Internet trolls hired by the Russian government used social media to persuade gullible Americans to do things like walk around New York City dressed as Santa Claus with a Trump mask on.
That’s just one particularly colorful example from special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report, released Thursday, which assessed allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Part of the special counsel’s task was to determine whether Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” (or IRA) was exploiting political divisions in the United States at the behest of the Trump campaign. The IRA — described as a “troll farm” by U.S. intelligence — is a company headquartered in St. Petersburg that conducts online influence campaigns to advance Russian business and political interests. It’s funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and restaurateur with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. He’s even called “Putin’s chef.”
In his report released Thursday, Mueller wrote that his team was unable to “identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated” with the Internet Research Agency’s operations.
Still, the examples offer a pretty stark assessment of how successful the Internet Research Agency had been in passing themselves off as political or social activists online and using those fake identities to sow discord and influence voter behavior. In Feb. 2018, Mueller’s team announced indictments of 13 Russia nationals — all belonging to the IRA — for meddling in the U.S. election.
By the end of the 2016 U.S. election, the agency was reaching “millions” of U.S. residents through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, according to the report. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts had “tens of thousands” of followers, and numerous U.S. political figures were retweeting IRA-manufactured content and memes.
Mueller’s team identified “dozens” of U.S. rallies organized by the IRA. The earliest was in November 2015, when the IRA organized a pro-confederate rally in Houston, Texas, called “Stand for Freedom.”
“Some rallies appear to have drawn a few (if any) participants while others drew hundreds,” the report states, adding that the reach and success of those rallies was “closely monitored.”
From June 2016 until the election, almost all of the IRA-organized events were focused on promoting the Trump campaign or opposing the Clinton campaign, and most were held in New York, Florida, or Pennsylvania.
Following one of these pro-Trump rallies in Miami, Florida in 2017, Trump tweeted “THANK YOU for your support. My team just shared photos from your TRUMP SIGN WAVING DAY yesterday. I love you — and there is no question — TOGETHER WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
One Russian-organized, pro-Trump rally in Pittsburgh in October 2016 was titled “Miners for Trump: Bring Back Our Jobs.” A flier promoting the rally asked, “How many PA workers lost their jobs due to Obama’s destructive policies?” and encouraged attendees to “HELP MR. TRUMP FIX IT.”
IRA to IRL
Mueller found several other examples where Russian meddling turned into real world political activity or activism.
For example, in February 2017, a person using the alias “Black Fist,” organized self-defense classes for black New Yorkers to protect themselves from police, according to the report.
The IRA also convinced Americans to perform pro-Trump political acts. For example, in December 2016, the IRA recruited someone via Craigslist to walk around New York City dressed as Santa Claus wearing a Trump mask.
Earlier that year in May 2016, IRA members (posing as American activists) recruited Americans to take pictures of themselves holding signs that read, “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.” One of those pictures was in front of the White House, according to the report.
Mueller’s team said the stunt was, in fact, a birthday present for their boss, Prigozhin, who was among 33 Russians sanctioned by the U.S. State Department last September.
The IRA wasn’t only effective in scamming voters. Mueller’s team found evidence that trolls had also successfully tricked the Trump campaign at points — and even Trump himself.
Mueller’s team identified two types of interactions between the IRA and the Trump campaign. The first was that Trump campaign members or surrogates promoted — via sharing on social media or retweeting — pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content that had been manufactured by the IRA.
In October 2016, for example, Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s eldest son, retweeted an IRA-run account called @TEN_GOP to promote the myth of voter fraud in the U.S. election system. “BREAKING Thousands of names changed on voter rolls in Indiana,” the tweet read. “Police investigating #Voterfraud. #DrainTheSwamp.”
The second type of interaction between IRA members and the Trump campaign identified by Mueller occurred when the members of the IRA, posing as political supporters, reached out to campaign volunteers to inquire about organizing pro-Trump rallies. They would ask for signs or other materials, Mueller found, or ask the campaign to promote their rally or coordinate logistics.
While some campaign volunteers “agreed to provide the requested support” like setting aside some signs, the investigation “has not identified evidence that any Trump Campaign official understood the requests were coming from foreign nationals,” according to the report.
With the 2020 general election in the U.S. looming, intelligence analysts have warned that American voters remain vulnerable to Russian meddling and propaganda.
“What has continued virtually unabated and just intensifies during the election cycles is this malign foreign influence campaign, especially social media,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at a conference in March. “That continues, and we’re gearing up for it to continue and grow again for 2020.”
Cover image: Some of the Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, in late 2017. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)