Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies were indicted today by a Washington, D.C., grand jury on charges of committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 presidential election.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, brought the charges, his first for the election tampering that is the focus of his work, The New York Times reported.
“Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” said the indictment.
The group allegedly set up hundreds of social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter under American names using fake or stolen identities, fraudulent bank accounts, and false identification documents, according to the Justice Department announcement of the indictment.
Pretending to be politically and socially active Americans, the Russians advocated online for and against political candidates, set up social media pages and groups to “communicate with unwitting Americans” and bought political ads on social media, the announcement said.
Twelve of the Russians worked for Internet Research Agency LLC, a company registered with the Russian government and based in St. Petersburg, according to the announcement. The other one funded the alleged conspiracy through companies known as Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering, and many subsidiaries.
The conspiracy was part of a larger operation called “Project Lakhta,” targeting audiences within the Russian Federation and in multiple countries, the statement said. Internet Research Agency employed hundreds of people and had a budget of the equivalent of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, according to the indictment.
The group created social media pages named Secured Borders, Blacktivist, United Muslims of America, Army of Jesus, South United and Heart of Texas, among others. By 2016, many of the groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of followers, the indictment said.
The Russians also created Twitter accounts that appeared to be aligned with political parties, such as “Tennessee GOP,” or @TEN_GOP, which attracted hundreds of thousands of adherents. The group is alleged to have employed audience size tracking, monitored engagement with posts and collected other metrics to measure efficacy.
The Russians also paid Americans to promote political campaigns and stage political rallies, the indictment said. Group members traveled to at least 10 states gathering information on U.S. political advocacy groups while posing as grassroots activists.
One American told them to focus their efforts on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida,” the indictment said.
The Russians also allegedly put on post-election pro-Trump and anti-Trump rallies on the same day.