Musk-endorsed X war account spreading ‘pro-Russian propaganda’

US Navy veteran behind influential anonymous X account, according to Ukraine

Bevan Hurley
Saturday 04 November 2023 13:52 GMT
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Israel says it has bombed Hamas 'tunnel route' in Gaza

An anonymous X/Twitter account that was boosted by Elon Musk was set up by a 24-year-old US military veteran who used it to spread “pro-Russian propaganda”, according to a private Ukrainian intelligence firm.

The @sentdefender account gained hundreds of thousands of followers after being endorsed by Mr Musk on 8 October for its coverage of the Israeli-Hamas war, and puts out dozens of daily posts on the widening Middle East conflict and the war in Ukraine.

According to an investigation by Ukrainian open source agency Molfar, it was established by ex-US servicemember Simon Anderson from Fayetteville, Georgia, who was a US Air Force radio frequency technician before working in advanced electronics for the US Navy.

With more than 930,000 followers, @sentdefender was ranked third among a list of seven “new elites” by the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, who found its coverage of the Middle East war was far more influential than traditional news organisations such as CNN on X/Twitter.

The @sentdefender received more than 300 million views from 402 posts on X over a three-day period from 7 October to 10 October, according to the study. Collectively, the seven “new elite” accounts analysed by the University of Washington racked up 1.6bn tweet views over three days.

“Our analysis points to a new crisis twitter that is faster, more disorienting, and potentially more shaped by Musk himself,” the researchers said. The @sentdefender has added 130,000 followers in less than three weeks since the research was undertaken.

The dozens of posts @sentdefender publishes every day include thinly veiled pro-Kremlin messaging from Russian military bloggers, Molfar CEO Artem Starosiek told The Independent in an interview from Kiev.

Elon Musk boosted several anonymous accounts as ‘good’ for ‘following the war in real-time’

Mr Starosiek told The Independent they decided to investigate who was behind the account after Mr Musk directed his followers to @sentdefender and @warmonitor, which he said were good for “following the war in real-time”.

Mr Musk later deleted the post after facing a furious backlash when antisemitic remarks made by the @warmonitor account were resurfaced. Mr Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to X.

The two accounts state that they gather intelligence on active combat zones through open source intelligence or OSINT, which is the act of gathering and analysing publicly available information for intelligence purposes.

Both accounts helped spread fake reports of an explosion near the Pentagon in May, which briefly saw financial markets plunge, and have been accused of fuelling growing levels of misinformation on X.

Mr Starosiek said Molfar tied Mr Anderson to the @sentdefender account through his personal social media channels, a donation site set up to earn money through the X account, contact information provided to X/Twitter and other personal details.

The influential @sentdefender gained hundreds of thousands of followers after it was boosted by Elon Musk

They found that it was set up in 2021 under Mr Anderson’s real name and now believe he leads a pseudonymous group of five to seven people who post from it almost continuously.

“We’ve been analysing Russian propaganda for a long time and how they’re used to spread their narratives,” Mr Starosiek told The Independent in an interview from Kyiv.

“They don’t do this overtly. They work undercover, spreading maybe 10 to 15 per cent of their messages from the pro-Russian view.”

Mr Staorsiek said accounts like @sentdefender typically boosted anti-Ukrainian messaging to influence US lawmakers and citizens against supporting ongoing military and financial aid.

The account now has more than 900,000 followers, including influential US public officials, lawmakers and journalists.

Before pivoting to the Israeli-Hamas conflict after the Hamas terror attacks of 7 October, the @sentdefender account stated it is pro-Ukrainian but that it took most of its information from Russian bloggers.

A man rushes with a toddler in his arms into Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza following Israeli bombing

This included spreading fake videos of Ukrainians surrendering, praising Russia’s global influence and justifying Russian bombing attacks in Syria, according to Molfar.

“If he is spreading Russian propaganda he is influencing decisions about Ukrainian aid. This endangers the lives of our soldiers,” Mr Staorsiek told The Independent.

The Molfar investigation found that Mr Anderson joined the US Air Force in 2019 and worked as a radio frequency technician at a base in Fayetteville, Georgia. These were confirmed by public profiles linked to Mr Anderson and viewed by The Independent.

Mr Anderson was until recently working in advanced electronics at the Naval Station Great Lakes base in Illinois, according to Molfar and posts on his Facebook page.

Mr Anderson’s mother Bahiyyih Anderson posted a photo showing him enlisting in the military in 2019.

On a Linkedin account, Mr Anderson described himself as a “Navy and Air Force Veteran looking for a career in Electrical Engineering while studying Strategic Intelligence”.

The Independent sought confirmation of his status within the US Navy, and was passed from the Great Lakes base to the Navy Office of Information at the Pentagon.

Lt Commander Andrew Bertucci told The Independent in an emailed response that it was “coordinating with a few agencies” on its response, and has since declined to provide further information.

Reached by phone at the family home in Georgia, Ms Anderson told The Independent she didn’t know anything about the anonymous Twitter account and that her son would make contact if he had anything to say.

Mr Anderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Independent.

Emerson T Brooking, an analyst at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Research Lab, described @sentdefender as “absolutely poisonous” in an 8 October post.

He said the account regularly posts “wrong and unverifiable things” while “inserting random editorialisation and trying to juice its paid subscriber count”.

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