Five things to know about the Russian indictments
Special counsel Robert Mueller shook Washington again on Friday with the release of an indictment alleging that 13 Russians and three Russian organizations meddled heavily in the 2016 presidential election.
While the indictment does not suggest that any Americans were involved in the effort or that it affected the election’s outcome, it included a host of details that suggested the depth of Mueller’s work.
Here are five things to know about the indictment.
It describes a broad, sophisticated effort
The defendants are accused of running the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, a propaganda operation based in St. Petersburg that leveraged social media platforms as part of an alleged attempt to spread divisive content to American audiences leading up to the election.
Executives at Facebook have already revealed that the company unwittingly sold $100,000 in political advertisements to the Internet Research Agency before the election, with many of the ads designed to exploit political and social divides in the United States. Twitter has also identified over 3,800 accounts and 50,000 bots linked to the Russian “troll farm.”
The indictment contains new details that show the sophistication of the alleged operation, which is said to have employed hundreds of people and was supported by an annual budget of millions of dollars.
According to the indictment, the influence operation against the presidential election dates back to 2014. The defendants allegedly created false U.S. personas to reach Americans online through social media pages and groups, and also in some cases used stolen U.S. identities to post content.
Their efforts went beyond posting divisive content online from a remote location in Russia.
Some of the Russians are also accused of fraudulently obtaining visas in an effort to travel to the United States to gain intelligence for their operations.
Two of the defendants are said to have successfully obtained visas and traveled to a number of states, including Nevada, Illinois, Michigan, and New York, in summer 2014. The travel was used to produce an “intelligence report,” the indictment states.
Beginning in 2016, they also allegedly staged rallies from their location in Russia by masquerading as U.S. grass-roots activists who could not attend the events in person. This included two rallies in New York, one dubbed “March for Trump” and another “Down With Hillary,” which were held in June and July.
Defendants allegedly communicated with ‘unwitting’ Trump campaign associates
The indictment contains the bombshell allegation that some of the defendants through false American identities communicated with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign” and other political activists in order to coordinate their political efforts.
This included members, volunteers and supporters of the president’s campaign who were involved in local outreach, as well as grass-roots groups backing Trump, the indictment says. In some cases, the targeted individuals shared the Internet Research Agency’s content through their own social media channels.
The Americans allegedly targeted by the Russians are not named. The indictment also makes no allegation that Americans had any knowledge of the influence effort, a point Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stressed on Friday when unveiling the charges.
Suppressing the minority vote was a part of the alleged operation
The Russians, using fake American personas, allegedly tried to encourage minority voters not to vote in the 2016 election, or to vote for third party presidential candidates.
For instance, the defendants allegedly purchased an advertisement days before the November election that promoted an Instagram account named “Blacktivist” that encouraged voters to “choose peace” and vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.
Another prong of the effort included using social media accounts targeting American Muslims that posted messages claiming Muslim voters were “refusing” to vote for Clinton “because she wants to continue the war on Muslims” in the Middle East.
Voter turnout in the 2016 election was roughly on par with the 2012 vote, though it dipped below levels in 2008, the year former President Obama was first elected. Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in two decades in a presidential election.
The indictment shows the conspirators went to great lengths to cover their tracks
During a press conference on Friday, Rosenstein described the great lengths the defendants allegedly went through in order to masquerade as Americans who were involved in political grass-roots movements.
“The defendants posed as politically and socially active Americans, advocating for and against particular political candidates,” he said.
The Russian nationals allegedly went so far as to open bank accounts with fake identities based off of sensitive information from real U.S. personas, including using stolen social security numbers, birth dates and home addresses.
They further hid their money trail by fraudulently opening multiple bank accounts at one undisclosed U.S. bank, according to the indictment. They then created accounts on PayPal that linked to these bank accounts, thus evading the online payment systems’ security measures.
Both the PayPal and bank accounts were used to pay for expenses like advertisements on Facebook and other social media accounts that aimed to prop up the Trump campaign and exploit political tensions already brewing within the country, the indictment alleges.
Other alleged efforts indicate an attempt to leave little to no trace of their Russian roots by establishing their own virtual private network (VPN). A VPN falsely made it appear as if their traffic on social media and other online sites originated from within the U.S.
The indictment includes serious crimes
The eight-count indictment includes explosive charges against the Russian nationals and companies for allegedly seeking to sow discord in the U.S. political system and interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
All the defendants are charged with “criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States,” a federal offense.
The Internet Research Agency and two other Russian nationals were charged with aggravated identity theft, which allowed them to allegedly obtain fake government documents between June 2016 and May 2017.
Their use of fake identities spawned other criminal activity, like opening the fake bank accounts.
The indictment also charges the Internet Research Agency and four Russian nationals with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud by “knowingly” attempting to defraud and obtain money by “false or fraudulent pretenses.”
The defendants also purchased over a dozen bank account numbers from online sellers spanning across a handful of other U.S. banks.