“Putin’s Chef” and the “Troll Farm”: Russian Social Media Subversion in 2016

Russian troll image
Image shared on social media in 2016 by Russian troll account called “Army of Jesus.” Released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, November 1, 2017. Source: https://twitter.com/MarkWarner/status/925802644869959680 


Much of the discussion around Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election has focused on the manipulation of social media through the use of “bots” and “trolls” to shape American views and online discourse. As Attorney General William P. Barr put it in his March 24 letter to key congressional leaders, this effort:

involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election. (AG March 24 2019 Letter, 2)

As the country awaits the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report in the next few days, it is important to note that previous legal filings and congressional documents have already revealed a great deal about the Russian 2016 social media campaign.


“Putin’s Chef”: Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency:


Internet Research Agency building
Building housing the Internet Research Agency, St. Petersburg, Russia. Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: https://www.rferl.org/a/us-russia-facebook-manipulation-echoes-troll-factory-accounts/28722595.html


Unlike the much-publicized 2016 hacking of email accounts affiliated with the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton campaign, which was carried out by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, Russia’s social media disinformation campaign was not the work of an official Russian state agency. Rather, it was a private agency, owned by a Russian oligarch, that unleashed bots and trolls across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms in order to impact how Americans voted in 2016.

Dubbed the “troll farm”, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St. Petersburg, Russia, was established as a legal corporate entity around July 2013. A February 2018 US Department of Justice press release summarizes the IRA’s activities:

Internet Research Agency allegedly operated through Russian shell companies. It employed hundreds of persons for its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support, with an annual budget of millions of dollars. Internet Research Agency was a structured organization headed by a management group and arranged in departments, including graphics, search-engine optimization, information technology, and finance departments. (Grand Jury Indicts)

The driving force behind the IRA is a St. Petersburg-based Russian oligarch named Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Starting as a restaurant owner, Prigozhin has expanded his operations to the point where he holds a number of large Russian government catering contracts, earning him the nickname “Putin’s Chef”.


Project Lakhta and the 2016 US Presidential Election:

In 2014, the IRA became part of a broader Prigozhin-financed initiative called Project Lakhta. The purpose of Project Lakhta is to use the Internet and social media to help shape public opinion both inside and outside Russia in accord with the interests of the Russian Federation. These efforts were soon expanded to include the United States. By April 2014, a unit was formed within the IRA called the “translator project”, that concentrated its efforts on American public opinion. According to a February 2018 indictment by the Department of Justice, the translator project “focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.” (United States of America v. Internet Research Agency, 6) In its own words, the IRA existed in part to conduct “information warfare against the United States of America.” (ibid.) By July 2016, over 80 IRA employees were assigned to the translator project.

The employees working in the translator project soon created an extensive number of fake social media accounts, claiming to represent both individuals and organizations. They quickly ramped up their activities in an explicit attempt to influence American public opinion during the 2016 presidential election. These efforts are described in detail in a February 2018 Department of Justice press release:

To hide the Russian origin of their activities, the defendants allegedly purchased space on computer servers located within the United States in order to set up a virtual private network. The defendants allegedly used that infrastructure to establish hundreds of accounts on social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, making it appear that the accounts were controlled by persons within the United States. They used stolen or fictitious American identities, fraudulent bank accounts, and false identification documents. The defendants posed as politically and socially active Americans, advocating for and against particular political candidates. They established social media pages and groups to communicate with unwitting Americans. They also purchased political advertisements on social media. (Grand Jury Indicts)

Prigozhin was the primary source of funding for the IRA and the other elements of Project Lakhta. From January 2016 to June 2018, the total proposed budget for Project Lakhta was around $35,000,000 (for all operations, not just those targeted at the US). Over $10,000,000 were budgeted for Project Lakhta in the first half of 2018 alone. A St. Petersburg accountant named Elena Khusyaynova oversaw Project Lakhta’s budget.


The Extent and Impact of the IRA’s Activity:

Just how extensive, and how effective, were the efforts of Project Lakhta in swaying American voters? While the latter question remains very much in dispute, recent research has revealed that the IRA’s efforts to influence the US public were far wider in scope than first believed. In particular, a pair of reports prepared at the request of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and released in December 2018, have revealed that IRA-created social media content reached tens of millions of Americans between 2014-2017.

According to the first of these reports, from the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the University of Oxford, posts created for IRA-run Facebook accounts were “shared by users just under 31 million times, liked almost 39 million times, reacted to with emojis almost 5.4 million times, and engaged sufficient users to generate almost 3.5 million comments.” (The IRA, Social Media, 6) The 20 most popular IRA Facebook pages received 99% of this usage.

IRA-created Instagram accounts directed at Americans were likewise heavily used. IRA-created Instagram posts “garnered almost 185 million likes and users commented about 4 million times. Forty pages received 99% of all likes.” (Ibid., 7) In all, according to the Oxford researchers, “Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.” (Ibid., 3)

According to the second report, produced by a company called New Knowledge, there were 3,841 fake Twitter accounts run by the IRA, which produced some 6,000,000 tweets, leading to 73,000,000 user engagements via that platform.

According to both reports, the IRA’s content was targeted at a number of very specific American demographics from across the political spectrum: African-Americans; conservatives; liberals, especially the LGBT community; Latinos, and Muslim-Americans. While the specific messages tailored to each group varied, all carried a common underlying theme of seeking to exacerbate divisions in American society. In the words of the New Knowledge authors:

The themes selected by the IRA were deployed to create and reinforce tribalism within each targeted community; in a majority of the posts created on a given Page or account, the IRA simply reinforced in-group camaraderie. They punctuated cultural-affinity content with political posts, and content demonizing out-groups. (Tactics & Tropes, 12)

A second major theme both reports agree on is that the IRA’s efforts were clearly intended to help elect Donald Trump. To quote the Oxford report:

What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically, Donald Trump. Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage members from voting. While the IRA strategy was a long-term one, it is clear that activity between 2015 and 2016 was designed to benefit President Trump’s campaign.
(The IRA, Social Media, 18) (emphasis added)

Not content with seeking to influence the outcome of the 2016 US elections, the Russian social media campaign actually intensified following the vote. IRA usage of Facebook and especially Instagram increased in late 2016-2017. Following on the perceived success of the IRA’s efforts, it is highly likely that Russia and other foreign actors will seek to use social media to manipulate American opinion in future.


Previous CWIS Blog Posts on Russian Interference in the 2016 US Elections:

The “Neighbors”: The GRU in America, from “Ales” to “Fancy Bear”

Recent Revelations About “Fancy Bear”: Russia’s Military Hacking Unit


Federal Government Sources on the Internet Research Agency:

AG March 24 2019 Letter to House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Committee on the Judiciary, US House of Representatives March 24, 2019.

Grand Jury Indicts Thirteen Russian Individuals and Three Russian Companies for Scheme to Interfere in the United States Political System. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, February 16, 2018.

New Reports Shed Light on Internet Research Agency’s Social Media Tactics. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, December 17, 2018.
-Includes links to the two reports prepared for the SSCI: “The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018”, and “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”.

Open Hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms (Company Witnesses): Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Second Session. September 5, 2018.
-Features testimony by Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.

Open Hearing on Foreign Influence Operations’ Use of Social Media Platforms (Third Party Expert Witnesses): Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, Second Session. August 1, 2018.

Open Hearing: Social Media Influence in the 2016 U.S. Election: Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence of the United States Senate, One Hundred Fifteenth Congress, First Session. November 1, 2017.
-Includes testimony from representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

Report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian Active Measures, Together with Minority Views. December 31, 2018.

Russian National Charged with Interfering in U.S. Political System. Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, October 19, 2018.

Social Media Influence in the 2016 U.S. Elections Exhibits. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, November 1, 2017.

United States of America v. Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova. Department of Justice, September 28, 2018.

United States of America v. Internet Research Agency LLC [and 15 others], Defendants: Case 1:18-cr-00032-DLF. United States District Court for the District of Columbia, February 16, 2018.


Other Sources on the Internet Research Agency and the 2016 Elections:

Gadde, Vijaya and Yoel Roth. “Enabling Further Research of Information Operations on Twitter.” Twitter.com, October 17, 2018.
-Digital archive of tweets from “3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA, originating in Russia, and 770 other accounts, potentially originating in Iran. They include more than 10 million Tweets and more than 2 million images, GIFs, videos, and Periscope broadcasts, including the earliest on-Twitter activity from accounts connected with these campaigns, dating back to 2009.”

Itemized Posts and Historical Engagement – 6 Now-Closed FB Pages.
-Archive of posts from Facebook accounts proven to have been created by Russian “trolls” to influence US public opinion. Compiled by Jonathan Albright, of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism

Marshall Fund: Alliance for Securing Democracy.
-Includes both policy analysis, and the Hamilton 68 dashboard for tracking suspected Russian influence activity on Twitter.

Roeder, Oliver. “Why We’re Sharing 3 Million Russian Troll Tweets.” FiveThirtyEight.com, July 31, 2018.
-Digital archive of tweets linked to suspected Russian influence accounts.

Synovitz, Ron. “Facebook Manipulation Echoes Accounts From Russian ‘Troll Factory’.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 7 2017.

#TrollTracker: Twitter Troll Farm Archives. Digital Forensic Research Lab, Atlantic Council, October 17, 2018.

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