The Department of Justice announced on Friday that it had unsealed documents charging a Russian national with “conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. political system” including the upcoming November midterms.
The woman, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, allegedly worked as the “chief accountant” for a widespread Russian social media influence campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta,” a well funded operation run by oligarch and Vladimir Putin associate Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin.
Khusyaynova is the first person to be charged with election interference in 2018, according to CBS. The crime she’s charged with carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, but as she lives in Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin has so far refused to extradite other Russian nationals charged with election interference, it’s likely that she’ll never see a U.S. court.
The criminal complaint released on Friday paints a picture largely in keeping with the generally accepted narrative of Russian “bots” and other online disruption efforts—ones whose goal was to accentuate and exploit divisions with the various countries targeted. And while the overall complaint may not include any bombshells in and of itself beyond what is already know, it does include a number of details that all point to one inescapable conclusion: Russia’s social media scam game is completely fucking nuts.
First off, Project Lakhta was incredibly organized—beyond having its own “chief accountant” who tracked a multi-million dollar annual budget laundered through at least a dozen Russian companies, the initiative was essentially structured like a tech start-up, complete with a graphics department and even its own S.E.O. team:
Rather hit a single issue hard, Project Lakhta essentially dipped its fingers into every hot button issue of the past two years:
According to the FBI’s filing, one conspirator stated that the project’s goal was to “aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population,” regardless of ideology. How, you ask? With extremely racist best practices for what to post and why, such as:
To actually carry out their social media blitz, members of Project Lakhta created a number of fake online accounts, using names like “Bertha Malone,” “@CovfefeNationUS,” “@TXCowboysRawk,” and “@WokeLuisa.” Then the team would discuss how best to frame various news stories they planned to post to a suite of different platforms and pages, in order to achieve maximum divisive leverage.
And, according to the FBI’s complaint, it worked. One Facebook page administered by a Project Lakhta employee reached almost a million and a half users in less than a week during the summer of 2017. Another Project Lakhta Twitter account, meanwhile, racked up an impressive 55K followers by sharing messages like:
A different Twitter account managed by the team even flirted with some bizarre (if unknown at the time) self-referential messaging:
“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,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “Together, we must remain diligent and determined to protect our democratic institutions and maintain trust in our electoral process.”
We beat them to the moon. They (allegedly) beat us at being extremely online. And so it goes.