Mueller indictment reveals sophisticated Russian manipulation effort

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE’s new indictment against Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential race revealed a highly organized, sophisticated operation aimed at manipulating voters, stealing identities and sowing discord among social media users.

Mueller delivered charges against the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” as well as 13 foreign nationals affiliated with the organization.

Mueller’s indictment doesn’t assess whether the group was successful in swaying the election for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE, but the allegations do illustrate the sophisticated effort that went into their campaign.

According to the filing, Internet Research Agency employees created hundreds of fake social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter pages organized to appeal to specific political, religious and ethnic groups. Other fake accounts impersonated real Americans.

The indictment alleges that the accounts were used “to develop certain fictitious U.S. personas into ‘leader[s] of public opinion’ in the United States.” The group tried to use that influence to rally voters around Trump and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE (I-Vt.); to attack candidates like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces DHS cyber agency to prioritize election security, Chinese threats ABC chose a debate moderator who hates Trump MORE, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas); and to convince minority voters to either not vote or back a third-party candidate like Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

The Russian organization had dedicated day and night shifts to allow them to target different time zones in the U.S., as well as separate departments for graphics, data analysis, search engine optimization, IT and finance.

Beginning in 2014, the indictment alleges, the Internet Research Agency studied the practices of existing U.S. social media groups: how often they posted content, their levels of audience engagement and how many followers they had. The group later closely monitored its own social media metrics, reviewing its own operatives’ performance in internal audits.

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“On or about September 14, 2016, in an internal review of an [Internet Research Agency]-created and controlled Facebook group called 'Secured Borders,' the account specialist was criticized for having a ‘low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton’ and was told ‘it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton’ in future posts,” the indictment reads.

The group’s posters went through great pains to mask their Russian origins. The Internet Research Agency set up virtual private networks in the U.S. to hide the origin of its web traffic, and created hundreds of fake email accounts to help pose as Americans.

They even stole Social Security numbers and birth dates from real people in order to set up PayPal accounts and obtain fake driver’s licenses. The PayPal accounts were used to buy political ads on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and even to charge companies for posting promotional content on their social media pages.

“PayPal is intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use of our services,” Justin Higgs, a company spokesman, said in a statement to The Hill. “We work closely with law enforcement, and did so in this matter, to identify, investigate and stop improper or potentially illegal activity.”

Twitter declined to comment.

Though the group’s effect on the outcome of the election might never become clear, the indictment claims that the Internet Research Agency had some success at manipulating people on either side of the aisle. It emerged last year that the Russian operatives had been able to organize rallies around issues like immigration and race through their online accounts.

According to the indictment, the group also reached out political operatives and activists, including members and supporters of the Trump campaign. The special counsel, however, did not level any allegations that any American had knowingly colluded with the group.

Mueller says that the group had a list of more than a hundred real people in the U.S. that it was in contact with, including notes on their political affiliations, progress on recruitment efforts and “activities they had been asked to perform.”

In one instance, the group used one fake Twitter account, @March_for_Trump, to recruit and pay a real person to dress up as Clinton in a prison uniform for a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Democrats were quick to seize on the indictment as further proof that Russia meddled in the election, an idea Trump has repeatedly challenged. Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerLawmakers sound alarm on China's disinformation campaign in Hong Kong Facebook users in lawsuit say company failed to warn them of known risks before 2018 breach New intel chief inherits host of challenges MORE (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged the nation’s spy agencies to ramp up efforts to counter the online influence campaigns.

“As we heard this week from the nation’s top intelligence officials, Russia is still using social media to attack our democratic institutions and sow division amongst Americans,” Warner said in a statement, referring to testimony from intelligence agency heads earlier in the week.

“In Tuesday’s hearing, I was frustrated to hear that there is still no one leading a coordinated, organized effort within the intelligence community to monitor and combat Russian disinformation campaigns on social media,” Warner continued.

Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy, applauded the indictment and pointed to a number of reforms the platform has rolled out since it outlined the Internet Research Agency’s activities on the site last year.

“Today’s news confirms our announcement last year that foreign actors conducted a coordinated and sustained effort to attack our democracy,” Kaplan said in a statement. “As we said publicly last year, this kind of foreign interference violates all of our values. These indictments now say it also violated the law.”

“We’re committed to staying ahead of this kind of deceptive and malevolent activity going forward,” he added.