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Over the past several years, many in the US (government and mainstream media) have argued that the Russian government ("The Russians") interfered with the 2016 US elections through the "Internet Research Agency" - a sort of a social media campaigning company / troll farm. It ran some some small-scale campaigns before, during and after the US 2016 elections, with some content supportive of Trump (although to be honest some of those pro-Trump images seem ridiculous enough to have the opposite effect), some critical of Trump, content in support of or against other causes, including the promotion of events or rallies, etc. Some of this happened before the elections, some after; I've even heard the claim that most effort or money was spent after the elections but I may be wrong on this. At least once they even organized opposing rallies. (see this piece for some examples of IRA-originated memes). The total amount of money they spent in 2016 on promoting such content is said to have been $100,000.

When I initially heard about this, I was unconvinced that it is a Russian government effort to destabilize/undermine the US or to swing the US elections. The amount of money is minuscule (relative to campaigns' media budget), the timing of its spending is off, and subjectively it didn't even seem to me to be a serious effort to get people to support Trump (sometimes more like the opposite). As a lay user, I found this looked more like glorified trolling than international political interference. Several critics (in alternative media mostly) have also expressed such skepticism.

Now that the (redacted version of) Mueller report is out - is there any newly-revealed evidence to support the characterization of these IRA activities as Russian government interference in the US elections? And - what is the new evidence?

Notes:

  • I mean evidence - not estimates, conclusions, non-testimony assertions ("XYZ happened") etc.
  • On that note - statements of fact in the report which have no source, or whose source supposedly exists but is redacted - are not evidence revealed by the redacted report. My question is about evidence revealed in this release.
  • Circumstantial evidence counts as evidence.
  • There is this annoying use of the term "The Russians" to conflate people living in Russia, Russian companies, Russian business owners and the Russian government, all together. I'm specifically asking about the Russian government.
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    Anyway, is old evidence of Russian governmental involvement or goals acceptable for an answer? Or are you only asking about information specific to Mueller's report? – Obie 2.0 Apr 19 at 9:24
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    This release specifically does not include the underlying evidence. Given that, why do you assume a footnote listing a source is "better" than a redacted footnote listing a source? Either way, we cannot see the source in most instances. I guess I just don't understand what you're looking for if you want to discount anything the report actually says. – Geobits Apr 19 at 13:59
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    @Geobits: 1. Are you sure this release does not include any underlying evidence? If so, could you make that into an answer? 2. If the footnote says "Secret document no 1234 that I won't show you", then - indeed, as a non-US-citizen I would tend to discount the report by the US government, which is on the whole an interested party on this matter. With publicly-available evidence I would give it more credence. – einpoklum Apr 19 at 15:01
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    You can follow the IRA/Concord pretrial proceedings here. The prosecution is trying to keep the evidence secret. – Keith McClary Apr 20 at 19:09
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am Apr 22 at 5:31
43

Probably

First, the report was heavily redacted. As such, some information is missing. Further, much of the information available in the Mueller report was previously available, so I won't try to determine which information is new, but rather summarize the evidence in the report.

  • Was there a group based in Russia conducting social media operations?

    Yes. As mentioned in the question, that group is the IRA, the Internet Research Agency. From the report:

    The first form of Russian election influence came principally from the Internet Research Agency, LLC (IRA), a Russian organization funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and companies he controlled, including Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering (collectively "Concord"). The IRA conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system. These operations constituted "active measures" (aKTMBHbie Meporrprumu), a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs.

  • Was this group trying to influence elections in the US?

    Yes. Seemingly they said that explicitly:

    IRA employees also acknowledged that their work focused on influencing the US presidential election.

    Although the section surrounding this is entirely redacted, I presume that it includes a quote from internal IRA documents admitting this.

    They also focused on US users:

    To reach larger U.S. audiences, the IRA purchased advertisements from Facebook that promoted the IRA groups on the newsfeeds of U.S. audience members. According to Facebook the IRA purchased over 3,500 advertisements , and the expenditures totaled approximately $100,000.

    And common sense simply suggests that when a group spends large amounts of money and labor on political advertisements, they're hoping to influence elections, and not simply trolling.

  • Did this group favor Trump?

    Yes, kind of. Their internal documents explicitly said not to criticize Trump:

    By 2016, internal IRA documents referred to support for the Trump campaign and opposition to candidate Clinton. For example, [redacted] directions to IRA operators [redacted] “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them.”

    This may have been more out of opposition to Clinton than positive views of Trump, though. This is supported by the inclusion of Sanders, as well as other internal information:

    the author criticized the "lower number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton" and reminded the Facebook specialist "it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton."

    That said, they seem to have warmed to Trump later:

    IRA-purchased advertisements referencing candidate Trump largely supported his campaign. The first known IRA advertisement explicitly endorsing the Trump Campaign was purchased on April 19, 2016.

  • Was the Russian government behind this?

    Probably. I doubt it can be proven for certain, but the circumstantial evidence is strong.

    First, some of the leadership had close ties to the Russian government.

    Two individuals headed the IRA's general management: its general director, Mikhail Bystrov, and its executive director, Mikhail Burchik.

    Bystrov was the head of a Russian national police organization before starting at the IRA.

    As mentioned, the funding came from Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, who has close ties to Putin.

    None of this proves that the Russian government controlled or influenced the IRA. It is certainly possible that someone close to Putin would have views that aligned well with Putin's goals, and that they'd, and that they'd hire former top-level governmental employees because that's who they knew.

    But I think it provides a strong suggestion. A group run by strong Putin allies engaging in clandestine operations favorable to Putin, operating in a state where Putin has a great deal of authority and knowledge? It's like super PACs in the United States: when they're run by close friends or allies of a candidate and very much in line with that candidate, there's very likely to be collusion going on.

Do note that there more explicit statements in the report about the purpose and funding of the IRA. Often they were backed up with redacted references, such as to FBI cases.

Finally, a sanity check. Is it implausible that the Russian government would try to influence politics in other countries? Probably not: many other countries have engaged in similar operations, including the United States, Israel, China etc. It is very common for these groups to be NGOs with the approval of the government, not a government group. This gives the government plausible deniability. As such, the idea that the IRA would conduct political influence campaigns for Putin isn't unsual, but rather quite typical.

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    Please add references for your quotes. Specifically - Did Mueller's team interview IRA employees? As for the sanity check - it is implausible that the Russian government would choose to influence US elections with a small budget for buying mixed-message troll memes and posts. – einpoklum Apr 19 at 10:28
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    I thought it was obvious. All of those are from the report. – Obie 2.0 Apr 19 at 10:31
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    I looked for "IRA employees also acknowledged that their work focused on influencing the US presidential election" - couldn't find it. That sounds like new evidence. – einpoklum Apr 19 at 10:33
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    You did mark the "also acknowledged" part as a quotation. – einpoklum Apr 19 at 10:34
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    @einpoklum It can be found on page 24 here: "IRA employees also acknowledged that their work focused on influencing the U.S. presidential election." – tim Apr 19 at 10:35
16

According to CNET, Mueller did find that Russia used a social media campaign to influence the US election in favor of Donald Trump. The campaign cost $35 million (the $100K the question is referring to is just the cost of ads):

Mueller's investigation also found that Russia was backing a $35 million operation to meddle with US politics through social media.

The money was spent between January 2016 and June 2018 and dedicated to spreading disinformation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The operation ran like a professional social media marketing campaign, with specific departments in search engine optimization and graphic design, along with a staff of hundreds who posted on social networks.

The group behind the effort, the Internet Research Agency, was directed to support Trump's campaign and attack Clinton, according to the investigation.

The operation also spent $60,000 on Facebook ads, $6,000 on Instagram ads and $18,000 on Twitter.

The details can be seen in the Mueller Report starting at page 14. A lot of specifics are redacted, but the report refers to and cites internal IRA documents as evidence, as well as statements by Facebook.

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    I didn't ask what Mueller found. I asked whether any evidence has been presented. You're telling me "read the report to see". – einpoklum Apr 19 at 10:27
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    @einpoklum you want evidence but you're not interested in the report, which presents the evidence? – David Rice Apr 19 at 13:04
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    @DavidRice As far as I can make out, einpoklum wants the evidence that's in the report to be part of the answer. "Yes, read the report" isn't much of an answer. – sgf Apr 19 at 15:02
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    @einpoklum The part about the IRA is only 21 pages (much of which are (redacted) citations, redacted content, images, whitespaces, etc). And I guess it depends on how you define evidence; your bar seems to be unreasonably high; given the nature of counter intelligence, it will probably never be met. But that doesn't mean that we can't draw reasonable conclusions based on the given information. And "A Russian company spent 35 million for the lulz" or "Mueller is making everything up" wouldn't really be reasonable conclusions. – tim Apr 19 at 21:03
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    @tim: My bar is actually extremely low, since I haven't demanded to see a chain of custody for the evidence (which is the part which would be problematic for counterintelligence). But that's because I'm a trusting fellow at heart :-) As for "Mueller is making stuff up" - that would actually be a reasonable suspicion, since Mueller has already made up a case on Iraq having an active WMD program in the early 2000s which it did not. As the the IRA's motivations, these do seem to be underhanded, but there are several potential underhanded interests other than interference with the US elections. – einpoklum Apr 19 at 21:14
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This is the best POLYGRAPH.info can do:

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded the next day, dismissing allegations of Russian interference.

"The report contains no proven evidence that Russia allegedly interfered in the election process in the United States,” the Russian news agency TASS quoted Peskov as saying.“As before, we do not accept such charges."

Peskov’s statement is misleading for several reasons. ... We find the claim, on its whole, to be “misleading,” due to the volume of evidence presented not only in special counsel filings, but also official reports that his report cites.

  • Well, I'm willing to take "unproven evidence". The thing is, I have yet to find any. – einpoklum May 30 at 15:26

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