On Friday afternoon, a Russian national was indicted for interference in the 2016 election and for plans to interfere in the 2018 midterms. Named in the indictment is Elena Khusyaynova. She is charged with creating thousands of false identities on social media, all of them appearing to come from U.S. citizens, which were used to “create and amplify divisive social media and political content.”
The indictment reveals not just the actions of Khusyaynova, but a massive social media effort by Russia to inflame tensions in the United States, spread divisiveness, and create hatred that interferes with the political process. In some cases, the Russian operatives behind a sea of false fronts even argued for and against the same issue in the most extreme terms—they trolled issues from multiple positions, with no intent except to increase hatred and rip apart American society.
Court documents name Khusyaynova as “chief accountant” for an extensive Russian propaganda campaign called Project Lakhta. This project, funded through one of the three Russian companies indicted by Robert Mueller in July, appears to be a massive effort to spread false stories designed to inflame racial tensions, create divisiveness, and disrupt conversations.
“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,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
The EDVA office places the operation budget of Project Lakhta at more than $35 million between 2016 and 2018, though not all those funds were spent in the United States. In the first half of 2018 along, Project Lakhta spent $10 million to create discord in US political discussions.
As in previous instances involving Russian hackers, the false identities created by Khusyaynova spread on issues of race, sexual orientation, immigration, and regulation of guns. After the 2016 election, Project Lakhta also focused on Donald Trump’s attack on black athletes in the NFL, the women’s march, shooting incidents such as the massacre in Las Vegas, and rallies by white supremacists. In several instances, Project Lakhta appears to have argued both sides of the same issue, taking extreme positions designed to inflame attitudes and cause discord. The project also attacked specific politicians, including John McCain and Barack Obama.
The indictment was previously prepared and unsealed at a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia. The case was filed by by the office of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, not by Special Counsel Robert Mueller or any member of his team.
“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 Director Wray. “We take all threats to our democracy very seriously, and we’re committed to working with our partners to identify and stop these unlawful influence operations. Together, we must remain diligent and determined to protect our democratic institutions and maintain trust in our electoral process.”
The scope and nature of Project Lakhta is staggering, and the extent to which it, or other projects like it, have been successful in raising the temperature of debate in the United States is difficult to gauge. Though Donald Trump has certainly been the chief agent of driving the civil out of civil discourse, Trump has often either adopted stories from Alt-Reich sources or retweeted stories and comments from social media. It’s not clear at this point if some of those stories were actually generated by Project Lakhta.
Even more staggering is the fact that Project Lakhta accounts for only a fraction of the known overall effort by Russia to sway events in the United States. As the US attorney charges, Khusyaynova was engaged in “information warfare against the United States” and she’s just one member of a well-funded army.
The connection between Project Lakhta and pro-Trump social media efforts in 2016 is not yet clear. The US attorney states that the criminal complaint “does not include any allegation that Khusyaynova or the broader conspiracy had any effect on the outcome of an election.” But that was certainly its intent.