On February 16, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a 37-page indictment in response to the Bureau’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election. Initially thought to simply be a moderate-effort ad campaign meant to sway American voters to vote for then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, the indictment outlines a widespread effort to disrupt the election, involving misinformation campaigns backed by tens of millions of dollars in funding. FBI Director Robert Mueller’s special council investigation indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations in what the Bureau is describing as a conspiracy to illegally influence the US presidential election.
The indictment is the result of a wide-ranging counterintelligence investigation into the matter, involving the efforts of numerous US intelligence agencies. Although the documents do not state that members of Trump’s campaign knowingly participated in the Russian efforts, a number of unwitting meetings between campaign members and involved Russian nationals illustrate an effort that went beyond a simple misinformation campaign, including the involvement of hundreds of employees and a monthly budget of $1.2 million, dating as far back as 2014.
According to the indictment, members of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Saint Petersburg-based "troll factory" traveled to the US "under false pretenses for the purposes of collecting intelligence," and established an extensive network of computer systems in the US to help hide their activities. During the campaign, they focused their efforts on "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida," using both fake identities and real ones obtained via identity theft, to conduct their misinformation campaign.
As early as April 2016, the IRA began distributing ads on social media platforms promoting Trump, and denouncing his opponent, Hillary Clinton. One example provided by the Justice Department was titled "Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote."
The IRA also organized and promoted anti-Clinton rallies in New York City, Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, falsely posing as US-based grassroots organizations, and also coordinated with legitimate organizers to broaden their reach.
The Trump administration has been ardent in their dismissal of allegations of any Russian influence on the 2016 campaign, with President Trump himself calling the FBI’s investigation a "witch hunt"; however, the details of the FBI’s indictment may now make it impossible for Trump to dismiss Mueller, as he did with his predecessor, James Comey. The release of the FBI’s indictment also follows a week of testimony from the heads of the US’s intelligence agencies regarding their unanimous opinion that Russia had made a major effort to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, and that those efforts would continue into the 2018 midterm elections.