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US charges Russian social media trolls over election tampering

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicts 13 Russian nationals and the Internet Research Agency for a campaign of fake news and trolling during the 2016 election.

Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein Releases New Indictment Against 13 Russians For Election Interference

US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations at the Justice Department on Friday.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

US special counsel Robert Mueller has filed charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups for allegedly interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

In an indictment released Friday (PDF), Mueller and the Justice Department call out the Internet Research Agency, a group linked to Russian propaganda efforts across social media. Employees for the IRA created troll accounts and used bots to stage arguments and sow political chaos during the 2016 campaign.

The defendants are charged with conspiracy to defraud the US and aggravated identity theft.

Disinformation campaigns ran rampant across social media during 2016, with trolls creating controversial and divisive discussions. It was considered a major security concern during the Senate Intelligence Committee's annual "Worldwide Threats" hearing on Tuesday. The trolls would work both sides of the same issue, with the primary goal to misinform and create political divide.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have struggled to deal with fake news, trolling campaigns and bots on their platforms, facing the scorn of Capitol Hill over how they've handled the problem.

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Friday's charges come from Mueller, who, as part of the Justice Department, is investigating Russian collusion with the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors said the efforts to interfere with US politics began as early as 2014, with trolls creating false personalities and spreading fake news across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"These groups and pages, which addressed divisive US political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by US activists when, in fact, they were controlled by defendants," the indictment said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is running its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, said in a statement the indictment Friday "vindicated" the committee's work so far. "With this indictment, the special counsel and his team have taken an important step to hold Russia accountable," Warner said.

Advocacy group Common Cause also applauded the indictment in a statement Friday, saying the charges "hammer home the seriousness of the attacks." The organization filed complaints in September with the Justice Department and the Federal Election Committee asking them to investigate election expenditures on social media, and is urging the passage of a law that would update rules for online election ads.

After the indictment became public, President Donald Trump tweeted that his campaign didn't collude with the Russian effort. "Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President," Trump said. "The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!"

Modus operandi

The indictment lists two other organizations, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, both based in Russia. The organizations were shell companies that Yevgeniy Viktorovich Progzhin used to fund the IRA, according to the indictment.

By "early to mid-2016," the IRA's efforts started supporting then-candidate Trump's campaign and attacking candidate Hillary Clinton's political efforts. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there's no evidence in the indictment that the effort had "any effect on the outcome of the election."

Instructions for the trolling efforts were to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump -- we support them)," according to the indictment.

The group allegedly controlled the Facebook accounts "Clinton FRAUDation," and "Trumpsters United," and the Twitter account "March for Trump." Many of their tweets would include the hashtags "#Trump2016," "#TrumpTrain," "#MAGA," "#IWontProtectHillary" and "Hillary4Prison," the indictment said.

According to the indictment, the organization included hundreds of staffers dedicated to trolling online and had an annual budget into the millions. Rosenstein said the Russian trolls sought "information warfare" against the US.

The organizations started studying and tracking political groups on social media starting in 2014 and sought to copy their tactics such as: how often they posted, how they engage with their audience and what kinds of comments and responses they posted.

Two of the defendants allegedly traveled to the US to gather information and posed as Americans.

While in the US, they bought computer servers and set up a virtual private network to make it appear as if they were working in the country, prosecutors said.

They also reached out to politicians and social activists, according to the indictment. In one scenario, they had gotten tips from an activist based in Texas.

"During the exchange, defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real US person that they should focus their activities on 'purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida,'" the document said.

Rosenstein added that no Americans involved were aware that they were dealing with Russians.

On social media, the agency was divided into day and night shifts and instructed to make posts that fell in line with US time zones. They were also directed to write about issues like foreign policy and the economy.

"Specialists were directed to create 'political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements," the indictment said.

They created groups on Facebook and Instagram, posing as "Secured Borders," "Blacktivist" and "Army of Jesus." These fake activist groups received hundreds of thousands of followers. One such group was @TEN_GOP, an infamous Twitter account posing as a Republican group in Tennessee.

The IRA was also able to create PayPal accounts using stolen Social Security numbers and birth dates of American citizens.

The agency also set up fake rallies at the same location for both sides of the political divide. On Nov. 12, 2016, the agency organized two events on Facebook, one called "show your support for President-Elect Donald Trump" and one called "Trump is NOT my President." It was at the same time and both in New York.

While the US served an indictment, it's unlikely those named will be extradited to the US. The Justice Department also charged Russian hackers behind Yahoo's breach. Russia's complicated extradition process has kept alleged criminals out of US reaches.

 Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday that these disinformation campaigns would continue. 

"There is no doubt that Russia sees the 2018 elections as a target," Coats said at the Senate hearing. 

Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president of global policy, said in a statement that the social network is "grateful" the US government is taking action against the IRA for abusing their services. 

"We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks. We're making significant investments, including increasing the number of people working on security from 10,000 to 20,000 this year," Kaplan said. 

Twitter initially declined to comment, but later Friday said the abuse of social media platforms by Russians goes "against everything we at Twitter believe."

"Any activity of this kind is intolerable, and we all must do more to prevent it," a spokeswoman said. "Twitter continues to work with the Special Counsel's Office and with Congress throughout their investigations, providing relevant information and cooperating through appropriate law enforcement channels."

Google didn't respond to a request for comment. 

First published, Feb. 16,10:11 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:21 a.m. PT: Adds details from the Justice Department's press conference. Update, 12:50 p.m. PT: Adds statement from Warner, Common Cause and Trump. Update, 2:21 p.m. PT: Adds statement from Facebook. Update, 4:33 p.m. PT: Adds statement from Twitter. 

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