The Mueller indictment lays out a sophisticated line of attack by Russian operatives using U.S. social media platforms to foment discord, disunity, and ultimately, distrust in the U.S. political system. Operatives, according to the indictment, were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.”
“Specialists,” as they were sometimes referred to, created hundreds of social media accounts that appeared to be operated by real Americans, with the goals of growing them into “leaders of public opinion.” The accounts were created by employees of the Internet Research Agency, the cyber agency responsible for executing Russian interference campaigns in foreign political processes.
Specialists were divided into day- and night-shift teams so that posts could be made at appropriate U.S.-time-zone hours. A list of U.S. holidays was circulated and studied, so that specialists could post appropriate messages.
Facebook and Instagram group pages were created that addressed a range of political issues, including immigration (with names like “Secured Borders”); Black Lives Matter (with group names like “Blactivist”); and religion (with group names like “United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus”). By 2016, the pages had attracted followers that numbered into the hundreds of thousands.
Twitter accounts were designed to appear as if they were controlled by U.S. groups. The Twitter account “Tennessee GOP” (handle @TEN_GOP) for example, claimed to be controlled by a U.S. state political party. That account attracted more than 100,000 followers.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent each month on advertising for the pages. The performance of the campaigns was measured through regular reports that tracked posts, engagement (such as likes, comments and reposts) and changes in audience size. Specialists also received regular feedback on the quality of the posts. They received guidance on the level of text, graphics and video to use in posts, and the number of accounts to operate, differentiating between main accounts that would post original content and supplemental accounts that would promote that content through links and reposts.
Special counsel Robert Mueller identified thirteen Russian citizens and three entities (including the Internet Research Agency) as co-conspirators in the case and has brought charges against them.
The Russian government has dismissed the charges as noise. “Until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a security conference in Munich, Germany today.