- The US Department of Justice announced on Friday that it had charged a Russian woman with conspiring to interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections.
- The woman, Elena Khusyaynova, is accused of playing a central financial role in a social-media influence operation known as “Project Lakhta” that prosecutors say “continues to this day.”
- Prosecutors say the project is bankrolled by the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and two companies he controls.
- Prigozhin is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he and his companies were charged earlier this year, along with 13 other Russian nationals and entities, with conspiring to meddle in the 2016 race.
The Justice Department announced on Friday that it had charged a Russian national with conspiring to interfere in the US midterm elections in November.
The woman, Elena Khusyaynova, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the US. Prosecutors say Khusyaynova is from St. Petersburg – the Russian city where the Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll farm, is headquartered – and is the chief accountant for an influence operation with the codename “Project Lakhta,” which translates roughly to “bay” or “inlet.”
The DOJ described the operation as “a Russian umbrella effort funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, and Concord Catering.”
Prigozhin and his two companies were charged earlier this year, along with 13 other Russian nationals and entities, with conspiring to interfere in the 2016 US election.
Prigozhin is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who US intelligence agencies say ordered the Russian effort to meddle in the 2016 race.
Prosecutors said Project Lakhta was involved in creating thousands of email and social-media accounts to conduct “information warfare against the United States.”
As the woman charge of the operation’s finances, Khusyaynova played a critical role in the effort, which had a budget of more than $US35 million and “continues to this day,” the DOJ said.
Prosecutors said that the financial documents Khusyaynova controlled “include detailed expenses for activities in the United States, such as expenditures for activists, advertisements on social media platforms, registration of domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and ‘promoting news postings on social networks.'”
Social-media influence operations and disinformation campaigns were a key pillar of Russia’s multifaceted efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
Also Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned in a joint statement with the DOJ, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security that Russia and other actors like China and Iran were conducting “ongoing campaigns” that were designed to “undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies” and could include meddling in the midterms and even the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, social networks have said they have taken steps to guard against foreign influence on their platforms ahead of the midterms.
In July, Facebook said it had shut down 32 phony pages and profiles that it believed were part of a coordinated campaign.
And this week, Twitter released a trove of 10 million tweets that it said represented the full scope of foreign influence operations on its platform since 2016.
Most of the accounts in Twitter’s trove were linked to Russia and seemed to follow a familiar pattern. The Russia-linked accounts expressed a mix of support for and opposition to several Republican presidential candidates during the party’s primaries and before the Republican National Convention, but the tweets took on a tone decidedly in favour of Donald Trump after he became the party’s nominee.
On the Democratic side, the Russia-linked accounts consistently pushed anti-Hillary Clinton agitprop from the get-go.
“One of the things that’s still a misnomer to people is that Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate,” said Jeff Bardin, the CIO of the cybersecurity firm Treadstone 71 and a former member of the US Army and Air Force intelligence community. “And I think that was one of the biggest successes of the Russian influence campaign, to make it seem like that.
“She made mistakes, and she had her share of flaws,” Bardin said. “But she was an objectively good candidate who had the experience for the job. But most people look at her and see a bad candidate almost as a reflex. It’s all emotion and feeling and thought without evidence, and the Russians love that and tapped into it in 2016 and now.”
Friday’s indictment shed additional light on the intricacy of Russia’s trolling operation.
Prosecutors said the conspirators’ activities, just as they did in 2016, “did not exclusively adopt one ideological view; they wrote on topics from varied and sometimes opposing perspectives.”
One member of the operation, which prosecutors labelled the “Conspiracy,” offered specific guidance on how to manage the time difference between Russia and the US, the charging document says.
The document included a translation of Russian text that this person wrote: “Posting can be problematic due to time difference, but if you make your re-posts in the morning St. Petersburg time, it works well with liberals – LGBT groups are often active at night. Also, the conservative can view your re-post when they wake up in the morning if you post it before you leave in the evening St. Petersburg time.”
The same person also outlined how to target specific groups of people.
“Coloured LGBT are less sophisticated than white; therefore, complicated phrases and messages do not work,” the guidance said, according to the document. “Be careful dealing with racial content. Just like ordinary Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, coloured LGBT people are very sensitive toward #whiteprivilege and they react to posts and pictures that favour white people.”
Bardin emphasised that the Russians “played both sides of the coin” with their influence operation in order to “put fuel on the fire, keep it going, get a huge divide, and make it into the news.”
“And the news covers it, and they plan on that as well, because they know we have an open press,” he added. “It all fits in to leverage our own institutions against us to tear down those very institutions.”
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