(Bloomberg) -- The sweeping conspiracy detailed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller exposes the sophistication of Russian efforts to undermine U.S. democracy using social media -- and how vulnerable the U.S. remains to foreign intervention ahead of 2018 midterm elections.
In an indictment on Friday, Mueller outlined how scores of workers at a St. Petersburg, Russia, troll farm set out in 2014 to sow discord in the U.S. political system, ultimately by supporting Donald Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.
Assuming fake American personas on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, they wrote provocative posts on divisive political issues, bought ads, coordinated with unwitting Trump campaign workers and paid U.S. activists to plan rallies.
In detailing the most sweeping foreign electoral interference in U.S. history, the indictment against 13 Russians and three companies takes the conspiracy to the door of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- with allegations that the operations were largely financed by a Russian often referred to as “Putin’s cook.”
Mueller, who was appointed last May to investigate Russian meddling in the election, didn’t reveal any collusion by the Trump campaign. Rather, the 37-page indictment focuses on the information war, one strand of a many-pronged investigation by the special counsel’s office.
The investigation into collusion is continuing, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. Grand jurors have already heard about others involved in the scheme, the indictment notes.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters the indictment doesn’t allege that the conduct altered the election’s outcome. Trump and his Republican supporters have repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and have denied any collusion.
Trump tweeted that he felt vindicated: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong -- no collusion!”
The Russian government called the accusations absurd.
Mueller laid out how the defendants manipulated accounts at big U.S. companies like Facebook, Twitter and PayPal. Those companies will continue to be pressed to clamp down on fraudulent accounts or risk a government crackdown as intelligence officials have warned that Russians are already engaged in influencing the 2018 midterm elections.
Starting around April 2014, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency -- a company widely reported to be a front for Russian government -- had more than 80 employees dedicated to “spread[ing] distrust toward U.S. candidates and the political system in general.”
Their primary funding came through Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, two of the co-defendants. By September 2016, prosecutors say, the agency was submitting a budget of more than $1.25 million a month that Concord paid through bank accounts of more than a dozen affiliates. Concord is headed by Yevgeniy Viktorivich Prigozhin, a Russian restaurateur and caterer known for hosting Putin’s state dinners with foreign dignitaries, prosecutors wrote.
“Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin told RIA Novosti. “I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil - let them see it.”
Studying the politics and reach of various groups active on social media, the agency created hundreds of social-media accounts of people meant to look like U.S. “public opinion” leaders. One fake account, @TEN_GOP, attracted more than 100,000 online followers.
Members of the organization worked day and night shifts, circulating a list of U.S. holidays so they could tailor their posts accordingly.
“Specialists were instructed to post content that focused on ‘politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except [Bernie] Sanders and Trump -- we support them.)’ " according to the indictment.
Some of the Russians traveled to the U.S. to gather intelligence for the surreptitious campaign, according to the indictment. They used stolen U.S. identities, including fake drivers’ licenses, and contacted news media outlets to promote their activities. They used clandestine methods to communicate and gather information, employing special cameras, “drop phones” and “evacuation scenarios” to ensure security.
The Russian organization had settled on Trump as their favored candidate by at least April 2016 and began producing and purchasing ads promoting the reality-TV star to voters and “expressly opposing Clinton,” according to the indictment.
The social-media operation was sophisticated, with managers tracking the posters’ audience responses, likes and other metrics. Defendants and other senior managers, checking behind the posters, made sure the posts looked like they came from real U.S. posters.
“It is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” in future posts, the creator of a Facebook group called Secured Borders was told in mid-September 2016.
The indictment shows how the Russians’ fake accounts were intertwined with real political activism. One persona the Russians created: Matt Skiber who rallied online contacts via Facebook to help organize pro-Trump marches. A grass-roots activist in Texas wrote to Skiber account, recommending a focus on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.”
“This is what we’re organizing in FL,” the Skiber account responded to the Texas activist on Aug. 19, 2016. The Skiber account included a link to a Facebook page listing Florida rallies and asked the Texas-based activist to pass it to Tea Party members in Florida. The activist said he’d share the information.
More than 100 real U.S. persons made their way onto a list of social media contacts the Russians kept, according to prosecutors. The defendants’ internal list included the contacts’ names, political views and the activities the defendants had asked them to perform.
The effort went well beyond social media. The Russian effort included organizing rallies for Trump and paying Americans to participate in them or perform tasks at them. One American was paid to build a cage on a flatbed truck; another was paid to portray Clinton in a prison uniform.
Rallies were promoted with Facebook ads. Paid ads included this one on Oct. 19, 2016: “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”
After the election, the group organized both pro- and anti-Trump rallies, including a “Trump is NOT my President” rally in New York the week after the election and one in Charlotte, North Carolina, the following week.
The defendants were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Mueller’s office said that none of the defendants was in custody.
Mueller on Friday also disclosed that a California man pleaded guilty to trafficking in stolen identities. While Richard Pinedo’s guilty plea doesn’t specifically tie him to the Russians, the allegations in the indictment of the 13 Russians track the details of Pinedo’s case.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.