On September 1, 2020, I received a direct message (DM) on Twitter from a reporter working with a mainstream outlet requesting comment. After a brief chat on the phone, I was informed that I was unwittingly caught up in a Russian-backed media operation, for a “publication” that had recently offered a writing opportunity.
The “outlet” — PeaceData — reached out to me through one of their “associate editors” (@Alex_Lacusta) via DM on July 8, writing, “we’re a young, progressive global news outlet that is seeking young and aspiring writers.” I was told that the “editors” liked my writing and views, and was initially offered $200 to $250 per piece.
I went back and forth with Alex, while in the meantime I checked out the editors’ social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, the pieces that were published (which generally aligned with my values), and contributors — which included some Twitter “blue checks” and leftist journalists, adding to the operation’s legitimacy. After exercising due diligence and expressing interest in the opportunity, Alex dropped the rate to $100 to $150 per piece, with the hook that I could write a regular column. Alex informed me I could choose the topics so long as they focused on “anti-war, anti-corruption, and environmentalism.” I accepted and was excited to have a home and compensation for my work.
After talking to the reporter who DMed me, I was sent a report detailing how the Russian oligarch-sponsored troll farm — Internet Research Agency — was behind the PeaceData front. I was initially shocked and confused, but in retrospect, the red flags added up.
On July 22, I noticed the first red flag. Alex and Albert Popescu, another “associate editor” for PeaceData — had eerily similar profile pictures — which turned out to be digitally generated fake images. Popescu’s account was also recently created in May 2020. The second odd occurrence happened in email exchanges with Alex. Prepositions were sometimes omitted and verbiage would be singular rather than plural, or vice versa. Yet, I had been in contact with busy editors for legitimate publications that would make grammatical mistakes here and there. I was also paid by three separate Paypal accounts, which seemed suspicious.