- Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office charged a notorious Russian “troll factory” and 13 Russian nationals with violating US law and interfering in the 2016 election.
- The 13 Russian nationals who were charged were indicted for working in “various capacities to carry out” the troll factory’s “interference operations targeting the United States.”
- In particular, the indictment said, the operation was intended to denigrate candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and others, while supporting Bernie Sanders and then candidate Donald Trump.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has charged three Russian entities and 13 Russian nationals with “violating US criminal laws in order to interfere with US elections and political processes.”
The indictment was the fifth in Mueller’s Russia investigation, which is examining the extent of Russia’s election interference and whether members of President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the race in his favour.
The charges on Friday were directed primarily at the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an infamous Russian “troll factory” located in St. Petersburg that focused on sowing political discord during the 2016 race by using Russian bots to spread fake news and pro-Trump propaganda on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms.
The 13 Russian nationals charged were indicted for working in “various capacities to carry out” the agency’s “interference operations targeting the United States.”
All the defendants were charged with one count of conspiracy to defraud the US; the IRA and two defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud; and the IRA and four defendants were charged with aggravated identity theft.
Among the defendants was Kremlin-allied Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, who is accused of using his companies, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, to bankroll the IRA’s work.
The charges do not allege that any American was a knowing participant in Russia’s activities, or that the underlying conduct altered the outcome of the race.
Friday’s indictments shed light on the elaborate and multi-faceted nature of Russia’s social-media influence operation.
The IRA was a “structured organisation,” operating through Russian shell companies, that was arranged into separate departments to facilitate its operations, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during a press conference shortly after the charges were announced.
The defendants also took several steps to conceal “the Russian origins of their activities” beginning in May 2014, according to Rosenstein and the indictment. That included allegedly purchasing space on computer servers in the US to set up a “virtual private network,” which they then used to establish hundreds of accounts across social media platforms.
After gaining insight into the country’s political climate, they “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” the indictment said.
During the race, Trump and Sanders had widespread appeal to the far right and far left, respectively.
The defendants’ efforts were streamlined in February 2016, when they circulated “an outline of themes for future content to be posted” by social media accounts associated with the troll factory. In particular, workers were told to spread content related to US politics and to “use any opportunity to criticise Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).” In July 2016, more than 80 IRA employees were assigned to a “translator project” focused on the US that was established in 2014.
Throughout the latter half of 2016, the indictments said, the troll factory began a concerted effort aimed at discouraging minority voters from casting ballots in the upcoming election.
In one instance cited in the court documents, Russian trolls used an Instagram account called “Woke Blacks” to send out a message suggesting that black voters abstain from participating. “[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary,” said the message. “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.”
The defendants were also accused of destroying evidence related to their activities beginning in June 2014 and going into June 2015, and in September 2017.
In particular, after it was reported last September that Mueller’s investigators were scrutinizing Russian activity on Facebook, one of the defendants charged with aiding the troll factory, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote to a family member, “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”
She continued: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
And while no US persons were accused of knowingly collaborating with the operation, some campaign officials were unwittingly drawn into the process.
In August 2016, for instance, the document said “Florida for Trump,” an authentic Facebook group associated with the Trump campaign in Florida, told a fake Russian account to contact a campaign official involved in the state’s operations. The fraudulent account then used a fake email address to reach out to the official, who was named in the court document as “Campaign Official 1,” and offered to help organise rallies in the state.
Later that month, the defendants reached out to a second campaign official after a real Trump supporter sent them that person’s email address. The same day, “Florida for Trump” sent another message to the fake account it had initially interacted with, urging them to contact a third campaign official, which they did.
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, released a statement following the release of the indictments and Rosenstein’s press conference. In addition to highlighting that Russia’s efforts to meddle in the election began in 2014 – before Trump declared his candidacy – Sanders added that Trump “has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates-that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.”
Trump said as much in a tweet sent out shortly before the White House released its official statement.
He was quoted in the official statement as saying that “it is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful.”
“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump said. “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
‘Our task was to set Americans against their own government’
Friday’s indictments significantly expanded on revelations last year that Russian trolls’ efforts went beyond just spreading fake news and agitprop on social media.
The defendants, court documents said, used fraudulent identities to communicate with “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump.”
Facebook announced last year that “inauthentic” accounts most likely operating out of Russia had purchased $US100,000 worth of political ads between 2015 and 2016. The company added that Russian-bought ads reached approximately 10 million people and targeted users in Michigan and Wisconsin, both of which were critical to Trump’s victory.
A stream of leaks to the media and Facebook’s public announcements indicated that the ads and accounts that bought them were focused primarily on exploiting divisions over issues like race and immigration.
Meanwhile, Twitter estimated last November that the 36,746 Russia-linked accounts on its platform “generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions” just from September 1 to November 15 last year.
The US intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that the social-media operation was part of a larger influence campaign by Russia – and that assessment, according to former intelligence chief James Clapper, “did serve to cast doubt on the legitimacy” of the election outcome.
Indeed, one former troll who went by “Max” told the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd last year, “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”
The Internet Research Agency, Max told Dozhd, consisted of a “Russian desk” and a “foreign desk.” The Russian desk, which was primarily made up of bots and trolls, used fake social-media accounts to flood the internet with pro-Trump agitprop and made-up news throughout the US presidential campaign, especially in the days leading up to the November election.
The foreign desk had a more sophisticated purpose, according to Max, who worked in that department. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They will even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” he told Dozhd. In fact, those who worked for the foreign desk were restricted from spreading pro-Russia propaganda. Rather, Max said, their job was more qualitative and was geared toward understanding the “nuances” of American politics to “rock the boat” on divisive issues like gun control and LGBT rights.
An entire department, the “Department of Provocations,” was dedicated to that goal: Its primary objective was to disseminate fake news and sow discord in the West, according to CNN.
The troll farm also had its own “Facebook desk,” whose function was to relentlessly push back against the platform’s administrators who deleted fake accounts as they began gaining traction. When Internet Research Agency employees argued against having their accounts deleted, Max said, Facebook staffers would write back, “You are trolls.” The trolls would in turn invoke the First Amendment right to free speech – and, occasionally, they won the arguments.