Blogger reveals mystery websites' ties to Russia

An IT enthusiast blogger has produced a fascinating one-man report into the possible owners of several fake news sites that have recently become active in Latvia and generated almost inexplicable levels of internet activity.

The research (Latvian) by Jānis Polis centers on wesbites nozagts.com ("stolen.com"), as well as its Russian-language version ukradeno.com and Facebook pages Nozagts Latvijā ("Stolen in Latvia" - which boasts 50,000 followers) and NozagtsCOM (19,000 followers).

Associated with these are the Toma Joki ("Tom's Jokes") Facebook page with 150,000 followers, making it a candidate for the most popular page in Latvia, as well as Toma Trendi ("Tom's Trends" - 83,000 followers), Toma Jaunumi ("Tom's News" - 60,000 followers) and dozens of other less popular but linked pages. 

Currenty Toma Joki is using tomajoki.nozagts.com as the hub of its operations, generating massive traffic for the nozagts.com "news website".

LSM's English-language service reproduces the essentials of the report below (with permission from the author).

Jānis Polis told LSM:

"I decided to do this research because one day I noticed a sudden influx of very aggressive headlines from weird sources on my Facebook timeline.

"I checked a few of them out and realized that they were all very similar - no bylines, clickbaity headlines, no contacts available. I've seen enough of those kind of sites in English and Russian before to know what they're about. 

"So I revived my blog, wrote a post asking people to send me links to such local websites and decided that I will check them out to the best of my ability.

"I didn't really expect to stumble upon potential Moscow money links on my first try but here we are. I hope that my posts gain some exposure so at least a few more people would start to think before they repost something online.

 

In a nutshell

I've found that the aforementioned resources - which promote disloyalty to the state, sacking the parliament, lowering taxes and other slogans of a populist bent - are owned by Ivan Stalnoy (Иван Стальной).

Stalnoy was the leader Solidarity, the youth organization of the defunct For Human Rights In A United Latvia (PCTVL), currently known as the Latvian Russian Union or "Ždanoka's party". The organization partook in mass protests against the closure of Russian-language schools. In addition, Stalnoy was a PCTVL member and head of the PCTVL Youth Union.

Later on he worked as a realtor at Century21 BaltWest, owned by Russian citizen Valery Engel who was investigated by Latvia's tax service and interior police due to ties - including ones uncovered by journalists - to Russian-sponsored NGOs, at least one of which was related to initiatives trying to legitimize the occupation of Crimea. 

In 2009 Stalnoy was a project director at the TV5 channel and represented it at Latvia's broadcast watchdog. He worked at the channel together with the MEP Andrejs Mamikins (of the Harmony party and the Socialists and Democrats faction in Brussels), whose website mamikins.lv is hosted on the same server as nozagts.com. However it's likely that their ties aren't of an entrepreneurial nature but rather are hosted and administrated by a single web developer.

In 2012 Stalnoy founded the "New Federalists" society, which was represented publicly by the infamous politician Jānis Kuzins, a self-proclaimed "anti-fascist" who was sacked from the Harmony party in 2013. The society notably used the ManaBalss.lv public initiative website to nominate Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs - on trial on charges alleging graft on a massive scale - for president.

While afterwards there's a gap concerning Stalnoy's activities on the web - and the sole company owned by him is not operational, according to the LURSOFT database - in September 2016 he succeeded in taking control over the Toma Joki Facebook page, as well as the Tomstv.lv website, which is among the 15 most popular websites in Latvia. It is not known where he got the funding for such a dizzying string of acqusitions.

While in October he set up and started managing the nozagts.com and ukradeno.com websites.

What are Nozagts.com and ukradeno.com?

Both of these websites were set up in October 2016 and pose as news websites that generally republish news from various sources giving the general impression that "everything is bad" in Latvia.

Most of the content on nozagts.com comes from Lato Lapsa's pietiek.com - the funding of which comes from unclear sources - as well as from social media feeds of Latvian politicians (especially of those coming from Harmony and National Alliance) and other websites, published under scandalous headlines. These "portals" publish stories with no authors named and offer no way of contacting the editors.

The Nozagts Latvijā and NozagtsCOM Facebook pages spread content by the website. The pages were set up prior to the websites and in all likelihood were part of Toma Joki profiles.

What's "Toma Joki"?

It's a Facebook page set up in September 2014 that republishes photos and videos from elsewhere on the web. It rapidly became popular and soon set up other Facebook pages and a website called Tomstv.lv in autumn 2015.

"Toma Joki" was created by one Toms Litovnieks, in 2013 detained by the Economy Police department of the State Police for running the Torrenti.lv P2P website. He was the owner of the page and the associated website until September 2016.

According to data by Gemius, in spring 2016 tomstv.lv was among the top 15 most popular websites in Latvia with about 300,000 unique monthly visitors. In a press release Litovnieks boasted his Facebook pages having more than 500,000 followers.

New ownership by Ivan Stalnoy

In autumn 2016 the website was moved to tomajoki.nozagts.com and the Facebook pages started republishing content by nozagts.com.

The ownership of the tomstv.lv domain was changed, and in a Facebook exchange Toms confirmed that the pages and the website were bought up by a third party.

"[..] Nozagts.com is currently a client of mine, which I am consulting over IT matters. All the domains and pages have been transferred to them," he said.

While it's apparent that the person who made nozagts.com and now owns Toma Joki does not wish for publicity, the domain registry and hosting reveals him to be Ivan Stalnoy.

Stalnoy registered tomstv.lv using his real email address and phone number (however hiding his name).

While the SSL security certificate data confirmed that nozagts.com and ukradeno.com are owned by Stalnoy. The certificate data was handed to Ivan Stalnoy on October 31.

In investigating Stalnoy further, it appears that up until 2001 when he changed his name, Stalnoy's name was Edgars Zālītis. Afterwards he became the head of the youth movement Solidarity that organized protests against the closure of Russian-language schools and increasing the number of lessons held in Latvia.

Soon after he became a member of the PCTVL party, and in 2002 Solidarity joined several other youth organizations in forming the PCTVL Youth Union headed by Stalnoy himself.

In 2008 he started working as a realtor at Century21 BaltWest, owned by Russian citizen Valery Engel. In 2014 Engel was named in a Security Police investigation against "World Without Nazism", an organization at which he served as vice-president, over pro-Russian propaganda during the Crimean occupation. 

In 2009 Stalnoy became a project director at the TV5 channel and represented it at Latvia's broadcast watchdog. He repeatedly came to the defense of Andrejs Mamikins, who was accused by the watchdog over disseminating hatred and other violations. 

In 2013 Stalnoy founded the "New Federalists" society, which aimed to "Promote making the European Union and the European states into a federal country". The organization was represented publicly by the infamous politician Jānis Kuzins, a Jūrmala councilman and a self-proclaimed "anti-fascist" who was sacked from the Harmony party in 2013

While afterwards there's a gap concerning Stalnoy's activities on the web - and the sole company owned by him is not operational, according to the LURSOFT database - in September 2016 he succeeded in taking control over the Toma Joki Facebook page, as well as the Tomstv.lv website, which is among the 15 most popular websites in Latvia.

While in October he set up and started managing the nozagts.com and ukradeno.com websites.

Mamikins ties

An idea over that nozagts.com is actually owned by MEP Andrejs Mamikins - who recently voted against an EU resolution condemning Russian propaganda - floated around social media after MP Jānis Dombrava (National Alliance) published a screenshot showing that Mamikins' website - mamikins.lv - is hosted on the same server as nozagts.com and ukradeno.com.

While Mamikin boasted he'd buy Dombrava a drink over the advertisement, he never denied the fact.

The IP address in question (185.61.148.125) is owned by Makonix, which offers hosting with an unique IP address. This means that each client has a unique address and several websites can be hosted on a single IP.

The current IP address hosts domains owned by Ivan Stalnoy - nozagts.com, ukradeno.com, tomajoki.com, rune.ws, as well as two domains tied to Mamikins - mamikins.lv and mamikins.eu - that are registered on the name of one Aleksejs Mehonošins.

Mehonošins' CV says that he has worked in several Latvian media, including Novonews, Telegraf, NTV and Latvian Television. From 2009 to 2012 he was working at TV 5 where Stalnoy and Mamikin were employed as well at that time.

However that does not necessarily mean that Mamikins is the owner of the website and overtook the Toma Joki entertainment franchise. In all likelihood Mamikin and Stalnoy are simply employing Meohonošins as a web developer and administrator who's hosting their projects on his servers. 

A Facebook screenshot from Stalnoy's profile testifies that he and Mamikins are in touch, though again, this does not necessarily mean much.

Stalnoy's profile also included the following picture, which disappeared shortly after I published it on my Twitter profile.

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