The late senator John McCain was “an old geezer.” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is “a complete and absolute nobody.” And the investigation into possible collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia is a “witch hunt” led by “an establishment puppet.”
Name the subject, and Russian disinformation operatives had a playbook on how to pass themselves off as politically active Americans as they secretly sought to manipulate U.S. voters online — on the right and the left — with incendiary phrases, glib put-downs and appeals to preexisting political biases. And the same tactics honed during the 2016 presidential election carried over into the run-up toward the 2018 midterm congressional vote.
Those are the takeaways from a detailed, 38-page Justice Department indictment released Friday. Though officially targeting the actions of a 44-year-old St. Petersburg woman, Elena Khusyaynova, who allegedly played a key role in operations designed to mislead voters, large sections read like bullet points for manipulating Americans on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The indictment comes at a politically pivotal moment. With just over two weeks until the midterm elections, the examples of Russian messaging on social media underscore the Kremlin’s close study of American politics and its ability to exploit existing divisions to stoke conflict. Issues cited in those messages are being debated this cycle in several hotly contested races, creating an opening for Russian operatives to interfere.
Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist, said the Russians appear to have identified key terms and phrases from American politics that made their posts blend into the landscape on social media.
“They figured out that using certain buzzwords would give the impression that the account was legitimate,” Jennings said. “You’re trying to pull off a certain amount of camouflage … and some of this looks like pretty good camouflage.”
For every segment of the political spectrum — and every major political figure — Russian operatives seemed to have a plan.
According to the indictment, Russians in December 2017 posted a tweet urging readers to donate money in opposition to Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), both of whom are facing Republican challengers this year. Repeatedly, the posts showed Russians honing in on issues that are motivating liberal and conservative voters ahead of Nov. 6, from protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s U.S. political interference to fighting voter fraud and illegal immigration.
They recommended against linking to Breitbart articles when sending messages to liberal groups and avoiding “Washington Post or Buzzfeed's titles” in posts written for conservatives.
They also advised that people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community would react well to big, colorful photos and large text — and that posts for them got the most traffic at night because that’s when LGBT users were “active” online. But people of color in those same communities, the Russians said, would be “less sophisticated than white” but were sensitive to “#whiteprivilege,” making them likely to “react to posts and pictures that favored white people.”
During the 2016 election, posts, photos and other content created by the Kremlin-aligned Internet Research Agency appeared in the feeds of roughly 140 million Americans on Facebook and Instagram, prompting the social giant to make changes to its platform and hire thousands of employees to review concerning content online. Twitter previously said it had notified millions that they saw Russian disinformation as well. The company released the names of the IRA-tied accounts and millions of tweets it posted during the election earlier this week.
But Friday’s indictment underscores that the Russian threat never went away: Around August 2017, for example, disinformation operators sought to cast a story about McCain — at a time when he had criticized Trump’s plan for a U.S.-Mexico border wall — as an “old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for elderly.”
Russian disinformation efforts sought to use another August 2017 news story to push the narrative that California could perpetuate voter fraud. The same Facebook group cited a conservative news site in its attacks on Mueller, calling him a “puppet of the establishment” and a “highly politicized figure.”
As part of the IRA's efforts to stoke unrest online, its many accounts on Facebook and Twitter often took competing sides of the same issue. In 2017, for example, the Secured Borders account on Facebook aimed to cast doubt on the Mueller investigation as politically motivated. Around February 2018, though, an account called @JemiSHaaaZzz on Twitter took the opposite line, retweeting a post that called out the DOJ's earlier indictment of 13 Russian nationals with ties to the IRA.
Tagging Trump, the retweet concluded: “Still think this Russia thing is a hoax and a witch hunt? Because a lot of witches just got indicted."
The complaint also accuses Russian operatives of injecting themselves into recent political controversies such as the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last year and the cultural battle over professional football players kneeling for the national anthem.
The Russian operatives created thousands of fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter, according to the indictment, in some cases using generic names such as “Bertha Malone” and at other times hiding behind anonymous user profiles like “@imdeplorable201.”
In May 2018, the complaint said, a Twitter account linked to the Russian campaign even sought to capitalize on the politically divisive issue of net neutrality, urging voters to “repeal” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) after he voted against tougher regulations on the telecom industry.
In another case, the fraudulent Malone account allegedly sought to recruit unwitting allies who could help manage the inflammatory content appearing on Facebook pages such as “Stop A.I.” — short for “Stop All Invaders” — which sought to drive a wedge between Americans and Islam. The page received hundreds of thousands of likes from Facebook users and, over the course of one week in 2017, reached nearly 1.4 million people.
The indictment quoted snippets of an online conversation between the Malone account and a recruitment target, a U.S. citizen.
“Hey girl! How u doin?” the Russian operative wrote in an opening greeting, before making the pitch: “So … remember u wanted to help me with that page i’m workng on?”
Malone offered the U.S. citizen administrative privileges over the Stop All Invaders page and asked the person to respond to page fans and periodically post what Malone would send.
“Makes [ratings] for clients, that’s what i know,” Malone said. “U know how rednecks are.”
The American agreed to help, saying “i trust you” but pleaded: “Please tell me I’m not going to jail for this.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this story.