On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for attempting to sabotage the 2016 US elections. The 37-page indictment alleges that Russians working for the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, engaged in a multiyear campaign to spread misinformation and actively supported Donald Trump’s bid for the White House. Operatives used fraud to pose as real Americans on social media, seized on politically divisive topics, and even tried to suppress minority turnout. The latest revelations also indicate that Facebook and Instagram were key platforms used in the Russian attack.
The indictment lays out numerous details about the Kremlin’s operation—so-called active measures deployed on social media that Mother Jones contributor Denise Clifton has been reporting on since last fall. Here are some key aspects of the Russian disinformation campaign and the role of “fake news” covered by Clifton that resonate with Mueller’s latest indictment.
Russian trolls stoked anger over Black Lives Matter, even duping Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey twice retweeted @Crystal1Johnson, an account run by the Internet Research Agency. Researchers at the University of Washington found at least 29 known Russian trolls tweeting about Black Lives Matter and police shootings, spreading content widely over a nine-month period. The accounts targeted both left and right-leaning audiences: “It’s striking how systematic the trolls were,” Ahmer Arif, one of the researchers behind the study, said. “The content they’re sharing is tailored to align to each audience’s preferences.”
The Kremlin targeted Trump’s Republican critics including Mitt Romney, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake—and especially John McCain. In these cases, trolls tended to spread stories from far-right American outlets such as Breitbart News. “The Russians are latching onto hyperpartisan content,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group of national-security experts behind a dashboard working to expose Kremlin interference in US politics.
Russian trolls weaponized Fox News pundit Sean Hannity. Hannity’s website ranked among the top 10 shared by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence-campaigns, including a big effort behind GOP Rep. Devin Nunes’ push to #ReleaseTheMemo.
Exploiting the latest mass shooting to sow more discord over gun politics. Following a massacre in Sutherlands Spring, Texas, Russian-linked Twitter accounts helped spread and amplify false conspiracy theories about the shooter being connected to antifa. A similar effort followed the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida this week, with Russian bots sharing stories trying to frame the shooter as mentally disturbed, as well as other stories falsely connecting the shooter to antifa groups.
The Russian operation zeroed in on key battleground states in 2016. An Oxford University study showed that fake news content was shared most in battleground states including Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, where Trump won by slim margins. Another study over a month-long period from the University of Southern California found that bots accounted for 1 in 5 election-related tweets, and that bots were just as effective at spreading messages as human accounts were.