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The US launched a cyberattack on a Russian troll factory during the 2018 midterms

The Washington Post reports that the US blocked internet access to Russian trolls trying to spread misinformation during the election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 1, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2018. The Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, has ties to the Kremlin.
Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The United States military reportedly went on the offensive during the 2018 midterm elections, knocking out the internet at a Russian “troll factory” that was trying to spread misinformation online to interfere in the US elections.

The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported Tuesday that US Cyber Command — part of the Department of the Defense that oversees cyber operations — launched a cyberattack against the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a notorious Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm.

The operation, which President Donald Trump reportedly personally approved, interrupted the IRA’s attempts to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections by disrupting its internet access and crippling its online operations.

US officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that the operation disrupted the Russian trolls’ activities on the day of the 2018 election, November 6, and shortly after, when votes were still being tabulated.

“They basically took the IRA offline,” a source told the Post. “They shut ’em down.”

US prosecutors have alleged that starting in 2014, the IRA engaged in a widespread campaign to sow discord and “interfere” with “the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 individuals and three companies connected to the IRA, including 12 of the agency’s employees. Prosecutors allege those employees posed as Americans and posted propaganda online in an attempt to foment divisions in the US over social and racial issues and, ultimately, help elect Trump.

Mueller also indicted Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef” who is believed to underwrite the troll operation through his company Concord Consulting, which was also indicted by Mueller.

US officials had warned that Russia was trying to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections as well, and the cyberattack on the IRA was evidently part of the US government’s effort to protect the integrity of those elections.

According to the Post:

The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command, with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities.

The offensive against the Russian troll factory appears, based on the Post’s reporting, to have been limited in time and scope. It seems unlikely to permanently shut down the Internet Research Agency, and it definitely will not completely halt Russian meddling.

But many would argue that the US was caught somewhat flat-footed during the 2016 elections when it came to foreign interference, left to do some serious soul-searching and as much cleanup as possible after the fact.

This report is a welcome sign that both the US military and the Trump administration are taking the threat seriously — and are willing to show Russia and other adversaries that they’re prepared to take proportionate action.

As one US official told the Post, “It’s not escalatory. In fact, we’re finally in the game.”

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