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Justice Department charges Russian trolls' chief accountant

She was allegedly in charge of a $35 million operation over the last three years.

Sen. Patrick Leahy with examples of Russian Facebook propaganda, during a hearing in October 2017.

Sen. Patrick Leahy with examples of Russian Facebook propaganda, during a hearing in October 2017. 

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Department of Justice charged a Russian national for interfering in US politics after investigators followed a $35 million paper trail back to St. Petersburg, Russia.  

Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova served as the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, an umbrella term for multiple Russian propaganda efforts, according to court documents released Friday. Project Lakhta includes the Internet Research Agency, a trolling operation designed to influence the 2016 presidential election and spread political chaos. 

The action isn't the first against Russian nationals accused of interfering in US elections. In February, US officials charged 13 Russian nationals tied to the IRA, as well as 12 hackers behind cyberattacks that targeted the Democratic National Committee in July.

The charges come as US officials and tech companies deal with election meddling from nation-states, including Russia, China and Iran. Outside of cyberattacks, countries are using social media to spread propaganda, an activity that Facebook and Twitter are actively trying to combat.  

Khusyaynova managed funds for Project Lakhta, handling a budget of more than $35 million between January 2016 and June 2018, prosecutors said. Between January and June this year, the project had a proposed budget of over $10 million. The group spent $12 million in 2016 and $12.2 million in 2017, according to the documents. 

The money was dedicated to spreading disinformation in the US through propaganda on social media. The efforts included the creation of Twitter accounts, paying trolls to post on Facebook, and logistics such as search engine optimization and graphics.

"Unlawful foreign interference with these debates debases their democratic integrity," Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement. "We will make every effort to disrupt it and hold those involved accountable."

The court documents stated that Khusyaynova meticulously noted expenses and budget requests related to Russia's trolling campaign over the last three years. Between January and June, requests for Facebook advertisements totaled $60,000, while those for Instagram ads totaled $6,000, the documents said. 

During those same six months, Russian trolls also asked for $18,000 to create more Twitter accounts. The trolls focused on issues like immigration, gun control, racial divisions, LGBT rights and net neutrality, the documents said. The Russian trolls also fanned arguments after national news events, such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the "Unite the Right" rally in Virginia. 

The goal was to "effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population," according to internal documents. 

Though Facebook vowed to prevent Russian trolls from purchasing ads on Facebook for political purposes, court documents indicate nation-state actors found loopholes by convincing US citizens to do it for them. 

In one exchange on July 2, 2017, a troll under the fake persona "Helen Christopherson" messaged a US group, writing, "I got, like, $80 on my ad account, so we can reach, like, 10,000 people in DC or so. That would be massive!"

screen-shot-2018-10-19-at-3-05-20-pm

A proposed ad from one of the Russian trolls, set to target residents of Washington, DC. 

Justice Department

The targeted ad for Washington, DC, had an estimated reach of 29,000 to 58,000 people. 

In another exchange, on July 4, 2017, a troll account using the name "Bertha Malone" convinced another American to help her run the "Stop A.I. (All Invaders)" page. The chat log ended with the US citizen telling the Russian troll "i trust you." 

The Justice Department said its investigative team "received exceptional cooperation" from Facebook and Twitter on the case. 

"Combating election interference is a task that requires cooperation from government and private industry," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. 

Twitter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Election Security: Midterm elections, social media and hacking: What you need to know

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.

First published Oct. 19, 12:45 p.m. PT.
Correction, 1:30 p.m.:
The "Unite the Right" rally took place in Virginia.