A top Russian "troll farm" that produced thousands of "fake news" posts designed to sway the United States 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is run by a Russian billionaire so completely trusted by Vladimir Putin that he has frequently served the Russian president's meals, and is known as "Putin's chef." The revelation comes from a new investigative report published by CNN on Tuesday — which also notes that the owner of the troll farm is considered "a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence."
The so-called troll farm is actually a company based in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia and known by several names — but generally referred to as the Internet Research Agency, or IRA. The IRA was responsible, according to both the U.S. intelligence and media reports, for its extensive use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to spread divisive and inflammatory propaganda, often in the form of bogus news articles, targeted to specific blocs of voters.
The IRA trolls were active not only in last year's election, but going as far back as 2013 as well, according to the independent Russian media outlet RBC.
RBC reported on Tuesday that the Internet Research Agency devoted about 100 of its employees specifically to the task of influencing the United States presidential election — influence that most experts and U.S. intelligence agencies say was designed to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in last November's election.
Now, the sudden rise of 55-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin — a former hot dog street vendor and ex-convict — who became a billionaire off of Russian government contracts after serving meals to Putin aboard a boat that Prigozhin had converted into an upscale restaurant, has been tied to the Russian fake news and propaganda operation.
Prigozhin and his companies are already under sanctions by the U.S. government, for helping to finance Russia's military incursion into neighboring Ukraine. Those sanctions were imposed in December of 2016 under President Barack Obama.
According to documents obtained by U.S. investigators and examined by CNN, the Prigozhin-financed IRA contained a division known as the "Department of Provocations" whose sole mission was to inflame social divisions in western countries by spreading fake news online.
As far back as 2013, the IRA received $1 million for the purposes of "creat(ing) news items to achieve our goals" in both Russia and in English-speaking countries using social media, according to the CNN report.
In addition to spreading fake news and propaganda, the Russian internet trolls financed by the billionaire Putin "chef" also used social media to organize as many as 40 protests and political rallies, often posing as Americans.
In one Facebook campaign, the Russians posed as right-wing Texans running a page titled "Heart of Texas," according to an earlier CNN report. Concealing their true identities, the Russian operatives organized an angry protest against an Islamic library in Houston, using their Facebook page to falsely persuade its nearly 250,000 followers that the library was financed by Texan taxpayers.
The Heart of Texas page also pushed the conspiracy theory, echoed by Trump himself, that Democrats would use "voter fraud" to rig the 2016 election results.
"There are many grounds for believing the Liberals are going to usurp power in the White House and push into it Hillary Clinton at any cost," one statement on the Heart of Texas page read.
The Prigozhin-funded Russian troll farm specifically targeted "swing states" in the election with fake news attacks on social media. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were among the states singled out by the Russians for fake news campaigns designed to stoke anti-Clinton, pro-Trump feelings among voters.
Trump won those three states by a total of fewer than 80,000 votes, but those states provided him the electoral votes he needed to win the election despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.
[Featured Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images]