Justice Department charges Russian trolls’ chief accountant

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) with examples of Russian Facebook propaganda behind him during a hearing last October. 


Drew Angerer / Techhnews

Investigators followed a $35 million paper trail back to St. Petersburg, Russia, announcing charges against a Russian national for interfering with US politics on Friday. 

The Justice Department announced charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, who served as Project Lakhta’s chief accountant, according to court documents. Project Lakhta is an umbrella term for multiple Russian propaganda efforts, including the Internet Research Agency, a trolling operation designed to influence the 2016 presidential election and spread political chaos. 

In February, US officials also charged 13 Russian nationals tied to the IRA, as well as 12 hackers behind cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee in July. US officials as well as tech companies are dealing with election meddling from nation-states, including Russia, China and Iran. Outside of cyberattacks, countries are also using social media to spread propaganda, something that Facebook and Twitter have ramped up efforts to stop.  

Khusyaynova managed funds for Project Lakhta, handling a budget over $35 million between January 2016 and June 2018, prosecutors said. Between January and June this year alone, the project had a proposed budget for over $10 million. The group had spent $12 million in 2016 and $12.2 million in 2017, according to court documents. 

All that money was dedicated to spreading disinformation in the US through propaganda on social media. That included spending money to create Twitter accounts, pay trolls to post on Facebook, as well as logistics like a search engine optimization department as well as a design and graphics department.

“Unlawful foreign interference with these debates debases their democratic integrity, and we will make every effort to disrupt it and hold those involved accountable,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a statement. 

The court documents noted that Khusyaynova meticulously took notes of expenses and budget requests over the last three years related to Russia’s trolling campaign. Between January and June, they had requested $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook, and $6,000 for ads on Instagram. 

During those same six months, the Russian trolls also asked for $18,000 to create more Twitter accounts. They would focus on issues like immigration, gun control, racial divisions, LGBT rights, net neutrality. The Russian trolls also flared up arguments after national news like the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the “Unite the Right” rally in South Carolina. 

The goal was to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,” according to internal documents. 

While Facebook vowed to prevent Russian trolls from purchasing ads on Facebook for political purposes, court documents indicate that the nation-state actors found loopholes by convincing US citizens to do it for them. 

In one exchange on July 2, 2017, a troll under the fake persona “Helen Christopherson” messaged a US group writing, “http://www.techhnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/justice-department-charges-russian-trolls-chief-accountant.com”I got like $80 on my ad account so we can reach like 10,000 people in DC or so. That would be Massive!”

screen-shot-2018-10-19-at-3-05-20-pm

A proposed ad from one of the Russian trolls set to target Washington, DC residents. 


Justice Department

The targeted ad for Washington, DC had an estimated reach of 29,000 to 58,000 people. 

In another exchange on July 4, 2017, a troll account under the name “Bertha Malone” convinced another American to help her run the “Stop A.I. (All Invaders)” page. The chat log ended with the US citizen telling the Russian troll “i trust you.” 

The Justice Department said that its investigative team “received exceptional cooperation” from Facebook and Twitter on the case. 

“Combatting election interference is a task that requires cooperation from government and private industry,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. 

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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