A sophisticated and clandestine Russian outfit that attempted to sow political discord through phony social media and grassroots campaigns has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to a series of pro-Trump rallies held in South Florida and around the country during the summer before the 2016 presidential election.
Federal authorities say 13 executives of the Internet Research Agency used stolen identities and U.S.-based email addresses to organize and fund political events designed to promote Donald Trump and tear down Hillary Clinton. The indictment, signed by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, describes the efforts of a well-organized, St. Petersburg, Russia, syndicate.
With millions at its disposal, the vast Russian outfit duped legitimate political organizers into furthering a foreign scheme to create chaos around the election, according to Mueller. The company spent years studying U.S. political organizations and promoting its efforts on Facebook and Instagram, paid for rally materials ahead of a Sept. 11 Miami event and even compensated actors to erect a cage on a truck flatbed in West Palm Beach big enough to hold someone dressed up like Hillary Clinton in a prison jumpsuit.
They used a Twitter account and the Facebook group “Being Patriotic” to organize a series of Aug. 20 rallies in Florida called “Florida Goes Trump,” which they also paid to promote on social media using PayPal and bank accounts established with stolen identities and credit card numbers bought on the black market. During the scheme, which Mueller said developed over a period of more than two years, the Russians reached out to at least three members of the Trump campaign, although the indictment does not say if the campaign members responded.
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You know, simply yelling on the Internet is not enough
firstname.lastname@example.org, fake Russian email account
“You know, simply yelling on the Internet is not enough,” the Russians wrote to a Trump campaign official through a fake Gmail account. “There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.”
According to the indictment, the Russians created hundreds of U.S.-registered email addresses and fake social media accounts, and using holiday calendars and U.S. time zone clocks posted scripted messages made to look natural and targeted at politically disaffected users. They targeted religious groups, the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration hard-liners, growing audiences into the hundreds of thousands for “many” of their fake accounts.
Before the election, they trashed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, and supported Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. After the election, they held rallies both for and against Trump.
The efforts stretched back to at least 2014 and involved hundreds of Russian employees running graphics and data analytics, according to federal authorities. Trump, whose campaign has been under investigation by Mueller over its ties to Russia, tweeted after the indictment was published that its details supported his case that the probe is a witch hunt.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
Using fake accounts, such as @March_for_Trump, the Russian syndicate encouraged participation in rallies. The indictment says they targeted Florida and other “purple” states on the advice of a Texas political organizer who unwittingly helped them plot their scheme online as they pretended to be Americans.
Floridians fell for the same tricks. The Russians also sent messages to grassroots groups using a stolen identity, and reached thousands with advertisements on social media platforms. Their scheme attracted someone who identified himself as the chair of the Trump campaign from an unidentified Florida county and passed along a Trump campaign contact.
“Hi there! I’m a member of Being Patriotic online community,” the Russians, posing as an invented person named Matt Skiber, told one online user. “What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?”
When Facebook and journalists reported on the activities, the Russians deleted their accounts to hide their tracks, according to the indictment.
“We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (no joke),” defendant Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina wrote in a text message to a family member. “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed it was written by their people.”
The Internet Research Agency and affiliates Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting, as well as different individuals of the 13 named employees, have been charged with one count of engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the U.S., one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and six counts of aggravated identity theft.