The complaint says that the Russian conspirators directed their army of trolls to “[s]tate that during past elections, namely, this mainstream media, which supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, disseminated fake news,” with a citation to one such article from CNN. (One of Trump’s favorite refrains, chanted by his supporters at rallies, is that “CNN is fake news.”) Another troll was allegedly instructed: “Brand Paul Ryan a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness” because of his opposition to Trump’s immigration cuts. (Trump called Ryan a “weak and ineffective leader” in 2016.) Yet another Russian troll was allegedly told to produce an article about voter-registration numbers in California that should refer to “large-scale falsifications” that threaten to turn the Constitution “into a mockery and celebration of lawlessness … there is an urgent need to introduce voter IDs for all the states.” (Trump has claimed, without evidence, that between 3 and 5 million ballots were cast illegally in the 2016 election.) The Russians went after Mueller, too, according to the complaint, urging troll-factory employees to portray the man investigating Trump as “a politician with proven connections to the Democratic party” who is incapable of producing “honest and open results.” (Trump has attacked Mueller “and his whole group of angry Democrat thugs,” calling his investigation a rigged “witch hunt.”)
The echo chamber between Trump’s election rhetoric and that of the Russian trolls was striking.
Russia’s use of phony social-media accounts to spread disinformation and propaganda in the run-up to the 2016 election was heavily scrutinized following Facebook’s disclosure last September that it had shut down 470 pages linked to the Internet Research Agency that shared divisive content and then promoted it using targeted political ads. Facebook estimated that approximately 10 million people saw the ads, which targeted users in Michigan and Wisconsin—two states Trump won by approximately 10,000 votes and 22,000 votes, respectively. Twitter told Congress in November that Russia-linked accounts “generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions” last year from September 1 to November 15.
The disinformation campaign—which was bolstered by the Russians’ hack on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman during the 2016 election—was described by Mueller in detail in February, when he indicted 13 Russian nationals, including Khusyaynova’s alleged employer, the Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Russians used PayPal accounts and utilized a complex network of shell companies to finance the operation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said earlier this year, following Mueller’s indictment. The troll factory’s budget for the project, which Khusyaynova allegedly controlled, exceeded 73 million Russian rubles—or roughly $1.2 million—per month. If anyone expected Project Lakhta to shut down after the 2016 election, however, they would have been wrong: The troll factory’s budget actually grew almost monthly between January and June of 2018 as the Russian trolls targeted the midterms, according to the complaint. By July, the proposed operating budget totaled more than $10 million.