In a video uploaded to YouTube last Friday, a man claims he participated in Russian social media interference operations during the 2016 election. Now, he says, he wants to come clean and reveal online strategies utilized by the notorious Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections. However, the video has since been removed from YouTube without any explanation from the company.
The man, who says his name is Williams, is seen sitting in a kitchen and talking into his camera. Williams claims that he was an employee of the IRA, the main entity behind Russia’s social media interference operations through and after the 2016 election.
“I want to confess to you guys,” Williams says. “I lied to you guys a lot. Why is that? I’ve never been to America before. I only work in Russia.”
Williams, both in appearance and in describing his work, appears to be half of the Russian “Williams and Kalvin” team originally exposed as fakes by The Daily Beast a year ago. The two men making up the “Williams and Kalvin” team, both of whom claimed to be based in Atlanta, Georgia, published numerous posts and videos on Facebook and YouTube criticizing Hillary Clinton and calling on supporters to back Bernie Sanders. In one post, they memorably described Clinton as a “witch” who is “sick on her head.”
“Williams and Kalvin” was one of the few Russian troll efforts that used on-camera videos of the people helping lead social media interference operations. And the two men of the “Williams and Kalvin” team are thus far the only two non-white members identified as knowingly working on behalf of the Russian troll operations.
But the new video purporting to be of Williams takes a far different tone.
In the video, entitled “The last word of truth — escape from the troll factory,” Williams says an unnamed colleague recently started “receiving threats, messages, calls from [the] American military” regarding their work. (Last week, the New York Times revealed that U.S. Cyber Command had begun contacting Russian operatives to “deter them from spreading disinformation to interfere in elections.”)
Williams goes on to say he has decided to quit his work with the Internet Research Agency. “Man, it’s fucked up,” he says in the video. “Even me, I’m afraid of going to the office. Right now, I’m done. And [I] quit the job, so I’m moving out of [Russia] to a nearby European country to find [an] American embassy [to] seek asylum.”
A Twitter account, which has since been suspended, first alerted ThinkProgress to the existence of the YouTube video last Friday. The Twitter account also passed along an email address, claiming that it was also run by Williams. On Monday, ThinkProgress received a message from the email account, which wrote, “I’m so scared. I tried to escape to Europe but got stopped by the cops at the airport.” The email noted that Williams is now “stuck” in St. Petersburg, and that he will “probably get arrested soon.”
YouTube did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions.
Williams cites another factor that led him to try to quit his position: the Internet Research Agency’s strategy for interfering in the upcoming midterm elections.
Similar to the early days of the 2016 election — before Russian trolls devoted the bulk of their efforts to backing Trump — Williams said Russian social media operatives have been tasked with stirring division in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. “They asked me to support Republicans for House of Representatives, and Democrats for Senate,” Williams said.
As proof, Williams said he “managed to escape with some documents in the office,” which he then displays in front of the camera.
Both documents are entitled “Technical Tasks,” with one dedicated to the U.S. Senate and one to the House of Representatives. The documents list names of politicians to support, as well as specific articles and descriptions of online behavior the trolls should read and follow.
For instance, the document Williams shows regarding the Senate lists a handful of Democrats to support, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). In a section marked “Jon Tester — Support,” the document notes that Russian trolls should back Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), writing in Russian (translated by ThinkProgress):
Over the years in the Senate, Tester has shown himself to be a competent and balanced politician who knows the right way to work and is ready to defend his principles. All told, Tester’s competitor, [Matt] Rosendale, is a Trump henchman, and is a sneaky and tongue-tied dummy, who doesn’t know how to put two words together. Because of this, he can’t defend the interests of the voters.
Not all of the Democratic candidates on the document are currently in the Senate, however. One section specifically called on Russian trolls to back the candidacy of Beto O’Rourke, who is trying to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — namely, by defending O’Rourke from Republican criticism. As the document reads, “The attacks on O’Rourke are a prime example of the epidemic of hate that has struck Texas and the U.S.”
Williams also showed a document purporting to be a list of candidates to back in the House of Representatives — all of whom are Republican, including Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).
For King, who recently endorsed another white supremacist, the document reads:
Support Steve King. Insist that the King is absolutely right with regard to the hordes of scumbags and the dregs of society that are flowing to the United States across the Mexican border. King is well-aware that the country will fall apart if you don’t fight this out. King is a firm national leader who deserves to serve American citizens in the House of Representatives.
Another candidate the document says to back is Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA):
Claim that Steve Scalise is an excellent example of an honest and well-intentioned politician, who give a sober account of the fact that ultra-left radicalism and maniacs brainwashed by the liberal press are threatening the country. Express the strongest respect for Scalise and thank him for exposing liberal extremism.
The documents Williams showed included URLs to assorted news stories ranging from the Financial Times to “Canada Free Press,” all from last week. It’s unclear what the purpose of listing the URLs was since not all of the stories, such as one on Sessions in KERA News, come with a comments section.
Russian trolls abroad
If the video is a hoax, it’s an inordinately complicated one. The man in the video looks and sounds the same the “Williams” identified in previous videos, and the documents, in both Russian and English, outline a plan that matches the trolls’ 2016 operations.
Perhaps most notably, YouTube immediately removed the video after it was uploaded, and suspended the original account. (Twitter also confirmed that it had suspended the Twitter account linked with the video, but declined to discuss the specific violation with ThinkProgress.) YouTube even blocked follow-up attempts to re-upload the video. When ThinkProgress attempted to share the downloaded video on YouTube, YouTube instantly flagged and removed the video, saying it “violates our Community Guidelines.” (The video has since been uploaded via the Internet Archive.)
YouTube also rejected ThinkProgress’ appeal, writing, “After further review, we’ve determined that your video is in violation of our Community Guidelines. Any associated penalties will remain on your account.”
It remains unclear what happened to Williams since the video was removed. But as the bio for Williams’ YouTube account read, “If i disapear this video will explain who and why did it [sic].”
In the video, though, Williams announced that was trying to leave his work as a Russian troll. “Man, as you know, Republicans [are] full of racists, [are] fucking full of racists… The party is a racist party,” he said. “I decided I’m going to quit… I want to quit the job, but they don’t allow me to quit the job. [They said,] ‘We are one organization [you’re] not going anywhere.'”