newsday, where he covered stories from the hacking attacks on US and international targets by Russian GRU and FSB security services to the struggle to bring broadband internet to the Navajo nation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son and too many comic books.

Articles by Sam

Buried in a Washington Post story out Sunday night is a surprising new development: Facebook’s cybersecurity team told the FBI in June 2016 that it believed the Russian hacking team APT 28, also known as “Fancy Bear” and believed to be a proxy for the Russian state security service GRU, was active on the platform.

From the Post:

Soon thereafter, Facebook’s cyber experts found evidence that members of APT28 were setting up a series of shadowy accounts — including a persona known as Guccifer 2.0 and a Facebook page called DCLeaks — to promote stolen emails and other documents during the presidential race. Facebook officials once again contacted the FBI to share what they had seen.

As cybersecurity analyst Marcy Wheeler observes, this is quite an admission—anonymously sourced—from the company, which said in April that it wasn’t in a position to attribute the unusual activity to anybody in particular.

The company has consistently downplayed the effect of false information on its users and the significance of what now appear to be a great many dummy accounts on its platform run by Russian trolls.

“Facebook conducted research into overall civic engagement during this time on the platform, and determined that the reach of the content shared by false amplifiers was marginal compared to the overall volume of civic content shared during the US election,” the company’s threat analysts wrote in that April report.

At first, Facebook’s own review “did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts,” the Post reported, but that public assessment changed radically on Sept. 6 when the company announced it had found $100,000 worth of advertisements purchased by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm with Kremlin ties.

Yet according to the timeline laid out in the Post’s report, Facebook was concerned enough to raise the alarm to law enforcement in June 2016, just as the Russian disinformation campaign began in earnest. The first word that the federal governmental was investigating Russia’s influence in the campaign came in July 2016, a few weeks after Guccifer 2.0’s first post—in which he tries to claim sole credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee. Less than a week later, a Motherboard reporter who interviewed someone claiming to be Guccifer 2.0 appeared to be the first to suggest that the hacker might be Russian rather than Romanian, as he claimed.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of investigators recently have focused more on Facebook itself, rather than on hyperpartisan “fake news.” That suggests Americans were unable to see how they were being manipulated on the platform, despite the tactics appearing obvious in hindsight: While a number of stories in the conservative news media were sourced to dumps of emails hacked by the Russians, the news outlets themselves weren’t exactly breaking with tradition by reporting that information in a disingenuous and credulous way. Russians didn’t make the American news ecosystem on social media so toxic—that was already true—they just used it to amplify stories that might serve their specific interests.

Fancy Bear, too, was hardly a secret. The Russian hacking collective had been a topic of much discussion among American cybersecurity researchers for more than a year before it breached the DNC. It made news among cybersecurity researchers in May 2015 for a brazen attempt to hack American banks. The group also breached the World Anti-Doping Agency and distributed strategically falsified information alongside information from that hack in August 2016.

But it’s safe to say that no one in the mainstream press immediately understood the primary role social networks like Facebook and Twitter would come to play in Fancy Bear’s operations. News organizations questioned the origins of emails stolen from the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta—as far as the public knew, those were primarily distributed through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, both WordPress sites, and later by WikiLeaks—but until recently, personal social media accounts weren’t considered any more suspicious than the news articles they shared.

At the moment, it’s also unclear how much of the U.S. government’s investigation into Russian hacking attacks explored Facebook, and what it may have found. The FBI announced only that it had investigated “malicious cyber activity” in a brief joint report with the Department of Homeland Security issued in December 2016. The Joint Analysis Report (JAR) contains nary a mention of Facebook, although it does warn readers generally about suspicious social media interactions.

One could now read between the lines in Facebook’s April repot and see the suggestion that the Russian government was directly stumping for Trump on Facebook, although the authors did not write the word “Russia” once in its pages. Months after the U.S. government formally accused the Kremlin of that malicious activity, Facebook defined “influence operations” as “Actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment, most frequently to achieve a strategic and/or geopolitical outcome.” The title of the report is Influence Operations and Facebook.

It’s also now possible to read comments from people who might have known more about the attacks a little closer: James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, suggested in January that disinformation masquerading as news had been a part of the Russian campaign on Facebook.

We know there appears to have been a concerted propaganda effort across at least $100,000 worth of Facebook advertisements, many of them promoted by accounts made with stolen user photos and some used to organize rallies on U.S. soil. The company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has come forward to say Facebook will try to make it “much harder” for foreign operators to interfere with the American political process. But the Post story raises another question: Who else knew about the unusual activity Facebook detected on its platform and when—and what did they do to try to stop it?

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Facebook initially withheld from Congress the thousands of ads it says were purchased by Kremlin-affiliated trolls because some of them contain photos stolen from other Facebook users, a congressional staffer briefed on the content of the ads told TPM on Friday.

The staffer said some of the ads include images of people who are essentially innocent bystanders to the propaganda war Russia waged across social media platforms during the 2016 campaign. The staffer suggested it may be possible for Congress to redact the ads to maintain the privacy of any users whose photos were stolen, in order to give the public access to some of the material Russian operators deployed to try to illegally influence voters.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment to TPM.

In a reversal, the company announced Thursday that it had “reached out to congressional leadership to agree on a process and schedule to provide the content of these ads, along with related information, to congressional investigators.” Facebook already had handed over details of the ad buys, including copies of the ads themselves, to special counsel Robert Mueller.

On the company’s blog, general counsel Colin Stretch essentially handed the public disclosure matter over to Congress: “We believe Congress is best placed to use the information we and others provide to inform the public comprehensively and completely.”

The staffer TPM spoke with speculated that the stolen photos may have been used to build fake Facebook profiles—under the site’s default settings, every user’s profile photos, past and present, are not merely visible but also available for download by any other user.

There’s already some evidence that Russian operators built fake Facebook accounts using stolen photos: The New York Times found that pictures belonging to Charles David Costacurta, a Brazilian man, had been used to build a profile under the name “Melvin Redick” that used to disseminate Russian propaganda.

In Congress, there is a growing sense that the public should know how, specifically, it may have been affected by foreign interference on social media platforms.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, went further: “An American can still figure out what content is being used on TV advertising,” he told CNN. “But in social media there’s no such requirement.”

Warner suggested the need for “a reform process” that would enable Americans “to know if there is foreign-sponsored content coming into their electoral process.” The senator is writing a bill that would require online media companies to publish disclosures similar to those mandated of broadcast television stations, which are individually licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Zuckerberg said publicly that he didn’t “think society should want us to “pre-screen political ads. Requiring the company to pre-screen any category of advertisement would necessitate a major increase in human staff, since, by Zuckerberg’s admission, most ad buying on Facebook is automated.

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In a reversal from its previous position, Facebook announced Thursday that it would hand over to Congress 3,000 advertisements bought over the course of the 2016 campaign by a Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm.

Mark Zuckerberg also appeared live on Facebook on Thursday afternoon to attempt to calm fears around abuse of his platform’s targeted ad system. But in addressing the public, the tech executive struck something less than a conciliatory tone.

Despite asserting that “the amount of problematic content that we’ve found so far remains relatively small,” Zuckerberg said firmly that the company couldn’t commit to catching every bad actor trying to misuse its advertising system.

He bluntly compared tightening internal advertising standards to prior restraint. “We don’t check what people say before they say it and I don’t think society should want us to,” Zuckerberg said. “Freedom means you don’t have to ask for permission first.”

Facebook agreed to turn over the Russian ads to Congress “in a manner that is consistent with our obligations to protect user information,” wrote Elliot Schrage, vice president of policy and communications, on the company blog. Schrage added that the company did not plan to turn the ads over to the public.

In his Facebook Live appearance, Zuckerberg didn’t cite user privacy as the rationale for not sharing the ads more broadly, but the company’s vulnerability in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference. Facebook had already shared the Russian ads with Mueller’s investigators.

“We’re going to be limited in what we can share regarding ongoing law enforcement operations,” Zuckerberg said. The company would continue its internal review, he told viewers, and Facebook execs “expect law enforcement to publish its findings when their investigations are complete.” The Mueller probe is not expected to close any time soon.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch wrote in a separate blog post that the platform had “reached out to congressional leadership to agree on a process and schedule to provide the content of these ads, along with related information, to congressional investigators.”

Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, welcomed the new data but said that Congress wanted greater oversight of Facebook’s process of self-reflection. “It will be important for the Committee to scrutinize how rigorous Facebook’s internal investigation has been, to test its conclusions and to understand why it took as long as it did to discover the Russian sponsored advertisements and what else may yet be uncovered,” Schiff wrote in a statement to press.

Facebook will adopt internal procedures to make large-scale scam operations like the Russian pro-Trump campaign “much harder,” Zuckerberg said.

“We’re going to make political advertising more transparent,” he promised. “When somebody buys political ads on TV or other media, you’re required by law to disclose who paid for them.”

On Facebook, political ads will now disclose “which page” paid for an advertisement, and users will be able to view the various ads being run by that page. Just how those pages would transparently correlate to any related political entities that exist off of Facebook, Zuckerberg didn’t say.

“I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” Zuckerberg said. “That’s not what we stand for.”

Zuckerberg noted that candidates themselves had spent “tens of millions” of dollars on political ads on Facebook in 2016.

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Every few days, a fresh press report or one of the various federal and congressional probes offers a new glimpse into the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election. Taken together, all of those pieces offer a chance to stress-test the most detailed and the most outrageous document we have tying together Donald Trump, his associates and the Kremlin: the Steele dossier.

The dossier, written by former MI-6 spy Christopher Steele, is filled with scandalous and still-uncorroborated allegations, from bizarre stories of Trump’s alleged sexual escapades to supposed payoffs from his campaign to Russian hackers, allegedly brokered by Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen.

Printing the contents of the dossier has seemed irresponsible in the past; the document is composed of unverified, “raw” intelligence that would have been seen as limited even by Steele, as John Sipher, formerly an analyst with the CIA, recently wrote in an in-depth examination of the dossier’s credibility at Just Security. But a steady drip of new information reinforces more and more of the claims in Steele’s dossier, often in spirit if not in particular.

Here are some of the dossier’s claims that have solidified, at least in part, in light of what we know now.

The claim: Russian government collected and distributed damaging information about Hillary Clinton

In 2015 Steele began producing the document, which BuzzFeed News published earlier this year, for Republican opposition research firm Fusion GPS at the behest of Republicans worried Trump could win the Republican nomination. In June 2016, Steele wrote about efforts to discredit Clinton that he’d heard about from sources: “A dossier of compromising material on Hillary Clinton has been collated by the Russian Intelligence Services over many years and mainly comprises bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls rather than any embarrassing conduct.”

So what happened to that dossier, if it exists? We don’t know. But we do know that a Kremlin-connected lawyer brought a folder of printed-out documents to a June 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., according to the account of a Russian-American lobbyist who also attended named Rinat Akhmetshin. An email to Trump Jr. from Rob Goldstone, a publicist who arranged the meeting on behalf of a Russian oligarch’s son, promised “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

The material contained in the folder wasn’t transcripts of bugged conversations, according to the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya—she has said the information pertained to records of incriminating donations to Democrats—but it was presented as damaging, regardless. Akhmetshin told the AP he thought Veselnitskaya left without the folder.

The claim: Russia probably distributed stolen DNC, Podesta emails through WikiLeaks

Steele wrote that he’d heard about rising cyberwar activity in Russian intelligence. We never saw scandalous information emerge from wiretaps or bugs, the preferred methods alleged by Steele’s sources, during the 2016 campaign.

But we now know state-sponsored Russian hackers breached Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Campaign and a Clinton campaign staffer’s email accounts, and that emails probably obtained through those breaches were distributed through the DCLeaks website, by Guccifer 2.0 and by WikiLeaks.

Steele blames WikiLeaks for Russian collusion, citing “an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP, [who] admitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between them and the Russian leadership.” Steele’s source said “the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the Wikileaks platform.” A difference source said “further hacked CLINTON material”, likely campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, “already had been injected by the Kremlin into compliant western media outlets like Wikileaks.”

Julian Assange vociferously denies this, though emails the U.S. government believes Russian intelligence services stole from the DNC and from Podesta appear among those WikiLeaks published.

Steele also received information about an anti-Clinton propaganda campaign that he did not connect to the hacking efforts in June of 2016—months before the Federal government would formally attribute the hacks, though they had been reported in the press.

The claim: Blackmail victims aided Russia’s cyberwar operations

Russian authorities didn’t admit to hack attacks, though they did coyly suggest that they might have had something to do with it: President Vladimir Putin notoriously credited “patriotic hackers” with the election-related attacks.

Steele’s sources suggested it was fear, rather than patriotism, that motivated the hackers. “[I]n terms of the FSB’s recruitment of capable cyber operatives to carry out its, ideally deniable, offensive cyber operations, a Russian IT specialist with direct knowledge reported in June 2016 that this was often done using coercion and blackmail,” he wrote.

In a breakdown of state-sponsored Russian hacking activity in June 2016, researchers at private digital security firm Cyberreason cited the application of “coercive force” as one of the ways Russia’s intelligence services operate.

This is implied, though not stated directly, in the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of four FSB operatives who hacked tech company Yahoo, two of whom had prior criminal records. Last month, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence and organized crime, told TPM that the FSB made a point of recruiting criminals; he said they were the proponents of the risky strategy Steele refers to as “black PR” in his reports.

The claim: Carter Page met with Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin in Moscow

Weakening U.S. and U.N. sanctions remains incredibly important to the Russian government and its notoriously corrupt oil industry. The dossier suggested that one-time Trump campaign aide Carter Page was offered huge bribes by Igor Sechin, vice-chair of the board of directors of Russian state oil company Rosneft.

The two men did in fact meet, according to investigative reporter Michael Isikoff. Isikoff wrote at Yahoo in September 2016—after the date on Steele’s memo about the meeting, but before his dossier was made public—that Page had met with Sechin as well as another “top Putin aide” who appears in the dossier, named Igor Diveykin.

“Sechin’s associate said that the Rosneft president was so keen to lift personal and corporate western sanctions imposed on the company, that he offered Page and his associates the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatised) stake in Rosneft,” Steele wrote.

Page was already a fan. Steele describes the meeting as “recent” in his July 2016 memo, but Page was already lauding Sechin in blog posts as far back as 2014.

The claim: Michael Cohen met with Kremlin officials

Trump consigliere Michael Cohen is described in the dossier as vital to the “covert relationship with Russia.” Steele’s source alleged that Cohen met with Kremlin officials, but the dossier noted the source was “was unsure of the identities of the PA [Putin presidential administration] officials with whom COHEN met secretly in August, or the exact date/s and locations of the meeting/s.”

The dossier speculated Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s Foreign Relations Committee, may have been one of the alleged contacts. As part of his alleged work facilitating—and then, according to Steele, covering up—Russian election interference, the dossier also asserts Cohen traveled to Prague. Steele wrote Cohen was accompanied to Prague by a man named Oleg Solodukhin, who denied the report to the New York Times.

Last month, the Washington Post broke Cohen did communicate directly with Kremlin publicist Dmitry Peskov, albeit through a generic email address, on the matter of a Trump Tower in Moscow. The two men are characterized as holding corresponding positions in the Trump and Putin camps in the Steele dossier, Peskov as “the main protagonist in Kremlin campaign to aid Trump and damage Clinton.”

Peskov confirmed that he had received Cohen’s email, but said nothing came of it.

Cohen has vociferously denied the dossier’s claims, famously trashing the allegation that he’d been coordinating with hackers in August 2016 in Prague. When Cohen shared photos of his passport as evidence, BuzzFeed reporters observed stamps indicating he could have entered the Czech Republic through Italy; a CNN report, on the other hand, suggested the Michael Cohen who went to Prague was a different man altogether.

The Steele dossier is filled with such maddening claims—is the Prague trip a fabrication, or did the ex-spy’s sources get the timing wrong? It’s impossible to know. But too often to ignore, Steele’s sources appear to have described—often with errors—an event or a relationship of significance that would become clear with the benefit of hindsight. The question now, then, is whether the dossier’s wilder and more difficult to prove claims have the same element of near-truth to them as the allegations examined here.

This post has been updated.

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Recent weeks have clarified a few things about Facebook and the broad campaign of Russian interference in the 2016 election. We know a Kremlin-affiliated troll farm spent $100,000 on divisive political ads on the platform, and that Facebook has located and removed a huge number of ads and posts related to the campaign.

The Daily Beast has reported that Facebook won’t share anything but the most cursory assessment of the damage from those ads with the public. The company “declined to commit to releasing information about Russian government-backed Facebook posts, groups, and paid advertisements to the users who encountered them,” according to the Beast.

The obvious question is whether Facebook will do anything more to inform or protect users affected by that abuse of its platform, or else exercise a greater measure of control over the material that appears on it. Experts say the company is unlikely to be compelled to do either unless public pressure on Facebook reaches critical mass.

According to Aaron Mackey, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, there’s not much in the law that can force Facebook to disclose, well, anything.

“The short answer is that as a private entity, there’s no requirement that they provide any additional information,” Mackey said. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Russian operatives manipulating Facebook’s largely automated ad-buying platform are dealing with a kind of information that is totally unprotected by regulation, he said—that makes it different from, say, credit monitoring service Equifax dealing with a huge breach of user data.

A less obvious concern, but perhaps a more serious one, is whether or not the company is even capable of monitoring its 1.3 billion daily active users well enough to stop such sophisticated, clandestine political influence campaigns. Until its disclosure last week about the $100,000 in political ads bought by Russians, Facebook had publicly maintained it had “no evidence” of such buys.

“[Facebook] is something we’ve never seen in history before,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the New America Foundation’s Ranking Digital Rights program. The platform, she said, is a leviathan too large to behave like any other business, and thus to some extent forming its own online zone of lawlessness.

“There’s no precedent,” she said. “How do you govern this thing? How do you hold it accountable? What are the expectations that should be placed on Facebook to be a responsible corporate citizen?”

The company has responded to the pressure of public shaming before, MacKinnon noted. In 2013, when its competitors at Twitter and Google were publishing transparency reports itemizing their dealings with law enforcement, Facebook was a notable holdout—until Edward Snowden’s name started making headlines. MacKinnon credits Facebook’s change of heart to Snowden’s revelation of tech industry cooperation with spy agencies.

“They don’t have a business if they don’t have a basic level of trust,” she said. “I think there are a lot of users with healthy cynicism but if trust drops below a certain level the bottom line is very much affected.”

Facebook’s algorithms and advertising metrics have long been closely held. Details of its operations do leak out from time to time, though: Facebook flatly denied the very existence of an editorial team curating its “trending topics” module—until The Guardian published editorial guidelines for that team. When Facebook fired that secret team of editors in the wake of accusations by Gizmodo that they exercised bias in the topics they promoted, the module went on to be operated solely by an algorithm—and promptly went nuts.

According to a ProPublica story published Thursday, Facebook’s ad business is automated to such a degree that it actually produced bespoke ads for Nazis. The company’s automatically populated categories of interest were sold to advertisers, and those included “jew haters” and people who’d listed their employer as the Nazi Party, according to the report.

Such reliance on automation has to do with Facebook’s scale. The company employed 17,048 people at the end of last year; with its user base of 1.32 billion, the company has one staffer for every 77,000 people and change. That huge employee-customer ratio is unmanageable in human terms, forcing the company to run itself in part through a kind of ad hoc artificial intelligence: a collection of automated user and customer interfaces that shift and blend to meet Facebooker preference and advertiser demand.

That business, as it is run today, is gobsmackingly profitable: 45 percent of Facebook’s $26 billion annual revenue is pure gravy. But without major changes to its daily operations, Facebook runs the risk of eroding the public trust that, as MacKinnon observed, is fundamental to its success.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has experimented with building more intentional AIs that moderate Facebook content for benign purposes like preventing suicides, presumably with an eye toward expanding that software into the profitable parts of Facebook’s business. One such experiment ended when the AIs began talking to each other in an improvised language the coders were worried they would soon find themselves unable to translate. This was misreported—several publications said the AIs rapidly became too smart—but the truth is a little more worrying: AIs can learn to make incomprehensible decisions, even when they’re not particularly smart.

And if Facebook remains unable to control its leviathan, no one wins.

“In dealing with these problems in a way that serves the public interest from anybody’s perspective—is that just beyond human capability?” MacKinnon asks. “Do you need artificial intelligence? And then do you lose control of the artificial intelligence and stop understanding how that’s working? And then do you have to build another AI to fight it?”

The problem isn’t that Facebook’s management isn’t behaving responsibly, MacKinnon said: It’s that Facebook may be unmanageable.

“The people running it don’t have a full grasp of how information is manipulated across it,” she said. “It’s like a living organism that’s evolving every day.”

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When a Russian troll farm was fishing for Trump supporters on Twitter, it baited the hook by targeting minority activists and public figures.

TPM has reviewed tweets and images from a pro-Trump Twitter account run by the Russian troll farm that likely purchased $100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook. Among the account’s favorite targets during the 2016 campaign season were Michelle Obama, undocumented immigrants and antiracist activist movement Black Lives Matter.

The since-suspended account, @tpartynews, had about 22,000 followers and was run out of a St. Petersburg company called the Federal News Agency (FAN), according to the authors of a report on the agency that ran in March in a major Russian business magazine, RBC. Twitter did not respond by press time to multiple requests for comment; Talking Points Memo will update this piece if they return those requests.

In a blog post about the Russians’ political ad spend on Facebook, the company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, observed that the ads and accounts identified as being linked to the $100,000 buy “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

Twitter appears to have been a target of the same campaign, and the tenor of the @tpartynews account seems to fit with Stamos’s description.

The account promoted Donald Trump’s campaign events generically—”Massive line for #TrumpWA in #Everett!”, it tweeted on Aug. 30, 2016—but it also managed to work in anti-BLM sentiment wherever it could.

“‘Fuck this flag! Fuck this country!’ #BLM were shouting at ‘peaceful’ protests to #Trump’s rally in #Wisconsin,” the account tweeted on April 6, 2016. On June 4, the account offered some tough-on-crime grandstanding: “Crimminals [sic] commit less crime after they have been shot! That’s why I say #bluelivesmatter,” the account tweeted above a picture of a sunglasses-wearing police officer aiming a pistol at the camera.

The account also took shots at undocumented immigrants: “Illegal Immigrants today.. Democrat on welfare tomorrow!” read another.

In addition, @tpartynews offered to soothe the hurt feelings of conservatives: “People make fun of the way Melania Trump looks and speaks,” the account’s operators wrote above a meme of the first lady and her predecessor, with conservative commentator Joe Walsh’s brand affixed to it. “Do that to Michelle Obama and you’re a racist.”

The account did a credible impression of its domestic pro-Trump counterparts, as well. Like many far-right U.S. media outlets, @tpartynews tweeted out a crime blotter story about a group of seven young men—two white, five black—who allegedly shouted “black lives matter” as they assaulted seven white victims. Ohio court records show that charges against one were dismissed, another pled down to a small fine, and four other cases were transferred out of Akron criminal court. The cursory local media report that broke the story was reposted with no follow-up by Trump-stumpers from Breitbart News to The Blaze to PJ Media (the Russian troll account didn’t do follow-up reporting, either).

The Twitter account would have easily flown under the radar: Tea Party News is the screen name of a great many twitter users. But according to Andrey Zakharov, Moscow-based special reporter for RBC.ru, the @tpartynews account was run out of St. Petersburg, Russia by the same operation that tried to organize anti-immigrant rallies in a tiny town in Idaho via a Facebook account called Secured.Borders, as the Daily Beast reported Tuesday.

“Our sources … gave us inside statistics of Tea Party News,” Zakharov told TPM. “[W]ith 22,000 followers, their tweets were read by 1.6 million users.”

Zakharov and his partner, Polina Rusyaeva, reviewed screenshots and statistics provided by sources close to the troll farm; Secured.Borders, he said, had 140,000 likes and was seen more than 4 million times.

Zakharov said the troll farm’s tactics are old news in Russian politics, but its international reach is something new. “Troll farms are used by Moscow’s government,” he told TPM. “PR agencies use them, sure, but not on such scale.” Internationally, he said, he knows of “only the famous one from St. Petersburg.”

FAN is a Kremlin-aligned news agency that probably runs the now-notorious Internet Research Agency, according to Adrian Chen’s New York Times magazine profile of the group. Its head is “oligarch restaurateur” Evgeny Prigozhin, referred to in Chen’s piece as “The Kremlin’s Chef.”

Alexey Kovalev has reported in depth on troll farms and wrote a widely-circulated English-language account of Zakharov and Rusyaeva’s article for the Moscow Times. Troll farms’ operations, he said, are anything but ideological.

“I posted something angry about Moscow’s mayor (I’m in a state of permanent info war with the city hall), and literally two seconds later a typical bot, fake profile and all, pops up in the comments, praising the Dear Leader,” Kovalev recalled to TPM. “I ask him, half jokingly, ‘How much do they pay you there to suck the mayor’s dick?'”

Lots, the troll replied. “Two seconds later he DM’s me and says “Not that bad actually – 70,000 rubles on a normal month or 100 if I’m lucky, you’re interested?'” Kovalev said he applied for the job, but was rejected for being a “saboteur.”

That particular farm wasn’t affiliated with the St. Petersburg group, Kovalev said. But good command of English, he was told, was still a prerequisite for the gig.

Investigators are increasingly focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election using social media platforms; Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said publicly that Twitter will provide a report to Congress similar to the one Facebook made last week.

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After months of denial, Facebook told Congress and the public on Wednesday that a Russian “troll farm” had bought $100,000 worth of political ads on its site from 2015- 2016. That development was catnip for investigators looking into whether U.S. persons helped Russians target voters through social media.

Facebook reportedly handed over copies of the ads themselves to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into whether the Trump campaign’s data operation, which was led by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, helped guide that targeting. Various congressional committees are also interested in whether the Trump campaign was involved in the upsurge in apparently foreign-controlled propaganda news and advertising that favored Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.

In July, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told CNN that he felt foreign actors had been so effective in their efforts to influence the election that they likely needed domestic assistance to do so. “If the Russians know, how are the Russians smart enough to target in areas where the Democrats weren’t knowledgeable enough?” Warner said at the time. “I don’t feel like I have run that to ground yet.”

And as the Facebook news broke, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, echoed Warner’s question: How could the Russians possibly have outsmarted the Democrats?

The question Schiff wants answered is whether “they were at a level of sophistication where [the ad buyers] would have needed help or assistance from the campaign,” he told Wolf Blitzer.

It’s easy to see how the Facebook news plays right into that line of inquiry: Facebook traced the ad sales to the infamous Internet Research Agency, the Russian propaganda team that faked an environmental disaster in South Carolina in 2015, according to the New York Times. And Facebook’s own public statement is a dramatic reversal from the tech company’s previous position, stated as recently as July 20, that its internal investigation had come up with “no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.”

The company tried to downplay the amount of ad money the Russian firm spent, observing that $100,000 is a drop in the bucket for most political campaigns. But Facebook’s ability to target an audience, both geographically and by preference, means that as political advertising it is far undervalued, according to Gordon Borrell, CEO of ad industry analytics firm Borell Associates, which produces a detailed annual report on political advertising.

“It’s probably worth ten million dollars of TV advertising because of what you can do with that advertising,” Borell said. “You can take a very particular segment of the population and move them an inch this way or that way in a way you can’t do with a sort of mass media spray.”

As Darcy Bowe, senior vice president and media director at media-buying agency Starcom, puts it, “Where else in the world do we know so much about you?”

But Borrell expressed skepticism that the help of knowledgeable Americans was necessary to target a Russian propaganda enterprise. The highly polarized nature of American politics, he said, may actually give foreign actors the upper hand.

“I think it’s actually easier for observers, those outside, to manipulate,” he said. “We’re so ensconced and have been for decades—maybe a century or more—in a machine that just says ‘Things work a certain way.'”

Because it is an internet company, Facebook presents a soft target to foreign operators. Its ad sales operations are largely automated and is exempt from the kinds of controls that the Federal Election Commission has over broadcast ads—where Hillary Clinton’s campaign focused its media efforts.

Of course, it’s still illegal for a foreign entity to try to influence an election in the United States, irrespective of the medium. Watchdog group Common Cause immediately filed complaints with the Justice Department and the FEC related to the Facebook ad buys, urging both to sanction the purchasers of the ads.

And there may be more material for this piece of the various Russia probes coming down the pipeline: That other politically significant social media platform, Twitter, is performing a similar analysis of its ad buys and also is expected to brief investigators, according to Warner.

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President Donald Trump’s erstwhile lawyer, Michael Cohen, said this week in a statement provided to congressional investigators that Trump signed a letter of intent during the campaign to develop a tower in Moscow with a firm that appears to have partnered with two Russian banks under U.S. sanctions.

Real estate news outlet The Real Deal was first to surface news of the apparent associations between the Moscow-based firm, I.C. Expert Investment, and VTB and Sberbank. The firm’s website lists both VTB and Sberbank as partner banks.

Cohen was negotiating the project for the Trump Organization with the help of Felix Sater, both an old pal of Cohen’s and a longtime business associate of Trump’s who served as a conduit for money from the former Soviet Union. Sater told Cohen that he’d arranged financing for the project with VTB, according to emails that were provided to the House Intelligence Committee and reviewed by the New York Times.

Sberbank and VTB were both sanctioned in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the U.S. Treasury specifically disallows them from issuing the kinds of financing used in real estate transactions to “U.S. persons or within the United States.” Trump signed the letter of intent to do business with IC Expert on Oct. 28, 2015, according to the Washington Post; but by January, Cohen said he killed the proposal.

The day before Trump’s inauguration, the president of VTB called on Trump to lift those same sanctions. And the connections don’t end there: Marc Kasowitz, who briefly helmed Trump’s team of outside lawyers fielding the various federal and congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, defended Sberbank in federal court in Manhattan against a lawsuit brought by a Russian businessman.

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There’s been a steady drip-drip-drip of information over the past 24 hours stemming from correspondence that the Trump Organization was turning over to investigators on the House Intelligence Committee, which is probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. New details about a development proposed by the Trump Organization in Moscow first appeared to leak to the Washington Post, then to the New York Times and Bloomberg.

The day-long stream of new details, which gel with some of TPM’s reporting from earlier this summer, show more clearly than ever before the extent of the contacts between President Donald Trump’s business associates and the intertwined worlds of Russian real estate and government.

Trump associates explored the deal right up until the first presidential primaries

TPM reported earlier this month that Felix Sater, a business associate of Trump’s who’d been secretly convicted of securities fraud in the late 1990s, was trying to find a way to build a Trump Moscow tower as late as November or December 2015, six months into the U.S. presidential campaign.

Plans for a Trump Moscow project ultimately fell through, however; Sater told TPM it was because Trump became President, but emails between Sater and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and frequent press surrogate, reportedly say that the deal stalled out in January 2016 over land permits.

Michael Cohen was the lead negotiator on the prospective deal

Per the Washington Post, Cohen was the most important figure on the Trump Organization’s side of the Trump Moscow equation. Sater’s projects with Trump through his erstwhile firm, Bayrock Group, were often ephemeral—the Trump Fort Lauderdale and Trump SoHo failed spectacularly, while the Trump Phoenix Plaza never materialized all.

But Trump had been saying for years that he wanted a Moscow tower. It’s probably one of the reasons he held Miss Universe 2013 in Moscow with the sponsorship of Azeri billionaire Aras Agalarov, with whom a separate attempt to build a Trump project in Russia fell though.

In his capacity spearheading the Moscow exploration, Cohen went so far as to email the Kremlin directly to ask for help reviving the deal after it stalled in late 2015. “As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance,” Cohen wrote to Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, according to the Washington Post. “I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.”

It’s unclear who the “appropriate individuals” Cohen wanted to contact were.

All the while, on top of his duties at the Trump Organization, Cohen was appearing on television and in print media regularly to speak on campaign-related matters.

Sater thought a Moscow deal would help “our boy” get elected

Sater, one of Cohen’s acquaintances from the pair’s teenage years, was very enthusiastic about getting Putin’s help to elect Trump.

“Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote to Cohen in an email that has been turned over to congressional investigators, according to the New York Times. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

That is probably the most normal sentence from the email. “Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” it continued, as quoted in the Times.

He also felt that he and Cohen were the two men for the job: “We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done,” Sater wrote.

He is not a man with modest aspirations. In one of several interviews with TPM this summer, Sater said that if he had to do it all over again, he would still try to pull off the audacious plan for a ceasefire deal between Russia and Ukraine that he attempted to get to the White House with Cohen’s help in January.

Trump repeatedly discussed the Moscow plans with Cohen

As reported by Bloomberg, Cohen spoke three times with Trump about the prospective Moscow tower. Again, it was something Trump wanted very much to bring about—in 2005, he and Sater had tried to build the tower on the site of a closed pencil factory along the Moscow River, as reported by the Times.

In a statement to congressional investigators, Cohen said he talked to Trump about the project on three separate occasions. He said that the Trumps were not involved in the decision to quash the project, however, and denied that the prospective business deal had anything to do with the campaign in the first place.

“I did not ask or brief Mr. Trump, or any of his family, before I made the decision to terminate further work on the proposal,” Cohen said in the statement, as quoted by Bloomberg. “The Trump Tower Moscow proposal was not related in any way to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.”

Trump signed a letter of intent with a mysterious Moscow-based entity

Citing Cohen’s statement, both the Washington Post and Bloomberg list a Moscow-based business entity called I.C. Expert Investment, which doesn’t at press time show up on Google in any other context than today’s news articles, as the developer the Trump Organization planned to work with.

Trump himself signed a letter of intent with the company on Oct. 28, 2015, according to the Post, making official the agreement to begin developing the property. The Trump Organization then began exploring further financing and soliciting architectural blueprints.

It’s not clear who would have constituted the company; where its financing came from; or why a Moscow-based business would need Cohen to ask for intervention from “appropriate individuals” who knew Putin’s press secretary.

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Longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen asked Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman to intervene in a stalled prospective Moscow business deal shortly before the U.S. presidential primaries kicked off, the Washington Post reported Monday afternoon.

In the January 2016 email to Dmitry Peskov, Cohen said that he had been working with “a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower – Moscow project in Moscow City” and that communication had broken down. Per the Post, Cohen wrote:

As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon.

In a statement to congressional investigators, Cohen was quick to blame Felix Sater, his friend since the pair’s teenage years and a longtime Trump associate. He said Sater suggested he reach out on behalf of Trump because the size of the development would require government approval, according to the report.

The email is a significant, direct contact between the Russian government and a Trump associate who spoke regularly to media on behalf of Trump’s presidential campaign. It doesn’t appear to be evidence of wrongdoing so much as evidence of the campaign’s dishonesty about the extent of Trump’s business dealings overseas: Peskov, a Kremlin publicist, would have been an unlikely interlocutor between Russian permit agencies and Trump, and in any case, no deal ever came to fruition.

The Cohen email is the third major story in just a few hours reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each has added another new detail to the strange story of President Donald Trump’s never-t0-be-erected Moscow tower, a project that, as TPM reported earlier this month, Sater was pursuing on his behalf at least six months into the 2016 campaign. The new details are from emails the Trump Organization’s lawyers have provided to House Intelligence Committee investigators.

The Post confirmed that longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen “acted as a lead negotiator” on the potential Moscow project; the Times reported that Sater bragged about his connections to Russian president Vladimir Putin in a 2015 email exchange, and predicted that Putin would help Trump get elected.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote to Cohen. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

Other tidbits were, if anything, even stranger: “Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin,” Sater wrote to Cohen, as reported by the Times. “We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done.”

The House Intelligence Committee had subpoenaed “personal documents and business records” from Cohen.

Cohen and Sater have worked regularly with Trump since the turn of the century, but TPM exclusively reported in July that the two men had known each other since at least their teenage years. For his part, Trump has repeatedly maintained that he doesn’t know Sater well—a claim that beggars belief given the real estate projects the two have been involved with.

Sater has often shopped Trump’s name to developers, at least twice on U.S. projects that became embarrassments for the Trump brand: one in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and one in Phoenix. The Times notes that, in Moscow, too, there was no indication that Sater had delivered what he promised.

“He has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to ‘salesmanship,’” Cohen told the Times.

The Post’s story has other details that expand on and, in one case, contradict Sater’s statements to TPM over the course of several interviews.

Sater told TPM that a Moscow deal “didn’t go through because [Trump] became President,” while emails between Sater and Cohen were apparently enthusiastic about the prospect that both might come to pass at once. A “person briefed on the email exchange” paraphrased one upbeat email from Sater to the Post: “Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?”

Sater wanted Trump to travel to Moscow to help push the deal forward, the Post reported, but the now-President never followed through:

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

Vitally, Sater maintained in a sworn deposition in 2008 that he was in regular contact with Trump, according to the Post. That tracks with Sater’s claims to TPM of a very friendly relationship with the President. Sater said in the deposition that he informally visited Trump in his office to give him updates on Russian real estate deals—something that flies in the face of Trump’s continued insistence that he was barely familiar with Sater.

Even accounting for these new details, a number of questions remain. Who was the developer for the proposed Trump project in Moscow? TPM asked Sater this directly in July, and while he denied that the partner was Aras Agalarov, who Trump had partnered with to bring Miss Universe to Moscow in 2013, he wouldn’t elaborate further.

“[The developers were a] couple of people I’d like to continue working with, and that’s why I don’t want their names in the newspaper,” he replied. “People say, ‘I care about you and love you but why do I need my name in the press?’”

It’s also an open question how much Cohen knew about Sater’s criminal history. When Sater went to work for the Trump Organization in “2000, 2001,” by his recollection, he’d already had been convicted of a $40 million stock fraud scheme involving another childhood friend, Gennady Klotsman. While the three men grew up in the same area of South Brooklyn/Western Long Island and appear to have run in the same circles, there’s no evidence Cohen knew Klotsman. Sater’s conviction was sealed as he struck a deal to become a secret government cooperator; Andrew Weissman, brought on to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe earlier this year amid as a “witness-flipping expert” amid much fanfare, personally signed Sater’s cooperation agreement.

What is clear is that Cohen was deep at work negotiating the president’s business interests through someone convicted of defrauding investors of $40 million even while working as one of the most public faces of Trump’s presidential bid.

Cohen wasn’t officially a part of Donald Trump’s campaign, but he was a top-level outside surrogate for the now-president—a ubiquitous presence on cable news and in print media, always strongly, even harshly in favor of the president. While he was proclaiming to Politico that Trump demanded to “be treated fairly” by the GOP, he and Sater were hard at work trying to find the now-president a business foothold in Russia.

This post has been updated.

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