Thirteen Russians and three organisations in Russia have been charged with interfering in the 2016 US election by illegally using social media platforms to help Donald Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton, the office of the special counsel Robert Mueller (pictured) said on Friday.
According to the indictment, the accused conspired from 2014 to the present to interfere “with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
Posing as Americans, the group controlled social media accounts that focused on divisive social and political issues, Mueller alleged.
Led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, the group reached significant number of American voters to “sow discord in the US political system”. By mid-2016, they were supporting Trump’s campaign and disparaging Clinton.
The group was operating from Putin’s home town of Saint Petersburg. Some of the accused travelled to US cities and were instructed by a Texas political operative to focus on ‘purple states’ to swing the votes in Trump’s favour.
“Hundreds” of people were said to have been involved in the operation, working in shifts and with a budget of millions of dollars.
They allegedly targeted social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Besides political interference, the charges against the Russians include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge about what was doing on. Some Americans were duped into aiding the scheme, he added.
The broader aim of Russia’s online effort was “information warfare against the United States” to spread distrust and undermine US democracy, he said.
Russia mocks indictment
Responding to the US indictment, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova wrote in a Facebook post: “Turns out, there’ve been 13 people, in the opinion of the US Justice Department. 13 people interfered in the US elections? 13 against billions budgets of special agencies? Against intelligence and counterespionage, against the newest technologies? Absurd? – Yes.”
The indictment, however, is the “modern American political reality,” Zakharova added, jokingly suggesting that the number 13 was picked due to its negative associations.
Responding to the indictment, Prigozhin told news agency RIA said that Americans are impressionable people. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil, let them see him, he added.