A more than two year long operation involving dozens of employees, hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of dollars – such is the scale of Russia’s operation aimed at influencing the public opinion on social media before the 2016 US Presidential elections.
This is the conclusion from the indictment prepared by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller in February. Thirteen Russian citizens are charged with interfering with the US political system. And this number can grow – according to the report, the defendants conspired not only with each other, but also with other “persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury”.
The report covers solely the actions conducted by the St Petersburg “troll factory”, officially called the Internet Research Agency and known by many other names too, starting with “Olgino trolls” (based on the first location of the agency in this St Petersburg district). Later it moved to Savushkina street and, after the last Christmas holiday, it received yet another new address with three times more office space.
But even though there were far more elements than just social media involved in the influence campaign, already the scale of this operation is impressive. According to Mueller, the operation targeting US elections started already in 2014, with the simple goal to sow discord in the political system, and address divisive issues via groups and pages falsely claiming to represent US activists. A few weeks before the election, the department focusing on US population had already more than 80 employees and a monthly budget of 1,25 million dollars.
The defendants even managed to procure computer infrastructure that was partly based in the US – in order to hide the Russian origin of their activities.
Apart from activity on social media, Russians even managed to stage political rallies inside the US, posing as US grassroots entities and US citizens. Not only before, but also after the elections. And not only pro-Trump, but also protesting against Trump, all to sow discord and division.
In one of the cases, they even managed to recruit a real person to hold a sign depicting Hillary Clinton stating “I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom” – one of the typical tactics how to fuel an already emotional campaign and to portray people as holding more extreme views. We have already written about a similar approach by a pro-Kremlin person in Sweden.
Apart from the highly divisive issues like racial, religious or minority questions, the Russian trolls were also heavily pushing the message that the elections were rigged – something we have seen also in Germany and in Scotland.
Read the full report here.