The US has charged a 44-year-old woman for overseeing a Russian conspiracy to influence the upcoming midterm elections by spreading propaganda over Facebook and Twitter.
Elena Khusyaynova of St. Petersburg, Russia is actually the chief accountant to an ongoing Russian effort to conduct information warfare against the US, federal investigators claimed on Friday.
Allegedly, Khusyaynova has been managing millions to help Russian operatives buy ads over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Since 2016 to June of this year, the secret Russian effort has been operating with a $35 million budget, with a portion devoted to activities focused on the US.
“The Conspiracy has a strategic goal, which continues to this day, to sow division and discord in the US political system,” reads the criminal complaint against Khusyaynova.
Called Project Lakhta, the clandestine Russian effort has operated by creating fake accounts on social media that pretend to be US-based activists or groups. “These accounts also were used to advocate for the election or electoral defeat of particular candidates in the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections,” The Justice Department said. “Some social media accounts posted tens of thousands of messages, and had tens of thousands of followers.”
The Russian fake accounts seized on hot button topics, such as immigration, gun control and the NFL national anthem debate with the goal of inflaming tensions between Americans. The criminal complaint contains numerous examples, which date up to May 17, and show how easily the operatives could blend in on Twitter.
“Fun fact: the last time a new Republican president was elected without electoral fraud was in 1988,” wrote one tweet from the account @wokeluisa back in March.
“WOW! Donald Trump is going to meet Kim Jong Un to discuss denuclearization of North Korea, If Trump gets North Korea to denuclearize its game over for the Democrats! That would be monumental,” wrote a separate account from @JohnCopper16 in the same month.
Khusyaynova’s role was to oversee the budgets for Project Lakhta’s information warfare operations in the US, Europe, Ukraine and Russia. For example, earlier this year, she allocated over $60,000 to buy ads on Facebook, $6,000 on Instagram, and another $18,000 was spent over Twitter.
According to the complaint, one such ad was used to promote an anti-President Donald Trump “flash mob” rally to 29,000 to 58,000 individuals over Facebook. Money from Khusyaynova’s budgets was also used to buy VPN servers to help the Russian internet accounts mask their true origins.
Federal investigators claim the conspiracy was funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy V. Prigozhin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Department of Justice indicted Prigozhin back in Feb. for orchestrating Russian attempts to exploit social media to influence voters in the 2016 election.
It isn’t clear how federal investigators determined Khusyaynova’s suspected role in the conspiracy. But the complaint suggests that the US obtained the financial documents she handled, in addition to copies of her digital communications. Khusyaynova appears to remain at large.
According to the complaint, the Russian state-sponsored internet trolls continue to hone their tactics to make the content they share appear authentic. For example, when posing as liberals, they make sure to avoid mention of the conservative news publication Breitbart, federal investigators claim.
“As the criminal complaints notes, these attacks continue to this day,” said US Senator Mark Warner in a statement. “It is critical for Congress to step up and immediately act to employ much-needed guardrails on social media.”