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Feds charge Russian with meddling in 2018 election

October 19, 2018 GMT

The Justice Department announced charges Friday against a Russian operative the government says was meddling in this year’s elections, marking the first set of charges beyond the 2016 presidential election.

Federal prosecutors said the operation was a continuation of Russia’s attempt’s to sow discord in American politics.

They accused Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, Russia, of being the accountant for “Project Lakhta,” the Russian operation the U.S. says used social media to stir anger and resentment in the 2016 campaign.

“This case serves as a stark reminder to all Americans: Our foreign adversaries continue their efforts to interfere in our democracy by creating social and political division, spreading distrust in our political system, and advocating for the support or defeat of particular political candidates,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

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The 39-page criminal complaint gave new insight into the planning and operations of the Russian trolls, who have been a source of major controversy in the U.S. since their activities were first revealed around the 2016 election.

American officials said the ongoing disruption campaign is aimed at both liberal and conservative audiences, and they had specific rules about how to reach both sides.

“If you write posts in a liberal group ... you must not use Breitbart titles,” one piece of guidance said, referring to the right-wing internet publication. “On the contrary, if you write posts in a conservative group, do not use Washington Post or BuzzFeed’s titles.”

In one specific example included in the complaint the Russian operation plotted how to message around a 2017 Breitbart piece titled “Paul Ryan opposes Trump’s immigration cuts.”

“Brand Ryan as a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness,” the Russian guidance said, referring to the U.S. speaker of the House, a Republican and usual ally of President Trump. “State that the only way to get rid of Ryan from Congress, provided he wins in the 2018 primaries, is to vote in favor of Randy Brice, an American veteran and an iron worker and a Democrat.”

While that piece explicitly backed a Democrat, most of the examples of press reports included in the complaint seemed to back Mr. Trump’s message, particularly on immigration.

Of the 11 pieces the government highlighted that saw action by Russian trolls, three were from Breitbart, two were from Fox News, two more from InfoWars, and one apiece from a local TV station, World Net Daily, and websites TruePundit and LibertyHeadlines.

From the left, the trolls created a Twitter account under @wokeluisa, which focused heavily on claims of discrimination against African Americans and the national anthem debate. That account had 55,000 followers as of earlier this year, the government says.

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The criminal complaint says Ms. Khusyaynova created the $1 million-a-month budget for Project Lakhta, which posted messages on Twitter trying to “inflame passions” on everything from immigration to gun control to race relations, the Confederate flag and the debate over football players kneeling for the U.S. national anthem.

The announcement of charges came just hours after the Department of Homeland Security conducted a “tabletop” exercise for the media near Washington to show how the federal government is protecting election systems nationwide from cyber attacks and foreign influence.

DHS Undersecretary Christopher Krebs told reporters that the government hasn’t detected attacks on voting machines or voter databases. But he said foreign efforts to influence American voters on social media is ongoing.

“That sort of activity has persisted,” Mr. Krebs said. “We continue to see Russians, and increasingly Iranian and other Chinese actors, continue to use social media to influence the American public, to sow discord and increase divisiveness. That’s something that is probably just a tool of the trade for them right now.”

But compared with the presidential election in 2016, he said, “we’re not seeing anything anywhere remotely close to” the previous level of meddling.