Long before Russian hackers purportedly stole emails from the Democratic National Committee, other Russians were already attempting to interfere with the U.S. political system and American society through a widespread online influence campaign, according to special counsel Robert Mueller.
The influence operation started as far back as 2014, was well-funded in part by a reported associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and took advantage of the already divisive political landscape to try to turn Americans against one another, an indictment filed by the special counsel says.
The Accused: In an indictment filed on Feb. 16, 2018, the special counsel says the conspiracy involved 13 Russian individuals and three Russian business entities. Key to the alleged plot was the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which prosecutors said was a St. Petersburg-based firm that was the hub of the influence activity. One of the individuals charged, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is reported to be an associate of Putin and is alleged to have funded the operation.
The Formal Charges: All of the defendants were charged with Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, and some faced additional charges.
The Alleged Crime: The indictment alleges that the defendants were involved in a conspiracy to create hundreds of fake personas online, pretending to be Americans, in order to stoke social, racial and political divides in the U.S. on web platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
The special counsel said the IRA referred to the operation as “information warfare.”
The American operation was part of a larger initiative, known as Project Lakhta, which also targeted domestic and regional audiences and had a budget of over $1 million per month, the indictment says. At one point the American operation alone involved more than 80 IRA employees.
Some workers at the IRA, referred to as “specialists,” were “directed to create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements,’” the indictment says.
In addition to generally divisive content, by mid-2016 the indictment says the Russians used the accounts to support the candidacy of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and to disparage then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
At times they allegedly used the stolen identities of real Americans and pretended to be grassroots U.S. political organizations to stage political rallies inside the U.S. The special counsel alleges that some of the defendants traveled to the U.S. “under false pretenses” for the purpose of collecting intelligence to support the influence operation and procured “computer infrastructure” in the U.S. to “hide the Russian origin of their activities.”
The special counsel said that taken together, these purported activities amounted to defrauding the U.S. government by “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions” of U.S. government departments including the Federal Election Commission.
The Response: Of the 16 defendants, only one has opted to challenge the indictment in court: a Russian firm called Concord Management and Consulting, LLC. That firm, which prosecutors say is controlled by Prigozhin, is accused of helping to fund the influence operation and has pleaded not guilty. Through its American attorneys at the law firm Reed Smith, Concord has pursued a vigorous defense in pre-trial hearings.