In one of the stranger developments in the ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to tip the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, a McClatchy News report published on Tuesday showed that some internet "troll" domains set up to appear as if they were created by Trump supporters were actually based in Venezuela.
The Venezuela connection appears startling because the Trump administration is now threatening the South American country with economic sanctions and even potential military action, according to The Washington Post. But in 2016, Russia ran at least some of its online propaganda and disinformation campaign designed to build support for Trump through Venezuelan internet domains, according to the McClatchy investigation.
In February of 2018, Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as The Inquisitr reported, slammed 13 Russians at a Kremlin-linked company known as the Internet Research Agency with indictments for operating the massive online propaganda, or "trolling" campaign. The indictments included the IRA's 56-year-old chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he is known as "Putin's Chef."
The McClatchy investigation revealed that many of the Twitter messages posted by the Russian "troll" accounts "were launched from websites registered to young people scattered across far-flung corners of Venezuela."
Many of the pro-Trump trolling messages also contained shortened web links created through a Poland-based service called Shorte.st which, unlike domestic link-shortening services such as Bit.ly or Goo.gl, redirects users to advertising before sending them to the target of the link. In fact, McClatchy found, many of the shortened links redirected the Trump supporters who may have clicked on them to malware sites that could secretly download damaging viruses and other harmful software onto their devices.
Whether Mueller's investigation uncovered the Venezuelan connection to the Russian trolling operation or the presence of possible malware links in Russian propaganda Twitter posts remains unknown because Mueller's final report of his findings is still being kept under wraps by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, as Vox reported.
Among the Russian-controlled Trump-supporting domains registered in Venezuela were such sites as www.TrumpNewss.com and www.trumppresident45.info, according to McClatchy. Both of those sites are now defunct. Though Trump has said he wants Venezuela's strongman President Nicolas Maduro removed from office, Maduro — as well as Venezuela's crumbling economy — is currently supported by cash infusions and other aid from Russia, according to a Washington Post report.
The United States oil company Citgo is part of the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, but about two years ago, PDVSA signed over control of almost 50 percent of Citgo's assets to Russia's state-owned oil company Rosneft in exchange for a $1.5 billion loan, Reuters reported.
Also in 2017, Roseneft sold 19.5 percent of its own shares to a buyer who has yet to be publicly identified — at a cost of about $11.4 billion, according to a Reuters report.