(Disclaimer: The following information is what has been made public in the redacted Mueller Report –– not all information pertaining to this topic has been released yet. The report can be viewed here). 

Before, during and after the 2016 presidential election, a massive effort was made by Russia to sway American public opinion in favor of Mr Trump. The Russians targeted Americans via various social media sites, organized political rallies and protests, and in some cases had direct contact with individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign. The Russians exploited American political divisions, especially those between Democrats and centrists, to split the Democratic party, drive support for Trump and ultimately elect him.

Tweet by a Russian troll. Because Twitter deactivated the account, the tweet couldn’t be embedded; it was screenshotted from russiatweets.com.

The majority of these operations were done by a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency, LLC, or IRA. The IRA is funded by the oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and the companies he owns, including Concord Management and Consulting, LLC, and Concord Catering. Although there is no evidence in the Mueller Report that Vladimir Putin himself was a member or leader within the IRA, Prigozhin has many ties to Putin. According to the New York Times, Prigozhin is part of a Putin-centric circle of wealth. In Russia, he is referred to as “Putin’s cook” and as a “go-to oligarch” who will do anything Putin wants. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the U.S. twice: first in December 2016 for building a Russian military base near Ukraine that could deploy soldiers, and again in early 2018 for the IRA’s social media operations. Other leadership in the IRA includes general director Mikhail Bystrov and executive director Mikhail Burchik. 

The IRA’s social media campaign (sometimes called an “active measure”) in the U.S. is part of a group of operations called Project Lakhta, though no details were given in the Mueller Report about the other projects within Project Lakhta. The NY Times article claims that U.S. active measures started in 2013, and the Mueller Report finds evidence of them “as early as” 2014. In spring 2014, all active measures in the U.S. were put into a distinct IRA department known as the “Translator” Department. This department also had multiple subdivisions: some employees were assigned to operate social media accounts, some designed graphics, etc. In June 2014, four IRA employees traveled to the U.S. to gather intelligence that could be used for their social media operations. When they requested visas from the Department of State, they lied about their intent and said that they were friends who met at a party. At least two of these visas were apparently granted, as IRA employees Anna Bogacheva and Aleksandra Krylova entered the U.S. on June 4, 2014. 

A post from IRA account @jenn_abrams. Screenshotted from russiatweets.com.

IRA employees who controlled social media accounts were referred to as “specialists.” They started in 2014 accessing Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter and later got on Tumblr and Instagram. They initially posed as ordinary American citizens, but, as the IRA grew, specialists started presenting as activists and grassroots organizations, both liberal and conservative. They closely imitated real organizations. Internal IRA documents from February 2016 reveal a clear intent to influence the election, stating, “Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them)”. 

Facebook found at least 470 accounts believed to have been created by the IRA, which posted 80,000 pieces of content between January 2015 and August 2017, reaching about 126 million people during that period. Conservative Facebook accounts included “Being Patriotic”, “Stop All Immigrants”, “Secured Borders” (which had 130,000 followers) and “Tea Party News”. Black activist accounts included  “Black Matters”, “Blacktivist” and “Don’t Shoot Us” (which had over 250,000 followers). The Russians also had at least one LGBTQ+ Facebook account, “LGBT United”, and at least one religious one, “United Muslims of America” (with over 300,000 followers). The IRA also purchased over 3,500 ads for its accounts, most of which explicitly opposed Clinton and supported Trump. 

Twitter has identified 3,184 IRA accounts and emailed 1.4 million people affiliated with them. Some of these accounts were managed by hand, while others were automated “bots” designed to further spread content. Some popular pro-Trump IRA Twitter accounts included @TEN_GOP, @jenn_abrams with 70,000 followers, @Pamela_Moore13 with 70,000 followers, @America_1st_ with 24,000 followers and @march_for_trump. These and other accounts were sometimes quoted by U.S. media (including Huffington Post, USA Today, Fox News and Salon) as representing the opinions of actual Americans. The list of Americans that responded to or retweeted IRA tweets includes former Ambassador Michael McFaul, Roger Stone, Sean Hannity, Michael Flynn, Jr. and others associated with the Trump Campaign.

The IRA also organized political rallies and protests. The earliest identifiable one was a “Confederate rally” in 2015, but from about June 2016 to the election, most of these events were pro-Trump. Typically, an IRA specialist would ask an American to coordinate the event, claiming that they couldn’t coordinate it themselves because they had a scheduling conflict or were somewhere else in the U.S. When the person agreed, the specialist would contact U.S. news media about the event, directing any questions to the organizer. There is no evidence to suggest that any of the American organizers knew that they were collaborating with foreign influencers. The rallies had varying success, but the IRA made sure to post extensively about them on social media. In one instance, candidate Trump posted on his Facebook account about an IRA-organized rally in Miami.

Promotion by @march_for_trump. Screenshotted from russiatweets.com.

In some instances, the IRA also targeted American political and social justice activists, both liberal and conservative, to promote IRA-created content through stunts and events other than political rallies. The Mueller Report suggests that the IRA had a special focus on Black activists, with the most notorious example occurring in February 2017 when an account called “Black Fist” offered self-defense classes in New York with an American instructor.

A Black social justice IRA post, screenshotted from russiatweets.com.

The IRA had two types of connections with the Trump Campaign. Firstly, Trump and his campaign members spread IRA content on social media. For example, @TEN_GOP was cited or retweeted by Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Micheal Flynn. @realDonaldTrump also responded in kind to a tweet by @10_gop (the replacement for @TEN_GOP, which Twitter had deactivated). IRA members, posing as conservative individuals or groups, also reached out directly to the Trump Campaign for help organizing their political rallies. Though they received what they requested from campaign volunteers, there is still no evidence that the volunteers or anyone else knew that they were aiding the Russians.

Since Prigozhin funded the IRA’s active measures, the Mueller Report concludes that he broke U.S. law by eroding the work of federal agencies tasked with limiting foreign influence in American elections. However, the IRA is not the only “troll farm” in Russia, so it’s likely that Russian attempts to influence American elections over social media will continue.

The tweets and posts of deactivated IRA accounts can be found at this database: https://russiatweets.com/

Image: Pixelkult via Pixabay.

 

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