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U.S. Special Counsel Mueller Issues New Indictment: Targets Russian Online Activities

On Friday, February 16th, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued an indictment directly accusing multiple Russians of subversive activity in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. The indictment targets 13 notable Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities suspected of being leaders in an effort to infiltrate U.S. news outlets and social media accounts through online interactions during the election period. Outside of the sphere of cyber incursion, the indictment also cites purposeful Russian activity within U.S. boundaries that allegedly facilitated political and social division during the election. 

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The indictment notes that at the core of Russian efforts is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), an infamous St. Petersburg organization known for its involvement in various ‘troll’ posting and false information campaigns online. The IRA claims its activities are privately independent from government interference and denies any ties to the Kremlin or other government agencies. However, stipulations made by Russian specialists in the U.S. create reason to believe that the Kremlin may credibly have had a hand in 2016 online infiltrations.

Concurrently, there is heightened U.S. suspicion that is focused on Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with government-links, who is also the director of the IRA- despite his own and the Kremlin’s denial. Prigozhin has shown an affinity towards Russian President, Vladimir Putin through profitable government contracts. The business relationship between Putin and Prigozhin has even given him the nickname of “‘Putin’s cook’” , as a personal testament to Prigozhin’s business relationship with the Russian government, alluding to the possibility of the Russian government’s collusion with the IRA.

   
  
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     Credit: NYT/ Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

Credit: NYT/ Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

Yet, direct liability for meddling in the elections is hard to pin on the many employees of the Kremlin as a whole, which ambiguously leaves the attribution responsibility. The now commonplace nature of the ‘troll’ activity carried out under the IRA does not arouse much alarm in Russian online security surveillance nor in public opinion as it has become typical in Russian online media today. Notably, the IRA has been active in previous Russian domestic campaigns by favorably posting on behalf of President Putin. Moreover, the accessible knowledge of IRA activity further backs Russian claims of noninvolvement.

Surprisingly, a large amount of Mueller’s indictment information reflects a Russian journal article posted last year outlining the activity of the IRA specifically targeting the United States through social media channels and through different forms of new outlets. The online postings and cyber presence of the IRA were conducted on a level that was readily uncovered and deemed to be naively un-covert, suggesting a lack of official intelligence direction from the Kremlin.

The public accessibility and common knowledge of IRA work produce a starting point for larger questions on the depth of current involvement and of intelligence breaches. Thus, the capacity for plausible deniability and dismissal on the part of the Russian government is left open. The Kremlin has denounced all claims of presumed responsibility in the 2016 U.S. Election incursions and maintains the position that there is no credible evidence to imply that the Russian state had any involvement in such activities. After the most recent indictment, the goal of the U.S. government to determine the extent of the Russian government’s and individual citizens’ role in ‘trolling’ activity during the 2016 U.S. election remains a crucial part of the ongoing investigation.