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It's been reported that 13 Russian Federation citizens have been indicted in the US for waging a misinformation campaign during the last Presidential election cycle in the hopes of sowing discontent. They were indicted because (presumably) foreign nationals have no business making their opinion have undue influence on US elections.

It is known (or at least it is alleged) that the trolls were paid. Had they been US citizens, would that have been legal? They were not directly lobbying any government officials. So they didn't have to register as lobbyists. They did not work (at least not directly) for the Russian government.

The allegation is that they worked for foreign private companies. If these were US citizens, they would have been in the same situation as US citizens who work for any other private business in Russia who decide to espouse any kind of political views on their social media accounts. Which means they would not have had to register as foreign agents (because they would not work for a government).

They did not advocate for war or (at least according to the reports) for violence. So they did not incite rebellion or violence.

This may seem like a rhetorical question, but I genuinely can't tell anymore what's legal in this respect. Is it illegal for US citizens to accept payments (from foreign private concerns) for shilling political opinions they don't personally hold?

I guess this can count as political advertising by foreign private interests, but is it illegal to accept money from foreign entities to place political ads? Clearly, it's illegal for foreigners to buy political ads, but is it illegal to sell ad space for political ads to foreigners?

The 13 Russians who were indicted were not charged with accepting payments for illegal campaign ads (which is not to say that they didn't do it). But would that be something that US citizens have to be wary of?

By the way, I am obviously asking this in the context of the 1st Amendment.

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    This question might be a better fit for Law. But with just a bit of cursory investigating, they were stealing US citizen's identities to perform the manipulation. I wasn't able to find the actual indictment to see what charges they were given, but I have a feeling this is much less about "election interference" and more the fact that they were committing OTHER crimes to accomplish that. – Jack Of All Trades 234 Apr 13 '18 at 19:53
  • @JackOfAllTrades, as I have found in response to my communications with moderators of this site about other questions, just because a question would be suitable for other SE sites, doesn't mean that it can't be on this one if its subject matter is appropriate for this site. And since the question is about election and electioneering, I think politics is par for the course. – grovkin Apr 13 '18 at 20:02
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    I've voted to close this question because it isn't about politics, politicians, or government. While there is a tangential conversation that could be had about the influences such actions would have on topical points for this Stack, this question belongs at Law.SE. – Drunk Cynic Apr 13 '18 at 20:46
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    @Giter, but it's not illegal to act on behalf of foreign interests. Otherwise, anyone who takes a job abroad would be breaking the law. Only certain types of activities are illegal. And, with respect to speech, it's only illegal to not register as an agent of a foreign government if working for a foreign government (Foreign Agents Registration Act). I don't know of any law which prohibits working for a foreign corporate interest. Do you? – grovkin Apr 13 '18 at 20:57
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because Should be asked on Law.Se – user4012 Apr 14 '18 at 13:47
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I have found an FEC page which mostly answers my question.

Specifically,

  • Despite the general prohibition on foreign national contributions and donations, foreign nationals may lawfully engage in political activity that is not connected with any election to political office...
  • In a decision that was later affirmed by the Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the foreign national ban “does not restrain foreign nationals from speaking out about issues or spending money to advocate their views about issues. It restrains them only from a certain form of expressive activity closely tied to the voting process—providing money for a candidate or political party or spending money in order to expressly advocate for or against the election of a candidate.” Bluman v. FEC

This answers the question of whether political activity, not related to a specific election, is permitted to foreign entities. It is.

The question about accepting employment for the purposes of shilling on social media (on behalf of foreign interests) to support, or oppose, a specific candidate is a question which remains open.

Clearly, such speech would be legal for US citizens if it is their own opinions. But, going with the current assumption that it is tentamount to accepting advertising from foreign sources, the question (of whether accepting payments to make statements is legal) is a question which is not answered by the FEC page.

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They did not advocate for war or (at least according to the reports) for violence. So they did not incite rebellion or violence.

The evidence does not support a benign inference of non-violence. The prosecution argues the employees of Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg (IRASP) were waging information warfare against the United States of America.

The 1st Amendment is about freedom of speech, speech being whatever people believe and say, however erroneous or misinformed. But it doesn't protect defamatory lies, forgeries, or deliberate fraud. It doesn't protect convincing the unstable to commit crimes and making weird instruments of them. Nor pulling fire alarms to make sport of panic. Etc.

The IRASP were mainly about pulling political fire alarms for the sake of increasing panic and general anxiety. It didn't advocate what its employees believed, nor what their employers believed, nor what their employer's employers believed. Rather IRASP advocated only just for things none of them cared were true or false, it was a factory that designed and distributed unbalancing ideas to confuse and divide a strategic maximum of voters. IRASP schemed to disinform the electorate, and undermine people's faith in each other, their nation, and democracy itself.

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    I think I stipulated your general point in the 1st paragraph of the question. I called it "sowing discontent". And sowing discontent is covered by the 1st Amendment. In fact, muckracking is part of a long American tradition despite the fact that the term arouse specifically as a way to dismiss writers who were seen as rubble rousers. Rubble rousing is protected speech if it doesn't incite violence. It can give rise to violence, but that's not the same as incitement. If only speech which couldn't potentially give rise to violence was legal, it would be the end of political discourse. – grovkin Apr 14 '18 at 6:10
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    After looking at your "information warfare against the United States of America" link, I have to say that all examples cited there are potected political speech. Furthermore, there is no blanket "information warfare" exception to the 1st Amendment. – grovkin Apr 14 '18 at 6:27
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    @grovkin, Correction: rabble rousers, but "rubble rouser" might be good crossword puzzle answer. Clue: "Bedrock alarm clock?" – agc Apr 14 '18 at 16:53
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    ,from the very link you provided:"Court reversed itself in 1957 in the case of Yates v. United States, by ruling that teaching an ideal, no matter how harmful it may seem, does not equal advocating or planning its implementation." In fact, the only political activity (incitement is not political activity) which remains illegal is "willfully spreading of false news of the American army and navy with an intent to disrupt their operations, to foment mutiny in their ranks, or to obstruct recruiting." BTW, I take it you are ok with "false, scandalous, and malicious writing about the President?" – grovkin Apr 14 '18 at 17:53
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    He must have gotten the idea from another America hater: Benjamin Franklin, who at the at the age of 16 published his own newspaper, in which he featured emotionally-charged letters to the editor from various fake personas who fought each other bitterly. – grovkin Apr 16 '18 at 4:11

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