Robert Mueller. Photo: Getty
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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?

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?

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?

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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How Antifa uses no-platforming successfully to fight white supremacy

The left needs to figure out how to weigh its critiques of Antifa against the movement’s success.

After addressing a virtually empty performance hall at Michigan State University, the white nationalist Richard Spencer cancelled his college tour. The pathetic turnout was the work of Antifa and student organisers, who had blocked the entrances to the event.

This state of disarray is a familiar sight among white nationalist groups. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has all but dissolved after its leader was arrested for choking the group’s top spokesman, while organisers of Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally, Jason Kessler and Andrew Anglin, are facing a lawsuit for conspiracy to commit violence.

Even Milo Yiannopoulos, once a guest of American talk show host Bill Maher, has been reduced to hawking vitamin supplements on Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website. His fate is the perfect symbol of the fall of the alt-right, and, like much of their demise, can be largely attributed to the success of Antifa.

In 2017, little divided the American left more than Antifa. While some of the criticism was rather unhinged – like Robert Reich’s bizarre suggestion that Antifa was a false flag operation created by the right – much of it came from a place of sympathy. Noam Chomsky, for example, warned of the threat of escalating violence, branding disruptive tactics “a welcome gift to the far-right and the repressive forces of the state”.

Despite criticism from liberals and leftists, Antifa continued to grow; dealing significant blows to the alt-right throughout the year. This eventually culminated in the deadly clash in Charlottesville, from which the alt-right has been unable to recover.

The question is no longer whether Antifa’s tactics are a viable way to confront white nationalism, but how the left should weigh the critiques of Antifa against its success.

Philosophical or religious objections to violence aside, the left had two main issues with the movement. They argued that not only did its protests provide an excuse for young white guys to cause mayhem, but that the attention garnered in doing so actually boosted the alt-right by giving them notoriety – while increasing the possibility of violence against the left.

Although there were undeniably some young white men who appeared better motivated by the opportunity to smash windows than build solidarity, this criticism is superficial. It obscures the women, the people of colour, and participants from the LGBTQ+ community all of whom, in many cases, were not only members of Antifa, but actually lead the movement.

Masquerading as an intersectional perspective, the white-men-mayhem critique erased the contributions of people of colour in Antifa and mistakenly centred whiteness in the struggle against white supremacy.

Despite the tactics of the left, violence remains a distinct part of far-right practice, with frequent brutality seen by right-wing and white nationalists over the last year. From the shooting of a protester in Portland in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, to the seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it seemed the white supremacist movement did not need much excuse to enact violence.

Under these conditions, self-defence is becoming an unwanted but indispensable activity for left activism. As the academic Dr Cornel West said after Charlottesville, where he was present: without Antifa, he and the members of the clergy there “would have been crushed like cockroaches”.

Lamenting his inability to hold college tours, Richard Spencer commented on how the carnival-like atmosphere around their events was good for recruiting. According to Spencer, such controversy allowed the alt-right to “present ourselves as curiosities”, attracting people wondering “what are these crazy racist ideas I’ve been hearing about”.

While he benefits from a contained chaos, there comes a point where opposition becomes unmanageable. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask communities to tolerate white nationalism by ignoring it; we must instead build a determined opposition to its growth.

The student activists at MSU offer an example of how coordinated opposition can successfully prevent the alt-right from achieving their goals – containing the scourge of white supremacy.

Antifa was alarming to many because its radical tactics disrupted our lives. It is harrowing to look around and see you are surrounded by rot. But to build a better future, we must see the world as it is and to stand in solidarity with each other to make changes.

David Griscom is a contributing writer and researcher with The Michael Brooks Show, a left-wing podcast whose guests typically include figures from left media including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Chapo Trap House.