As part of a coordinated attempt to systematically defraud the United States and undermine the 2016 presidential election, the identities of a number of U.S. citizens were stolen by Russian agents in order to pay for illegal campaign ads and other activities on platforms like Facebook.
According to federal indictment documents from the U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller obtained by BuzzFeed News, the conspiracy began as early as 2016. The indictment claims that 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities —acting as part of the notorious Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — stole (and subsequently used) the “the social security numbers, home addresses, and birth dates of real U.S. persons without their knowledge or consent” in order to fund interference endeavours in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
IRA members and their associates used this stolen identification information to open up at least four bank accounts at federally insured U.S. institutions, and five PayPal accounts. They also apparently “purchased credit card and bank account numbers from online sellers” in an attempt to open even more fraudulent PayPal accounts without setting off the company’s security systems.
These illegally created U.S.-based accounts were used to fund basically every part of the IRA’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 election. With them, organization members were able to pay for daily expenses in U.S. dollars; purchase promos and ads on Facebook without alerting the company of their Russian origins; and pay for campaign-related items such as buttons, flags, and banners to distribute at rallies. These accounts were even used to receive payments from third parties who wanted to advertise on some of the IRA’s more popular social media pages. Though the document doesn’t specify whether or not buyers understood that the social media profiles were owned by Russian trolls, the promos themselves — which were priced at only $25 to $50 each — were quite a steal by average American influencer standards.
The indictment document itself is jam-packed with juicy details of exactly how IRA members and their associates used these American accounts to try to undermine democracy and rile up political tensions. Twitter deleted hundreds of thousands of tweets from Russia-linked accounts, more than 3,000 of which came from two accounts mentioned in the indictment (@TEN_GOP, a fake account claiming to represent Tennessee Republicans, and @march_for_trump). Other tactics the IRA used: shilling for Bernie Sanders online; asking a U.S. person to — I kid you not — build a cage on the back of a pickup truck while another person got inside and pretended to be an imprisoned Hillary Clinton; trading cryptocurrency; and helping share incredible images such as the one below.
While most of the ideas put forth in the indictment document have been discussed as strong possibilities before, this is the first time we’ve been given a concrete description of the IRA’s actions during the 2016 presidential election. And, given that the document is merely an indictment (and Mueller is still investigating possible collusion, according to sources speaking to Bloomberg), this is just the beginning.