Unlucky 13: DoJ Indicts Russians for US Election Meddling

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A US grand jury has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for interference in the 2016 US presidential election and political system, the latest major announcement to come from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The lengthy indictment, released on Friday, details the work of staffers at the notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA), a St Petersburg-based propaganda organization with suspected Kremlin ties which seeks to sway public opinion on behalf of Russian firms and the government.

It alleges a complex and sophisticated influence operation, dating back to at least 2014, when the IRA established a “translator project” focused on the US population, and two defendants traveled to America to collect intelligence.

It centers around the setting-up of accounts on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) spoofed to appear as if run by US personas. These fake accounts then posted often inflammatory content to cause social division. Some accrued over 100,000 followers — mainly spouting anti-Clinton and pro-GOP/Trump opinion.

They are also said to have used stolen or fictitious identities, fraudulent bank accounts and fake PayPal accounts to pay for outspoken attack ads, under fake email addresses such as “staceyredneck [at] gmail.com” and “allforusa [at] yahoo.com."

“The Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns, and stage political rallies. The defendants and their co-conspirators pretended to be grassroots activists. According to the indictment, the Americans did not know that they were communicating with Russians,” the DoJ notice continued.

“After the election, the defendants allegedly staged rallies to support the President-elect while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election. For example, the defendants organized one rally to support the President-elect and another rally to oppose him—both in New York, on the same day.”

At all times great efforts were made by the individuals to cover their tracks: from posting the content under the guise of ‘American’ netizens, to setting up a US VPN to make it appear as if operatives logging in to the spoof social media accounts did so from inside the country.

The DoJ also had this:

“On September 13, 2017, soon after the news media reported that the Special Counsel’s Office was investigating evidence that Russian operatives had used social media to interfere in the 2016 election, one defendant allegedly wrote, ‘We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity.... So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with my colleagues’.”

Much of the information contained in the indictment is already known, after social media companies admitted last year they had been duped by the Russian efforts and US intelligence agencies claimed they had evidence of widespread electoral interference by Moscow.

The DoJ statement is at pains to point out that no American knowingly participated in the activity of those indicted. Nor does it suggest that the activity of the IRA changed the outcome of the presidential election.

However, the special counsel investigation continues, with a focus on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ahead of the presidential election, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump himself.

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