Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians as well as the shadowy Internet Research Agency on Friday with using social media accounts and other online techniques to sow disinformation and discord in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The indictment says the group used stolen identities and invented false identities for the specific purposes of spreading disinformation about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as well as Republican primary challengers to President Trump, and that some individuals involved in the scheme lied to the State Department about the purposes of their trips to the U.S. during the period in question. It arrives months after Facebook, Google, and Twitter were called before Congress to explain the depths to which their platforms were exploited by Russian actors looking to spread disinformation, and details how numerous false accounts were created in hopes of making their efforts seem more widespread than they actually were.
“The conspiracy had as its object impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful government functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Mueller, who is investigating a range of activity between Russia and the Trump campaign, wrote in the complaint. The entire text of the complaint can be found here.
According to the complaint, the group organized under the Internet Research Agency — which was investigated back in 2015 by The New York Times — used fake social media accounts to attempt to organize in-person rallies and online support “expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.” Some of the work was done from Russia through VPN connections that obscured the origin of those messages, while other members of the group purchased hardware in the U.S. in order to disseminate the messages. It also alleges that the defendants set up fraudulent accounts with PayPal in order to pay for some of its advertising efforts as well as its equipment purchases.
Questions have swirled around Facebook and Twitter ever since the scope of the election meddling became clear in 2017, wondering whether or not the platform giants should have done more to detect and prevent this type of activity from happening on their sites. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to give the matter his full attention this year, as the 2018 mid-term elections loom amid reports of increased activity from new Russian disinformation campaigns.