Want to know how Russia used Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms to try to swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign for Donald Trump?
You’ll find many of the details in U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment against 13 Russian nationals, filed today.
You can read the whole thing for yourself at the bottom of this post. But there are two crucial takeaways from the charges Mueller has filed:
- While Facebook, Twitter and other big internet companies spent much of last year cataloging Russia-backed ad spending on their services, the Russian campaign to promote Trump also relied heavily on the use of “organic” services. That is: The Russians set up free, fake accounts and masqueraded as regular users who supported Donald Trump or hated Hillary Clinton.
- Today’s indictment doesn’t make any overt connection between the Russians who worked to support Trump and members of the Trump campaign itself. When the two groups did connect, Trump campaign workers thought they were talking to real people, not Russian imposters.
Mueller is still working on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and other government agencies and congressional committees are also looking into the issue. So this isn’t the final word, by any means. But it’s still an intriguing look into Russia’s efforts to turn some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful platforms into tools to sway an election.
Among the fascinating charges Mueller makes:
- Russia initially started a social media campaign to disrupt “the lawful governmental functions of the United States” by sowing discord in 2014. But by 2016 it had focused on supporting Donald Trump — as well as Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic Party nomination in that election.
- The Russian team had an annual budget that “totaled the equivalent of millions of U.S. dollars” and focused on “social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”
- Russian nationals reached out to local Trump campaign officials and other Trump supporters, but they did it without telling Trump’s people who they really were: “Posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, [they] communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate their political activities.”
- The Russians created fake accounts and group pages that racked up “hundreds of thousands of online followers ... particularly on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.”
- They were active on Twitter, as well. The fake @ten_GOP account attracted more than 100,000 followers.
- The Russians used different methods to cover their tracks and bypass various security methods. For instance, they used virtual private networks, so various accounts would appear to be operating from within the United States instead of Russia. And they used stolen identities, using real social security numbers, to set up accounts at PayPal, which they used to pay some of their bills for ads and other expenses — including the construction of a “cage large enough to hold an actress depicting [Hilary Clinton] in a prison uniform” to be used at a Trump rally.
The Mueller indictment spends quite a bit of time showing how various Russian tactics — the use of fake users and groups to dupe real people, the purchase of pro-Trump online ads and on-the-ground activity funded by Russian money — came together to promote a particular set of pro-Trump rallies in Florida.
It’s hard to argue that the particular rallies swayed the election, but the stories make for fascinating reading: For instance, in August 2016, Russians operating a fake Facebook user account reached out, via private message, to a local Trump campaign official in Florida and proposed organizing “a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every town”:
Days later, the same agents were promoting the campaign with Facebook ads, which reached 59,000 Facebook users in Florida and generated 8,300 clicks from them; they also used fake Twitter and Facebook accounts to hire an actress to portray Clinton in prison garb outside of rallies, and to hire people to make signs and a prison costume.
And within a couple weeks, a real Trump activist in Florida had emailed the fake Trump campaign, suggesting possible locations for rallies.
I’ve asked Google for comment. Facebook provided the following statement:
“Today’s news confirms our announcement last year that foreign actors conducted a coordinated and sustained effort to attack our democracy. 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 proactively disclosed the IRA activity to the Special Counsel, Congress, and the public, and have worked with them to give the public a fuller understanding of what occurred. We’re grateful the US government is now taking this aggressive action against those who abused our service and exploited the openness of our democratic process.
“We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks. We’re making significant investments, including increasing the number of people working on security from 10,000 to 20,000 this year. We’re also continuing to work closely with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other companies on better ways to protect our country and the people on our platform. We’re particularly encouraged by the FBI’s creation of a task force dedicated to addressing election interference, and we are actively working with them. We’re committed to staying ahead of this kind of deceptive and malevolent activity going forward.”
And here’s Twitter:
“Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election, in part by abusing social media platforms, go against everything we believe at Twitter. Any activity of this kind is intolerable, and we all must do more to prevent it.
Twitter continues to work with the Special Counsel’s Office and with Congress throughout their investigations, providing relevant information and cooperating through appropriate law enforcement channels. We are also continuing to be transparent with the public as our own review of the 2016 election has evolved.
We look forward to working with the FBI Task Force to assist companies and the public in identifying foreign manipulation efforts through social media platforms. As we said last fall, tech companies cannot defeat this novel, shared threat alone. The best approach is to share information and ideas to increase our collective knowledge, with the full weight of government and law enforcement leading the charge against threats to our democracy.
Twitter is committed to providing a service that fosters and facilitates free and open democratic debate and that promotes positive change in the world. As part of that work, we are committed to addressing, mitigating, and ultimately preventing any future attempts to interfere in elections and the democratic process, and to doing so in the most transparent way possible.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.