Accounts from as far back as 2014 described a “Troll Factory” in St. Petersburg where Russian tycoon Yevgeny Prighozin, a longtime crony of President Vladimir Putin, reportedly began buttressing the regime of the former KGB officer and eventually morphed into a sprawling operation with international targets.
On Friday, a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia returned a 37-page indictment detailing just how involved the operation became in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Some Troll Factory workers described it as a place where tech operatives beavered away in a college-paper-type atmosphere while earning good money.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, on the other hand, gave it a decidedly sinister sheen in court papers, which described “a Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.”
Alan Baskayev, who pretended to be any number of Americans on social media platforms, told The Moscow Times in October that it was all something of a lark at which he made more than $850 a month.
“We were engaged in the ugliest things that only 20-year-old very cheerful lads — who perfectly understand what amusing place they found themselves in — could do,” he told the English-language paper published in Russia’s capital. “Like everyone, I needed the money. I decided it was an excellent bargain, considering that the conscience played no part in it at all.”
Mr. Baskayev was not named in Friday’s indictment. But most of the 13 people who were named are supposedly among the 80 “trolls” toiling in an operation that dropped more than $1.2 million a month stirring up trouble in the U.S.
The Troll Factory opened shop in 2014, long before Hillary Clinton formally announced her candidacy and before Donald Trump was even imagined as a candidate, prosecutors say. By the time Election Day neared, however, the Russian activities were clearly designed to help Mr. Trump and hurt Mrs. Clinton.
Authorities said it does not appear that any Americans willfully or knowingly participated in the Troll Factory’s dubious work. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stressed that “there is no allegation that the charge altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Nevertheless, the extensive operation described in the indictment largely put to rest any notion that Russians were not meddling in U.S. politics. All defendants were charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Five were hit with identity theft and three with wire and bank fraud charges.
Serious stuff, and far removed from the almost playful tone in which Mr. Baskayev and others described their work, pretending to be a “redneck from Kentucky” or “a white guy from Minnesota” or an “African-American from New York.”
Those false identities weren’t simply humorous lampoons, according to the indictment. It said Mr. Prighozin’s rubles also funded trips to America, where operatives — the indictment accuses Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva as among them — “collected intelligence.”
The “intelligence” would later color the bogus organizations that Factory trolls pushed on social media platforms and their supposedly legitimate rallies in the U.S.
In 2015, before the first votes were even cast in the party primaries, The New York Times described “The Agency,” shorthand for “the Internet Research Agency,” now one of the federal defendants. From an unassuming building in St. Petersburg, handsomely compensated trolls tried “to wreak havoc all around the internet.”
These weren’t spirited pranks but a “highly coordinated disinformation campaign,” The Times reported. The trolls didn’t simply throw up Facebook posts, but they also hijacked Twitter feeds with fake stories of chemical accidents, Ebola cases or police shootings.
All the bogus incidents, of course, were linked to genuine events that had riled millions of Americans, and the Russian trolls knew how to push political hot buttons among their U.S. audience.
Working at the “Agency” wasn’t exactly fun — The Times told the story of a former troll who burned out on 12-hour days in which she had to hit rigorous targets for posts and comments across the internet — and originally it was designed more to help Mr. Putin and his regime than harm foreign political markets.
The indictment, however, says the trolls’ target changed.
The goal became to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.” With fake Black Lives Matter posts and stolen identities, hundreds of trolls with budgets in the millions worked at that task relentlessly, according to the indictment.
The Factory called this “information warfare against the United States,” the indictment reads. The war, it says, unfolded on myriad fronts: Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Although the offensives eventually sought to support Mr. Trump’s campaign and disparage Mrs. Clinton’s, the conspiracy’s overarching goal was broader: “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
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