The ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Russia-linked propagandists and tech companies now includes a simple tactic the Russians are using to sidestep social media bans — changing web addresses.
Reddit users last week were able to trace links posted to a pro-Trump community back to a Russian propaganda website that shares web infrastructure with the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA). The links appeared to have been custom-made to appeal to a particular community, /r/The_Donald, which is known to be the most fervent and active in support of the president.
The address-changing effort highlights how propagandists continue to push disinformation on digital media platforms, employing new strategies to hide their origins as companies begin to crack down on foreign influence campaigns.
Cosimo Mortola, an analyst who tracks Russian disinformation for security firm FireEye, said that propaganda operations that started years ago have learned new tricks.
“We’ve been tracking the IRA for several years and there’s no doubt that they’re getting more sophisticated,” Mortola said.
The links in question appeared to come from the URLs GEOTUS.army and GEOTUS.band. GEOTUS is an acronym for the phrase “God Emperor of the United States,” a nickname for the president used on fringe message board 4chan and Reddit’s /r/The_Donald.
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Two posts reached the front page of the community, with one attacking Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and another titled "Alex Jones Is Calling on Congress to Enforce the First Amendment.”
Those sites used a publicly available service called Rebrandly, which allows people and businesses to create custom and shortened URLs that then direct people back to another website. In this case, the GEOTUS links took users to pages from USA Really, which NBC News previously reported as having ties to known Russian propaganda web infrastructure.
Mortola said that USA Really had failed to gain traction since its launch, but that some of its most recent posts had found success in /r/The_Donald community.
The connection between the GEOTUS links and USA Really was first found by a Reddit user who attempted to bring the information to light in a lengthy post, which attracted attention from the Reddit community and reached the website’s front page. Reddit is the fifth-most visited website in the U.S., according to web analytics firm Alexa.
Reddit has since banned USA Really, GEOTUS.band and GEOTUS.army.
“We don't normally take action or share details in the middle of such an investigation, but since this has so much attention right now, we’re making an exception,” said the Reddit spokesperson.
Rebrandly senior program manager Katie Espinoza said the company would likely shut down USA Really’s account, but noted that propagandists represent a serious challenge for the company.
“We have advanced systems in place to check the quality of specific sites, which detect fraud, phishing and illegal content,” Espinoza said. “Unfortunately, when you have this amount of links, we have to put human eyes on it. We have to go above and beyond what those automatic systems can do.”
Mortola said that USA Really and Reddit represented only a small example of the ongoing efforts of Russia to use misinformation and legitimate information to warp public perception in the U.S. — as well as inside Russia itself. He noted that the IRA’s strategies on Twitter had matured and now included strategically promoting celebrities.
Reddit users and moderators — volunteers who oversee particular communities on Reddit — have played an integral role in rooting out propaganda. Reddit recently began deleting user accounts linked to state-sponsored Iranian media, some of which had been found more than a year ago by Reddit users.
Those same users, however, are growing impatient with what they see as a lack of action by Reddit. The author of the post drawing attention to the GEOTUS links, who declined to provide a real name, said the account was deleted in hopes of attracting attention to his findings.
“Drama on Reddit means more attention,” the author told NBC News in a direct message. “And I am legitimately done with Reddit.”