- The Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Cameo in a coordinated effort to get the suspected spy Maxim Shugaley released from a Libyan prison.
- Charlie Sheen, Dolph Lundgren, and other actors on Cameo recorded supportive messages, which were shared on the pro-Shugaley Facebook pages in Libya.
- Arrested in Tripoli in May 2019, Maxim Shugaley was charged in June 2020 with “actions that harmed the State’s security,” according to a statement from the Libyan government given to the Anadolu Agency news service.
- Russian advocates for Shugaley’s release created a misinformation campaign, shooting a “documentary” about him for Russia Today, then distributing it via Facebook and Instagram in Libya, according to Facebook and the Internet Observatory.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
After 18 months in Libyan prisons, alleged Russian spy Maxim Shugaley this month walked free, boarded a plane, and was greeted in Moscow as a returning hero.
During his long absence, Russia Today had aired an action thriller called “Shugaley” that dramatized his arrest, complete with explosions, gunfights, and torture scenes. The film claimed he’d been falsely imprisoned. It proved so popular that they released a sequel. Even Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longtime leader, had called for Shugaley to be released.
A roster of Hollywood actors also had recorded short supportive messages for him via the Cameo app. “Wall Street” star Charlie Sheen did one, speaking to Shugaley from the sparsely decorated kitchen where he did many of his Cameo videos.
“Do not give up,” Sheen said in a version of his video posted online.
As he shakes his fist at the camera, Cyrillic subtitles translate his message into Russian. “Freedom will come. We insist that freedom is – is – is – is in your future, on your horizon,” he said.
But internet security researchers in the US had an altogether different opinion of Shugaley, according to information about Russian troll networks released this week by Facebook and the Internet Observatory, a cyber policy research group at Stanford University.
To them, Shugaley – alternatively written as “Максим Шугалей” and “Maksim Shugalei” – had been a central figure in a Russian effort to spread misinformation in Libya.
He was affiliated with one of Saint Petersburg’s most well-known troll networks, the Internet Research Agency (IRA,) according to media reports and Stanford researchers. Investigator Robert Mueller, in his final report to the House Intelligence Committee, called the IRA a troll farm, saying it had worked to get President Donald Trump elected.
The Russia Today movie and Cameo spots were distributed in Libya as part of an IRA web of misinformation that included hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts.
“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identity and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency,” Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy, and David Agranovich, global threat disruption lead, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.
Arrested, held, and charged in Libya
Shugaley and his interpreter, Samir Seifan, were detained in May 2019 and charged as spies in June 2020. They were accused of “actions that harmed the State’s security,” according to a statement given to the Anadolu Agency news service.
Russian officials said the two were researchers with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values. But Libya said they were actually working for Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor. Libya said they’d been working with rebel groups to overthrow the government.
In public, Russian diplomats trying to free the pair were seeking talks with the head Libya’s Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj.
“We regularly and insistently raise this topic at all meetings with representatives of the Tripoli authorities, demanding an immediate and unconditional release of the Russian citizens,” said Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, in July.
In private, members of the IRA were flooding Facebook and Instagram in Libya with positive images of the prisoner. Researchers at Facebook and Stanford detailed the “coordinated network” in Libya that helped get secure release.
A few days after the release, Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said Russia’s misinformation network in Libya amounted to “political shenanigans.”
“The Libyan government’s release of two Wagner operatives caught undermining Libyan politics is just another example of how Russia uses mercenaries and political shenanigans rather than open democratic means to advance its interests,” he said.
He noted that Russians had also printed counterfeit Libyan money, violated UN arms embargoes in Libya, and acted in “its own interests to the detriment of the entire region.”
The Facebook network responsible for information about Shugaley was just one of three removed last week, but it was the biggest of them. The other two were focused on different regions, and one was based in France, according to Facebook.
The network supporting Shugaley had also been operating on Twitter, with about 30 accounts, according to Stanford researchers. One account had about 12,000 followers.
Twitter on Wednesday told Business Insider it was still investigating the network, but had taken action on a “small” number of accounts. “We do not have country-specific information to share at this time and our investigations are ongoing,” a Twitter spokesperson said via email.
How did the misinformation campaign work?
First, a production company run by Alexander Malkevich, head of the IRA, raised money to produce “Shugaley.” Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was mentioned in Mueller’s report on hacking in the US, was in charge of the company, Aurum LLC, that held the film’s copyright, according to last week’s report from Stanford researchers, who cited previous reporting on Shugaley and the IRA from The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and BBC Africa.
The movie aired on Russia Today’s RT Documentary Channel in May 2020. Shugaley is portrayed in a flattering light. In the film’s narrative, he was in Libya as an aid worker before being captured by terrorists, not the Libyan government. RT called it a “harrowing yet true story.”
Part of the RT summary reads: “Privy to information that could bear serious consequences for the puppet government, the researchers were subjected to torture and denied justice. The film pays tribute to these real-life heroes and raises awareness of their fate.”
The movie has a 9.72-star rating out of a possible 10.
Officially, it wasn’t a Russian government production, but the Foreign Ministry issued a press release to coincide with its launch. The ministry said in a statement at the time that diplomats “will continue using all available opportunities and channels to influence the Libyan authorities.”
Members of the IRA created fake Facebook and Instagram accounts in Libya. They pretended to be locals. They built an audience of millions, and sought to attract attention from local journalists.
In all, they created 211 Facebook accounts, and 125 pages, according to Facebook. They made 17 Instagram accounts, and 16 groups. Most criticized the Libyan government, some promoted Russian policy, and at least one Facebook page focused exclusively on Shugaley, according to a report released last week by Stanford researchers.
“The Facebook Page [about Shugaley] had 103 posts overall, and included regular updates detailing Malkievich and the Foundation’s efforts to pressure Libya into releasing Shugalei and Seifan, as well as quotes about the matter from prominent Russian figures such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Dugin,” wrote Stanford researchers.
Facebook pages dedicated to “Shugaley” and its sequel, “Shugaley-2,” included screen shots and video links. As of this week, the trailer for “Shugalei” had about 390,000 views on YouTube. On Russian social media site vk.com, another version had 17.9 million views. The full movie, which was posted in its entirety on Russia Today’s Documentary YouTube channel, had about 750,000 views.
On Instagram, about 99,500 people followed the Russian’s accounts. The accounts asked Libyan influencers to tag themselves wearing “Shugalei” movie T-shirts.
The network also shared images of Maria Butina, a spy who’d infiltrated Washington, holding a one-woman protest outside the Libyan embassy.
Hollywood gets involved via Cameo
Sheen was just one of a few high-profile Hollywood names that sent warm wishes to Shugaley. “Snatch” actor Vinnie Jones and “Rocky IV” star Dolph Lundgren each recorded their own videos, which were later posted on vk.com. “Machete” star Danny Trejo shot one, too, as first captured on Shooting the Messenger.
“You’re a great guy,” said Lundgren. “You have our support. Never give up, and remember – freedom is the only way.”
At times, the actors appeared to stumble over Shugaley’s name in the scripts they read. It’s unclear who paid for the Cameo appearances, but the videos made their way to the network set up to distribute positive news about Shugaley in Libya, said Stanford researchers.
A Cameo spokesperson declined to comment.
About 5.7 million accounts followed at least one of the pages run by Russia in Libya, said Facebook. The page owners spent about $186,000 on ads, paying in dollars and rubles.
—МИД России 🇷🇺 (@MID_RF) December 11, 2020
After eight months of Russia’s online campaign, the Libyan government agreed to release the two men.
On December 10, Shugaley and Seifan were driven to Tripoli’s airport. They were handed over to former Russian Ambassador Libya Ivan Molotkov, according to a short statement read that day by the the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman in Moscow.
Said Zakharova: “The Russian deputy minister expressed satisfaction with the decision of the Libyan authorities and thanked everyone who assisted the release of the Russian nationals.”
On Twitter, an official ministry account posted a photo of Shugaley stepping off a jet in Russia. It said: “Welcome Home!”
On arrival in Moscow, Shugaley and Seifan were reportedly each given 18 million rubles – about $246,420. The money came from a company owned by Prigozhin, who had been involved in the making of the “Shugaley” film and had ties to the Wagner Group, according to a report in The Moscow Times. The payment amounted to 1 million rubles for each month they’d been in prison.
Five days after they arrived, the IRA network was removed from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Have a tip? Send it to Kevin Shalvey by encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Signal message at +44 7587 300383.
Reporter Kevin Shalvey worked at Facebook from 2018 to 2019.