The indictment of 13 Russians charged with attempting to manipulate American voters using social media shines a fascinating light on a sophisticated, relentless operation to exploit the internet for political gain. Here's how US investigators say the Russians did it.
It was 2014, and in a building in St Petersburg, the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) was already hard at work building its arsenal to take on US politics.
According to US prosecutors, the IRA had gathered stolen identities of real Americans, and a formidable encyclopaedia of what “works” on social media when it comes to riling up Americans talking about politics. Two members of the agency were said to have travelled to the US to gather more intelligence, a fact-finding tour taking in nine states, according to investigators.
To Stir Discord in 2016, Russians Turned Most Often to Facebook
In 2014, Russians working for a shadowy firm called the Internet Research Agency started gathering American followers in online groups focused on issues like religion and immigration. Around mid-2015, the Russians began buying digital ads to spread their messages. A year later, they tapped their followers to help organize political rallies across the United States.
Their digital instrument of choice for all of these actions? Facebook and its photo-sharing site Instagram.
The social network, more than any other technology tool, was singled out on Friday by the Justice Department when prosecutors charged 13 Russians and three companies for executing a scheme to subvert the 2016 election and support Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. In a 37-page indictment, officials detailed how the Russians repeatedly turned to Facebook and Instagram, often using stolen identities to pose as Americans, to sow discord among the electorate by creating Facebook groups, distributing divisive ads and posting inflammatory images.