Columns

Russian Accountant Overseeing Mass Troll Operation Charged with Interfering in U.S. Elections

A business center believed to be the location of the new "troll factory" in St. Petersburg, Russia, as seen on Feb. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

WASHINGTON — A Russian accountant was charged in the Eastern District of Virginia today with conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm election.

According to the criminal complaint, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, oversaw a $45 million budget for social media operations and paid promotion, activists, and technical acquisitions such as domain names as the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta” funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef,” and his companies Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering.

The project planned to spend more than $10 million this year alone in the midterm campaign influence operation.

“Americans disagree in good faith on all manner of issues, and we will protect their right to do so,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers. “Unlawful foreign interference with these debates debases their democratic integrity, and we will make every effort to disrupt it and hold those involved accountable.”

Project Lakhta was divided into sections that targeted a Russian audience, an American audience, the EU and Ukraine. It waged what was called internally “information warfare against the United States.”

“This effort was not only designed to spread distrust towards candidates for U.S. political office and the U.S. political system in general, but also to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements,” the Justice Department said, adding that conspirators “took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.” Some of the social media accounts they built up had tens of thousands of followers.

Topics covered by the troll factory included immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate.

“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; 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. presidential administration,” the Justice Department said.

The social media actors had playbooks on how to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups” and “aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.”

“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 U.S. Attorney Zachary Terwilliger.

“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,” added FBI Director Christopher Wray.