Facebook faces big challenge to prevent meddling
WASHINGTON: The US special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election has indicted 13 Russians for allegedly running a secret campaign to tilt the vote, prompting claims of vindication from President Donald Trump. The indictment-which includes the first charges laid by special counsel Robert Mueller for election interference-detailed a stunning operation launched in 2014 in a bid to sow social division in the US and influence American politics “including the presidential election of 2016.”
Mueller alleges that by mid-2016, the campaign-under the direction of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin-became focused on boosting Trump and demeaning his rivals including Democrat Hillary Clinton. It allegedly involved “hundreds” of people working in shifts and with a budget of millions of dollars. Three companies were also indicted. Moscow dismissed the allegations as “absurd.”
According to the indictment, members of the group posed as US citizens on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, posting content that reached “significant numbers” of Americans.The group was allegedly in contact with “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign, but had a broader “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system.” Content created by the group was retweeted by the president’s two eldest sons Don Jr and Eric, as well as other top campaign officials and members of Trump’s inner circle. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He added that there was also no judgment on whether the campaign “altered the outcome.”
Trump leapt on Rosenstein’s comments, claiming they vindicated his campaign team. “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president,” he tweeted. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”The allegations are a double-edged sword for Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed claims of Russian interference as “fake news” and a “hoax” designed to take away from his election victory.
On one hand, they confirm Russia interference, but they also seem to clear his campaign of knowing involvement with at least a portion of Moscow’s efforts to influence the contest. Russia is also suspected of hacking and leaking embarrassing Democratic emails. Four Trump campaign officials, including his campaign manager Paul Manafort and his national security advisor Michael Flynn, have already been indicted as part of Mueller’s broader investigation.
Trump has publicly mulled firing the former FBI director and has repeatedly sought to influence his investigation through public warnings. On Friday, Trump seemed to say that the new indictments should put an end to allegations of campaign collusion. “It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia,” he said in a subsequent statement issued by the White House.
The group was said to be based in Putin’s home town of Saint Petersburg, but some of the accused traveled to the United States for political intelligence gathering. Stops included Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan a pivotal state in the election-Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and New York, according to the indictment. An unnamed Texas-based American political operative is said to have instructed them to focus on so-called “purple states”-which swing between Republican and Democratic control.
The group organized pro-Trump rallies in Florida, New York and North Carolina, but much of its work was focused on producing material that was damaging to Clinton and Trump’s Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The group purchased ads on social media and other websites either “expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton,” the indictment said. Other ads encouraged blacks and Muslims not to vote, and alleged voter fraud in several states. Two of the firms are said to have Russian government contracts.
Known as Putin’s “chef,” Prigozhin runs a company that works for the Kremlin to cater at receptions. He has been photographed with the Russian president. His Concord group is already under US sanctions. Prigozhin made light of the allegations, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. “Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I am not at all upset that I am in this list. If they want to see a devil, let them,” he said.
The Russian influence operation designed to tamper with the 2016 US presidential election used a combination of old-school espionage tactics and 21st-century technologies that will not be easy to stop, even now that the methods have been exposed, experts said. Social media companies, especially Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, have been under heavy pressure to find ways of stopping what is often referred to as “information warfare” on their services.
The indictment of 13 Russian nationals on Friday, announced by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, made extensive use of records from Facebook and Instagram, according to people familiar with the matter. Yet the combination of tactics revealed in the indictment, including the use of shell corporations and stolen IDs, deployment of virtual private networks to avoid online detection, and payments to unwitting Americans, suggests even a company as powerful as Facebook could struggle to stop such activities by itself as they happen.
US spy agencies have said Russia would try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, again by using social media to spread propaganda. “They can’t out of hand stop it, because it’s very difficult for them to trace those things,” said Ann Ravel, a former member of the US Federal Election Commission. The clandestine purchase of advertising on the site through fake personas was particularly alarming, she said. To know the identities of ad buyers, internet companies might need to duplicate the “know your customer” practices of banks and regularly share information with authorities, Ravel said.
Facebook has said it will start requiring thorough documentation from election-related advertisers to verify their identity and location, beginning with US elections this year. How extensive that vetting will be is unclear. “If you want to put up a theme page for a group, in the ordinary course you wouldn’t expect that a vendor like Facebook would require that sort of vetting,” said Dan Petalas, a former US federal prosecutor. “The indictment really details an elaborate scheme that would be difficult to identify,” he said. – Agencies