The Department of Justice has brought criminal charges against a Russian woman who allegedly conspired to use social media platforms and email accounts to interfere in U.S. elections, including the upcoming midterms.
Elena Khusyaynova, 44, a resident of St. Petersburg, managed the finances of “Project Lakhta,” which aims to “sow division and discord in the U.S. political system,” the DOJ alleges in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. The charges include conspiracy to obstruct the DOJ and Federal Election Commission.
Project Lakhta operated through various troll farms, including the Internet Research Agency, the DOJ alleges. The initiative was funded by Concord Management, which itself is controlled by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Victorovich Prigozhin, also known as “Putin's chef," according to the complaint.
“The Conspiracy has sought to conduct what it called internally 'information warfare against the United States of America” through fictitious U.S. personals on social media platforms and other Internet-based media,” the DOJ alleges.
“Since at least in or around 2015, the conspiracy used social media platforms to create thousands of social media and email accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons and used them to create and amplify divisive social and political content targeting a U.S. audience,” the government adds. “These accounts were also used to advocate for the election or electoral defeat of particular candidates in the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections, to post derogatory information about a number of candidates, and, on occasion, to promote political donations against particular candidates.”
In the first six months of this year alone, Khusyaynova allegedly managed a budget that included expenditures of more than $60,000 for Facebook ads, and more than $6,000 for Instagram ads. She also allegedly managed expenditures of more than $18,000 for bloggers, and to develop accounts on Twitter, according to the criminal complaint.
Social media posts for the initiative focused on high-profile issues like gun control, immigration, and Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation. Some posts were aimed at liberal audiences, while others were aimed at conservatives, according to the complaint.
“Members of the conspiracy took advantage of specific events in the United States to anchor their themes, including the shootings of church members in Charleston, South Carolina, and concert attendees in Las Vegas, Nevada; the Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally and associated violence; police shootings of African-American men; as well as the personnel and policy decisions of the current U.S. administration,” the complaint reads.
One example offered by prosecutors centers on a Facebook account registered under the fake name “Bertha Malone.”
Khusyaynova and others allegedly used that account to create a Facebook page for the anti-immigration group “Stop A.I.” -- shorthand for “Stop All Invaders.”
From December 2016 through August 2017, that page created more than 400 Facebook inflammatory Facebook posts, the DOJ alleges. In one week during July 2017, the page reached more than 1,3 million people; by July 23, 2017 the page received around 194,000 likes.
Khusyaynova and the other conspirators also used “Berth Malone” to recruit at least one person in the U.S. to help with the initiative by posting content to the “Stop A.I. page.”
Members of the conspiracy also used the “Stop A.I. page to accept money in order to post ads on the group page,” the DOJ alleges.