DOJ: Russians Were, Are Trying to Affect Election Outcomes

The Justice Department has made it clear that Russian-backed elements tried, and continue to try, to influence U.S. elections, including advocating for the election or defeat of particular candidates, both in the 2016 election and the upcoming 2018 midterms, using a variety of tools including "activists, advertisements on social media platforms, registration of domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and 'promoting news postings on social networks.'"

That is according to the Department of Justice, which Friday (Oct. 19) charged a Russian national with interfering with the U.S. political system.

President Donald Trump has in the past appeared skeptical about the extent of Russian election interference, but there were no hints of skepticism in the statements of Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia and FBI Director Christopher Wray, who collectively announced the criminal complaint, unsealed Friday in Alexandria, Va.

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But two findings, or more specifically the absence of findings, do square with the President's views on Russian election meddling: "The criminal complaint does not include any allegation that Khusyaynova or the broader conspiracy had any effect on the outcome of an election," DOJ said, nor does it "allege that any American knowingly participated in the Project Lakhta operation."

And while social media giants have been in the sites of Congress over too little data security, too much data sharing and too many breaches and the Administration and Republicans over accusations of bias against conservatives, DOJ gave Twitter and Facebook a shout out for their "exceptional cooperation" in the investigation. Both companies have told Congress they are committed to rooting out fake news and bogus accounts and other content meant to sew discord. 

“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,” said Wray.

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“Today’s charges allege that Russian national Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova conspired with others who were part of a Russian influence campaign to interfere with U.S. democracy,” said Demers. “The strategic goal of this alleged conspiracy, which continues to this day, is to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions.”

The complaint alleges that Khusyaynova was the chief accountant for Project Lakhta, funded by oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and companies he controls.

The activity targeted audiences in Russia, the U.S., the E.U. and the Ukraine, among others, according to DOJ. The project had an operating budget of $35 million, including $10 million for U.S. operations for the first six months of 2018.

DOJ said the effort was not just to spread distrust of specific U.S. candidates and the U.S. political system in general in an "information war," but "to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements."

DOJ said they took extraordinary steps to appear to be American political activists, including using VPNs to disguise their activities and hide their Russian origins and creating thousands of social media and email accounts to amplify divisive content. 

Among the topics addressed were immigration, gun control/Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and even the NFL national anthem debate. Campaigns were often anchored to events, like the Charleston church shooting, Las Vegas concert shooting, the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville and police shootings of unarmed black men, as well as "the personnel and policy decisions of the current U.S. presidential administration."

DOJ said activities were not exclusively targeted at one ideological view, but rather were designed to create "political intensity" or "aggravate conflict" between the races.

“This new indictment by the Justice Department demonstrates the serious nature of these ongoing attacks on our democratic process," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I commend the career officials at DOJ who continue to work tirelessly to stop foreign actors from sowing division and spreading distrust in our political system. This is why the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation has been focused on some of the dangers posed on social media platforms,"

“But the threat is not over. As the criminal complaints notes, these attacks continue to this day. It is critical for Congress to step up and immediately act to employ much-needed guardrails on social media. And as I've said before, these companies need to work with Congress so we can update our laws to better protect against attacks on our democratic institutions.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.