The Justice Department’s special counsel announced the indictment Friday of a notorious Russian troll farm — charging 13 individuals with an audacious scheme to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, was named in the indictments the hub of an ambitious effort to trick Americans into following Russian-fed propaganda that pushed U.S. voters toward then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and away from Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The indictment charges that some of the Russian suspects interacted with Americans associated with the Trump campaign, but those associates did not realize they were being manipulated.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein called the charges “a reminder that people are not always who they appear on the Internet. The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote social discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.”
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not attend the press briefing, but the 37-page indictment provides the most detailed description from the U.S. government of Russian interference in the election.
Prosecutors said the Internet Research Agency kept a list of real Americans who its employees had contacted using false personas and had asked to assist the effort. The list, which numbered over 100 people by late August 2016, included the U.S. citizens’ contact information, a summary of each person’s political views and the activities the Russians had asked them to undertake.
None of those charged are in custody, according to Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office. Russia does not typically allow any of its citizens to be extradited to the U.S. to face trial, so it’s unlikely that the individuals will be turned over, but it will likely prevent them from traveling outside Russia.
Some of the Russians posed as U.S. persons and, without revealing their Russian identities, “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment said.
By February 2016, the suspects had decided whom they were supporting in the 2016 race. According to the indictment, Internet Research Agency specialists were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”
Prosecutors say some Russian employees of the troll farm were chastised in September 2016 when they had a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and were told it was “imperative to intensify criticizing” the Democratic nominee in future posts.
The charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft. One of those indicted is Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, who has long been identified in Russian media as the financial backer of the Internet Research Agency. He is a caterer who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his close ties to the Russian president.
Concord Consulting and Concord Catering, two Russian businesses also charged by Mueller’s team on Friday, have previously been identified as Prigozhin vehicles. “The Americans are very impressionable people and they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency in response to the indictment. “I respect them very much.”
Referring to the list of indicted individuals, he added: “I am not at all disappointed that I appear in this list. If they want to see the devil — let them.”
The Internet Research Agency was at the center of Silicon Valley’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google all found evidence that the private firm used social media to divide American voters across a range of polarizing issues, including race, religion, gun rights and immigration.
Tweets and Facebook posts that have been made public as part of these investigations make clear that the Russian disinformation effort broadly sought to favor Trump and undermine the support for Clinton. This conclusion has been backed by the work of several independent researchers.
Typically called a “troll farm,” the Internet Research Agency is regarded as the most prominent part of the Russian disinformation campaign, though congressional investigators pushed for evidence of other operations, including from countries other than Russia, that shared the same purpose.
Overall, Facebook acknowledged to Congress that the Internet Research Agency had bought 3,000 ads on its platform that reached 11.4 million users. The agency’s employees also reportedly made many free posts that reached 126 million users.
In addition to polarizing online political conversation, Facebook reported that the Internet Research Agency used Facebook pages to organize 129 real-world events that drew the attention of nearly 340,000 Facebook users. One of these, organized by a group called Heart of Texas, took place on May 21, 2016, under the banner of “Stop Islamization of Texas.”
On that same day, another Russian-controlled Facebook group, called United Muslims of America, publicized a competing rally to “Save Islamic Knowledge” at the same place and time.
Twitter has acknowledged finding 3,814 accounts linked to the IRA, which together posted some 176,000 tweets in the 10 weeks preceding the election. The company also found 50,258 automated accounts it said were connected to the Russian government and tweeted more than a million times.
One particularly notorious account linked to the Russian firm claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans. It persuaded a wide range of American politicians, celebrities and journalists to share tweets with their own massive lists of followers. The list of prominent people who tweeted out links from the account, @Ten_GOP, which Twitter shut down in August, included political figures such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and James Woods, and media personalities such as Ann Coulter and Chris Hayes.
The IRA Twitter accounts frequently used links from prominent American news organizations, including The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, to push particular narratives related to the campaign, according to research from Columbia University social media researcher Jonathan Albright.
Twitter declined to comment Friday on the indictment.