Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Russian Influence Operation Allegedly Ran Like a Propaganda Startup

A Facebook posting for a group called ‘Being Patriotic.’ A federal indictment alleges that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency bought ads on the social network to reach Facebook users as part of an alleged campaign to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. PHOTO: JON ELSWICK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A federal indictment describes the Internet Research Agency as having a deep understanding how to use Silicon Valley technology to sow discord

The alleged Russian campaign to manipulate the U.S. presidential election was orchestrated by what amounted to a propaganda startup, with finance and graphics departments, performance targets and a sophisticated social-media strategy designed to gain maximum attention, according to U.S. authorities.

The federal indictment issued Friday against the Internet Research Agency describes in rich detail an institution with a deep understanding of Silicon Valley technology that allegedly manipulated tools designed to foster open discussion and turned them into weapons for causing discord.

The IRA’s opinion-influencing unit, set up in 2014 to exploit social media, had at least 80 staff by 2016, and a stated goal to spread “distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” the indictment says. Employees of that division crafted viral Facebook posts and widely-followed, fraudulent Twitter accounts, according to the indictment. The indictment, secured by special counsel Robert Mueller, also named two related companies and 13 Russian nationals allegedly involved in the scheme.

The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations have detailed ways the Russian efforts allegedly played out in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of Americans following fake Facebook pages and some even participating in bogus events that the provocateurs organized.

Friday’s indictment provides the clearest portrait yet of how that disruption was allegedly coordinated. Based in St. Petersburg, Russia, IRA employees used free email accounts and online cryptocurrency exchanges, and concealed their Russian origin using virtual private networks and U.S. computer servers, the U.S. indictment says. They used stolen identities to open PayPal accounts, from which they also paid for Facebook and Instagram ads to promote their online groups, according to the indictment.

U.S. authorities say the IRA leveraged these tools to organize flash-mobs in Florida, run ads for “Miners for Trump” in Pennsylvania and to pay a U.S. resident to dress up like Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform at a West Palm Beach rally.

Operational goals were subject to internal audits. In September 2016, an employee was chastised for not criticizing Hillary Clinton enough in a Facebook group called Secured Borders, and was instructed to step up the criticism in future posts, according to the indictment.

The charges show how social media, anonymity and messaging technologies that minted citizen journalists during the Arab Spring came to be turned on their head by Russian operatives to sow disinformation during the 2016 election, said John Scott Railton, a researcher with the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies.

“Back in the day if you wanted to run a coup d’état, one of the first things you needed to do was to capture the TV station, capture the radio,” he said. But in the era of Facebook and Twitter, that is no longer the case, he said.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any government effort to influence the U.S. election, and the Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The IRA had a monthly budget of more than $1.25 million to conduct influence operations in various countries, the indictment says. In 2014, it created a special team called the Translator Project that fostered campaigns on social media including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and also Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, according to the indictment.

Working in split shifts designed to make it seem like they were in U.S. time zones, project staffers allegedly posted topics on these networks that would resonate with extreme viewpoints held by Americans. They spent thousands of dollars a month promoting their messages, and used engagement metrics—quantifying the size of the audience reached and the number of likes and comments—to refine them, while developing fictitious U.S. personas into “leaders of public opinion,” according to the indictment.

By the time of the election, many of the Translator Project’s groups had snagged hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting followers, the indictment says.

IRA employees also stole the identities of legitimate organizations and real Americans to add credibility to their cause, according to the indictment. Ahead of the presidential election, they allegedly created the Twitter account @TEN_GOP, which claimed to be the Twitter account for the Tennessee Republican party. The false account amassed more than 100,000 online followers, more than seven times the 14,000 followers the official Twitter account of the Tennessee Republican Party has attracted, according to calculations by the Journal.

In a statement posted to its website Friday, the Tennessee Republican Party said that it had filed “multiple” reports to Twitter complaining about the @TEN_GOP account. “Each report was either dismissed by Twitter or never responded to,” the party said.

Twitter didn’t comment on the @TEN_GOP account, but said the alleged Russian efforts to disrupt the election “go against everything we at Twitter believe.” As part of its preparation for the U.S. midterm elections, Twitter said it is monitoring trends and spikes in conversations for possible manipulation activity. YouTube didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Facebook reiterated its plans to expand its safety and security team to 20,000 people by the end of 2018. “We know we have more to do to prevent future attacks,” the company said.

Facebook and Twitter said they were working with a Federal Bureau of Investigation task force on election tampering.

The indictment describes in detail how the IRA allegedly organized real-world events throughout the U.S. through Facebook advertisements and direct contact with activists who supported certain causes, tactics previously reported by the Journal and other media outlets.

The IRA page “Born Patriotic” purchased Facebook ads to promote several pro-Trump rallies in Florida in August 2016 that reached 59,000 Facebook users in Florida, according to the indictment. More than 8,300 Facebook users clicked on the ads, which routed users to Being Patriotic’s page on Facebook, the indictment says.

The IRA pages covered some event costs, like travel and equipment rental, transmitting funds to activists through wire transfers and other means, the indictment says.

The alleged Russian influence campaign seemingly flew under the radar of the technology companies. Facebook, Twitter and Google didn’t launch investigations into the Russian influence campaign until after the presidency was decided.

Starting last September, Facebook and other companies publicly reported that they had identified Russian expenditures on their platforms. The indictment says that media reports that Facebook was working with Mr. Mueller’s team spooked the IRA operatives, prompting them to start destroying evidence.

“We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues,” a co-conspirator emailed a relative at the time, according to the indictment. “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”



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