A Russian woman has been charged with interfering in American elections, including next month’s mid-terms, through a vast social media effort aimed at trying to sway American public opinion.
It is believed to be the first federal case alleging Russian interference in this year’s election.
The Justice Department disclosed the criminal complaint soon after US intelligence agencies said in a joint statement that they were concerned about efforts by Russia, China and Iran to influence US voters and policy.
Russian National Charged with Interfering in U.S. Political System https://t.co/jPlpjua5a0— Justice Department (@TheJusticeDept) October 19, 2018
The complaint says the woman, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, worked for the same Russian social media troll farm that was indicted in February by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The complaint accuses Khusyaynova of helping to control the finances of a Russian effort to use fake social media postings to sow anger and division among American voters.
The case outlined by prosecutors largely mirrors Mr Mueller’s criminal case against three Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, and 13 Russians.
Since at least 2015, the group created thousands of false social media profiles and email accounts that appeared to be from people inside the US and were aimed to “create and amplify divisive social and political content,” including on significant current events, such as deadly shootings in South Carolina and Las Vegas, prosecutors said in court papers.
One fake persona, registered to “Bertha Malone,” made over 400 Facebook posts containing inflammatory content. Another fake Facebook account, in the name of “Rachell Edison,” made more than 700 posts focused on gun control and the Second Amendment.
The Russian organisers of the conspiracy advised that the posts should reflect various viewpoints, and it gave specific instructions to only share articles from certain news websites to correspond to specific political views, prosecutors said.
After one news article appeared online with the headline: McCain Says Thinking a Wall Will Stop Illegal Immigration is ‘Crazy’, members of the group were told to brand the Republican senator John McCain as “an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly.” They were also told to say that McCain had a “pathological hatred toward Donald Trump and toward all his initiatives.”
After another article appeared about Mr Mueller last year, members of the troll farm were told to share the article and say that MR Mueller was a “puppet of the establishment” who had connections to the Democratic Party and “who says things that should either remove him from his position or disband the entire investigation commission.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said recently that Russia has no intention to interfere in the mid-term elections in the US or meddle elsewhere.
President Trump has often cast doubt on US intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, as Mr Mueller investigates whether the Trump campaign was connected. More recently, Mr Trump has conceded a Russian role but has likened it to efforts of China and other nations.
The agencies said they currently do not have any evidence that voting systems have been disrupted or compromised in ways that could result in changing vote counts or hampering the ability to tally votes in the mid-terms, which are fewer than 20 days away.