Crime & Justice

Russian indictments reveal information warfare playbook

A Facebook posting, released by the House intelligence committee, for a group called
A Facebook posting, released by the House intelligence committee, for a group called "Woke Blacks" is photographed in Washington, D.C., Friday, Feb. 16, 2018.
Jon Elswick/AP

Outside a Trump campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., there was a cage holding a person dressed up like Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform. In the outrageous state of the 2016 campaign, it wasn't altogether shocking to see someone at a Trump event staging the visual stunt, after the "lock her up!" chants that punctuated Trump rallies.

But it's now known that this moment was set up by Russians.

That incident was among the vivid details alleged in an indictment released by special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday, which lays out a sophisticated playbook for "information warfare" against the American political system.

Russians working for an organization called the Internet Research Agency created fake online personas and operated social media accounts in order to create "political intensity" throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, according to the indictment.

There were Facebook groups and events inciting both the left and the right; fake identities to pay real people involved with rallies; and stolen American identities used to facilitate payments for social media advertisements.

"They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the indictment reads.

The effort was sophisticated and well-funded: with an overall monthly budget that by September 2016 reached over $1.25 million, and hundreds of employees, the IRA had a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department, an IT department and a finance department — in some ways mirroring how a real news organization might organize itself.

The IRA's initiative targeting the United States, nicknamed the "translator project," began in 2014 as its staff studied American online culture, with an emphasis on understanding social and political issues.

The IRA may have operated in many ways like a faux news organization but its products were anything but real: the social media interference arm included, by July 2016, more than 80 employees, including those dubbed internally as "specialists" tasked with creating and operating fake online personas and posting content to online social platforms.

The indictment alleges the Russians had help: Americans, unaware they were talking to Russian operatives, gave advice that had an effect on the Russian effort.

While speaking online with an American affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization, IRA operatives were told that they should focus on "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida." After the exchange, the Russian defendants frequently referred to targeting "purple states" in their interference efforts, the indictment alleges.

By February 2016, the "translator project" was told to focus primarily on affecting American politics. According to the indictment, the "specialists" were told through an internal memo that they should focus on political content: "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them)."

The IRA created hundreds of social media accounts in an attempt to develop fictitious public opinion leaders in the United States, and used technical tools to pretend their Internet traffic originated inside the United States. The specialists even were divided into day and night shifts to mimic American time zones, and given a list of American holidays so that they could post appropriate content on those days, the indictment alleges.

The fabricated online communities created by the IRA spanned the political spectrum. Groups included names such as "Secured Borders," "Blacktivist," "United Muslims of America" and "Army of Jesus" — an effort that culminated in the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of followers. One of the IRA's Twitter accounts, where the Russian operatives pretended to be the Tennessee GOP, gained more than 100,000 followers, the indictment says.

Using the reach of their network of online personas, accounts and communities, the Russians tried to suppress minority voter turnout: for example, the IRA-controlled Instagram account "Woke Blacks" posted in October 2016: "[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote for Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we'd surely be better off without voting AT ALL."

And the Russians, the indictment alleges, used election hashtags like "#Hillary4Prison" and "#TrumpTrain" to insert themselves into the campaign conversation online.

The Russian defendants "tracked the performance of content they posted over social media," the indictment alleges, like the size of U.S. audiences reached by their posts, the different varieties of engagement with their content and other metrics including specific metrics for certain individual posts and certain group pages.

From April to November of 2016, the IRA purchased ads on social media sites that hit on key themes to divide Americans while also either expressly advocating for Trump's election or expressly opposing Clinton. "Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve the black vote," read one ad on May 24, 2016. Another, on August 10, 2016, read, "We cannot trust Hillary to take care of our veterans!" And then, just a few weeks before the election, on October 19, 2016: ""Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is."

But the interference in the 2016 election cycle didn't take place solely in cyberspace. Using their fictional personas, the IRA began to stage political rallies in the United States, the indictment alleges. In one event they promoted targeting American Muslims, the IRA managed to convince an American "to hold a sign depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating 'I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of Freedom,'" the indictment says.

The Russian influence operation continued in this way through the summer of 2016: via a Facebook group called "Being Patriotic," the IRA organized a "March for Trump." The IRA would purchase ads, use their fake personas to offer to cover rally expenses and obtain signs for a Trump rally through an unwitting Trump campaign volunteer.

"What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?" read one message that Russian operatives sent to Trump supporters in the Sunshine State.

Using this general technique, the Russian operatives tried to stage rallies in New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

By late August 2016, the IRA had compiled a list of more than 100 Americans they had been in touch with, including "contact information... a summary of their political views, and activities they had been asked to perform by" the Russian organization, the indictment alleges.

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