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16 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Why US prosecutors have charged a Russian troll farm with interfering in the US election

13 Russians have been charged with disparaging Hillary Clinton - the question now is: did the Trump campaign know?

By Nicky Woolf

What the hell just happened?

The special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election just dropped a huge bombshell: a grand jury indictment against a notorious Kremlin-linked St Petersburg troll farm called the Internet Research Agency.

The indictment, which you can read in full here, alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy, orchestrated by Russian interests, with one ambitious goal: to “interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.”

13 individuals linked with the Internet Research Agency’s operation were charged, alongside the organization, with a variety of crimes related to this operation, including wire fraud and identity-theft.

We knew some of this had happened already, didn’t we?

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A fair bit of it, yes. Some of the material of the indictment was already in the public domain, such as that Russian agents purchased political advertising on social media.

But what is new here is the incredible level of granular detail in which the indictment maps the topography of the Russian destabilization campaign, from the chain of command in the agency’s office in Russia to the stolen American identities and financial accounts and other techniques that allowed them to to manipulate public opinion and undermine the foundations of American democracy. The picture painted in the indictment is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Internet Research Agency was discussing ways to interfere with the US presidential election as early as May of 2014. By February 2016, an internal memo was sent around instructing specialists to post content focusing on politics. The memo exhorted agency staff to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them)”.

In an internal agency review document from September 2016 quoted in the indictment, one specialist was told that it was “imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” in their posts to a Facebook group they controlled called “Secured Borders”.

Agency’s operatives “used false US personas 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,” the indictment continues. 

It wasn’t just Republicans who were targeted by this astonishing propaganda campaign; other groups or social media accounts aimed at minority voters, often encouraging them to stay home on election day. One Instagram account controlled by the agency, called “Woke Blacks”, posted in October: We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off not voting AT ALL.” Other accounts posted things like “Hillary Clinton … wants to continue the war on Muslims”.

Yet another agency-controlled Instagram account, “Blacktivist”, posted just a few days before election day: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” 

The agency, sometimes using stolen PayPal accounts, also started taking out paid advertising on social media platforms, with taglines like “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”, “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve The Black Vote”, and “Trump is our only hope for a better future!” Agency staff, using entirely fake online personas, even organized political rallies on US soil.

On 20 August 2016, a series of coordinated rallies were held in support of Trump across Florida; according to the indictment, agency workers, posing as grassroots organizers, approached Trump campaign staff to ask for help organizing them. They also reached out to US individuals, in some cases paying them money to help. One American, the indictment notes, was paid by the Russians to “build a cage on a flatbed truck”, and another to “wear a costume portraying Hillary in a prison uniform.”

Their work did not stop once Trump was elected; the agency continued to sow discord on American soil with, if anything, increasing brazenness. On one day, November 12, two opposing rallies, one called “show your support for president-elect Donald Trump” and another called “Trump is NOT my President”, took place in New York. 

Both rallies were seeded by accounts controlled by the Internet Research Agency.

The name of this agency rings a bell for some reason.

That’s probably because of this widely-read 2015 New York Times magazine article by Adrian Chen, which focused on the agency’s work as a troll farm.

“The Internet Research Agency … industrialized the art of trolling,” Chen wrote. “Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines.”

He spoke with a former agency employee, Ludmila Savchuk, who described a corporate structure and intensive workload. “Her schedule gave her two 12-hour days in a row, followed by two days off. Over those two shifts she had to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts and 150 to 200 comments on other workers’ posts,” Chen wrote.

So what happens now that they’ve been indicted?

That’s less clear. In a press conference Friday afternoon, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general who appointed Mueller as special counsel, said that the US would seek the extradition of those indicted through normal channels.

It seems unlikely that Moscow will allow that with good grace; the US and Russia do not have a formal extradition treaty, and Putin is already chafing against sanctions brought by Obama in the closing days of his presidency. It is difficult to believe that Trump’s own State Department will be willing to apply much pressure on the Kremlin to see justice done.

But the indictments against the agency are a bullish statement of intent from Robert Mueller and his team, and are perhaps intended more for the court of public opinion than for any eventual Washington trial.

Rosenstein refused to be drawn on the question of the political implications for Trump, saying instead that: “This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet.”

Whoa if true.

No kidding. “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein continued, adding that there was “no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity” and “no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

He’s being very careful, isn’t he.

Yes. Rosenstein is in a tricky position; after Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, it was Rosenstein who appointed Mueller as special counsel. Since then, Trump has barely bothered to conceal his anger at Rosenstein, and at attorney general Jeff Sessions, who left Rosenstein in charge of the Russia question when he recused himself from the whole issue shortly after Trump took office.

Rosenstein will therefore also be responsible for what to do after Mueller’s investigation makes its final report, so it’s not surprising that he should choose his words with care.

In the meantime, while between these indictments and those last year of Trump staffers including campaign CEO Paul Manafort – as well as the emails released on Twitter by Trump’s son Don Jr – it is now largely beyond doubt that the Russians were engaged in a concerted campaign aimed at destabilizing the US political process.

The only question that remains for Mueller’s investigation to answer is as simple as this: to what extent did members of the Trump campaign actively seek to collude with this vast Russian operation, and how high up in Trumpworld will the evidence eventually lead?

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