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Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin

How 'Putin's chef' used internet trolls to target the US election

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There's a rather normal looking office building inside St. Peterburg's Olgino historic district which, by all outside appearances, looks to be nothing special. Aside from a "for rent" sign in the window, you could easily miss it, but not long ago this office building was the command center for a massive information warfare targeting the U.S. election.

It's from this nondescript office where Yevginy Prigozhin, also known as "Putin's Chef," is alleged to have directed Russia's Internet Research Agency - the company recently indicted for engaging in one of the most sophisticated information warfare campaigns in modern history. Using a combination of intelligence gathering, social media, and internet manipulation, Prigozhin, his agency, twelve other Russians and two other organizations are believed to have sown political discord in the U.S. for years. And they did it all for $1.25 million a month.

"The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein while announcing the indictment on Friday. "With the stated goal of spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general."

Trump Russia Probe
A views of the four-story building known as the "troll factory" in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. The U.S. government allege the Internet Research Agency started interfering as early as 2014 in U.S. politics, extending to the 2016 presidential election, saying the agency was funded by a St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. (AP Photo/Naira Davlashyan)

The agency's activities were most pronounced just prior to the November 2016 election, but those actions were just the culmination of an operation years in the making. The Internet Research Agency was formally registered as a business in Russia in 2013. It was headed by Prigozhin, a restaurant mogul whose various businesses and catering company are a favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"All of the trolls knew that it's Prigozhin who stands behind all this. But nobody had any evidence," said former Internet Research Agency employee Marat Mindiyarov in an interview with the Associated Press.

According to the indictment, the funding for the agency was funneled through Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, two of Prigozhin's businesses. Payments labeled for software support and development services were also well hidden via a network of 14 bank accounts.

Trump Russia Probe Putin's Chef
FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 20, 2010 file photo, Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, second left, around his factory which produces school meals, outside St. Petersburg, Russia. Progozhin is known as “Putin’s chef” _ a wealthy Russian businessman and restaurateur who gained favor with Putin through his stomach. On Feb. 16, 2016, Prigozhin, along with 12 other Russians and three Russian organizations, was charged by the U.S. government as part of a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to the indictment, Prigozhin and his companies provided significant funding to the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based troll farm that allegedly used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to influence the White House race. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

In fact, the entire operation was quite sophisticated. Internet Research Agency was divided into various departments, including graphics, data analysis, search engine optimization and information technology. The company employed hundreds of people who were directed to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements."

But before Internet Research Agency unleashed its trolls, it conducted thorough research starting in 2014. Employees began learning all they could about the U.S. political system, including what organizations and movements to target. Some of them even took trips to the U.S. to engage in intelligence collection.

After falsifying information on visa applications, agency employees Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva boarded a plane in early June 2014 and started a cross country tour of the U.S. which included visits to Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York. They spent most of the month learning all they could.

By posing as Americans, agency employees were able to collect intelligence information from U.S. persons who were none the wiser as to their intentions. These individuals told the trolls to target politically contentious "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia, Florida.

As election season approached, the organization put what it had learned to use and became increasingly brazen. The orders were clear, according to the indictment: "Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump -- we support them)." Members of the company's "translator project" began targeting social media. According to Mindiyarov, these trolls were the best of the best.

"These were people with excellent language skills, interpreters, university graduates," said Mindiyarov. "[When they write comment] It's very hard to tell it's a foreigner writing because they master the language wonderfully."

Marat Mindiyarov
In this image taken from video on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, Marat Mindiyarov, a former internet troll, speaks to journalists in St.Petersburg, Russia. While Russian officials have denigrated a U.S. indictment charging 13 Russians with meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential vote through an elaborate social media campaign, former Internet trolls employed at the same facility see them as well-grounded. Mindiyarov, a former commentator at the Internet Research Agency, said his own experience at the “troll factory” makes him trust the U.S. charges. "I believe that that's how it was and that it were them," he told The Associated Press. .(AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

These 80 or so individuals used fake social media personas, and sometimes stolen profiles, to appear like American grassroots activists. They created groups on hot-button topics like immigration, Black Lives Matter, and religion, eventually gathering hundreds of thousands of followers. They boosted their visibility by purchasing Facebook ads. Approximately 126 million Americans may have been exposed to the ads and other propaganda, according to a Facebook estimate.

"It was the Facebook department, that's where all the translators and people who spoke foreign languages worked," said Mindiyarov. "And they were the ones to deal with Facebook and now we're reading about how they went to the United States and did whatever they did there."

Trump Russia Probe
A Facebook posting, released by the House Intelligence Committee, for a group called "Woke Blacks" is photographed in Washington, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. A federal grand jury indictment on Feb. 16, charging 13 Russians and three Russian entities with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, noted that in the latter half of 2016, the defendants and their co-conspirators, through their Internet Research Agency LLC, personas, including "Woke Blacks," to begin to encourage U.S. minority groups to not vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

The campaign continued after the election. According to Rosenstein, Internet Research Agency even orchestrated both a pro-Trump and anti-Trump rally after Trump's victory.

Despite Internet Research Agency's wide-ranging activities, Rosenstein noted it is part of a larger operation known as "Project Lakhta." In fact, some U.S. officials are expecting Russia to engage in a similar campaign in the 2018 elections.

Circa's Justin Covington contributed to this report.

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