Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is announcing Friday the indictment of Russian nationals and entities accused of breaking U.S. laws to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
The defendants conducted information warfare against the U.S., Rosenstein announced Friday. Twelve of the individual defendants worked at various times for Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, he added.
They set up a "virtual private network" in the U.S. - making it appear that the social media accounts they were using were controlled by people in the U.S., Rosenstein said.
There's no allegation that any American was knowingly involved in the conspiracy, Rosenstein said. Nor was there an allegation that the efforts of the defendants affected the outcome of the election. The indictment, he told reporters, is a reminder that "people are not always who they appear to be." He said the defendants wanted to undermine confidence in our democracy.
On Friday, a D.C. federal grand jury returned an indictment against the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization which has connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- it names 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities that accuses them of violating U.S. criminal laws to meddle in U.S. elections and political processes. According to a spokesman for the special counsel's office, the indictment charges all of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., as well as "three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft."
According to the indictment, "Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities."
Working with the Internet Research Agency, the defendants "posted derogatory information" about several candidates, the indictment says, and by mid-2016, their efforts included "supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton," the indictment says. Beginning in April, 2016, the defendants concealed their identities in order to purchase political advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites. These ads were paid for using Russian bank accounts and registered in the names of fictitious U.S. residents.
Starting around 2014, the defendants began to track and study groups on U.S. social media dedicated to American politics and social issues. They used metrics to track the performance of various social media groups. They then travelled to the U.S. (or in some cases, tried to travel to the U.S.) to collect intelligence for their interference operations. They posted as Americans and contacted U.S. political and social activists and learned they should target "purple" states, like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.
They created hundreds of social media accounts and used them to develop fictitious U.S. personas into "leaders of opinion in the U.S." The defendants worked day and night shifts to pump out messages, controlling pages targeting a range of issues, including immigration, Black Lives Matter, and they amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. They set up and used servers inside the U.S. to mask the Russian origin of the accounts.
The Internet Research Agency employed hundreds of people for these purposes -- administrators, creators of personas, technical support -- and spent the equivalent of millions of dollars for these efforts. By September 2016, defendants had a monthly budget of $1,250,000, the indictment says. They used Social Security numbers and birthdates of U.S. citizens without their consent to set up PayPal accounts that they used to buy ads on social media sites.
In addition to disparaging Clinton, they denigrated other candidates, "such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio," and they supported Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump. In the latter half of 2016, they used groups to discourage minorities from voting in the 2016 presidential election.
Social media posts
The indictment documents efforts by the defendants to suppress minority voting with social media:
Social media advertisements
From April - Nov. 2016, the defendants "began to produce, purchase and post advertisements" on social media and other online sites that expressly advocated for Mr. Trump's election or opposed Clinton's election. Here are some of the ads identified in the indictment:
Voter fraud accusations
In August, according to the indictment, the Russians also began buying ads on Facebook that promoted a post accusing Clinton of voter fraud. "Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus," the post read. Another claimed that "tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes" were being reported in Broward County, Florida.
After the election of Donald Trump, the defendants allegedly planned rallies in support of President Trump. They also planned rallies against Trump titled, "Trump is NOT my President."