Rather, the report details the extent to which Russian spies infiltrated the American social media landscape — Facebook and Twitter in particular. Before Facebook identified and removed the propaganda accounts in 2017, the damage was already done. The pages had garnered close to 1 million followers and posts were viewed by anywhere between 29 million and 126 million Americans.
Mueller Report: Russians Play Both Sides of Political Spectrum
The report details Russian attempts to sew discord among Americans by amplifying both extremes of the political spectrum. Using a cover group known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a team of Russian agitators created Facebook groups such as United Muslims of America, Stop All Invaders, and Being Patriotic. From the Mueller report:
“The IRA’s ‘United Muslims of America’ Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the ‘Being Patriotic’ group had over 200,000 followers, and the ‘Secured Borders group had over 130,000 followers.”
This amounts to slightly less than 1 million followers in total. The Mueller report doesn’t include follower counts for other IRA controlled groups such as Black Matters, Blacktivist, Don’t Shoot Us, and LGBT United.
Reaching up to 126 million Americans isn’t too expensive; the IRA spent just $100,000 on Facebook ads. Meanwhile, the natural ebb and flow of sharing and liking made sure their posts disseminated further.
Impersonating U.S. Citizens on Twitter
The IRA’s strategy for influencing Twitter feeds was twofold: Russian agents would create accounts as real American individuals while a bot-army worked in the background to make sure their posts got enough likes and retweets. IRA operatives even communicated directly with American citizens through direct messages, often manipulating their targets into organizing rallies and protests on U.S soil.
“The IRA operated individual Twitter accounts similar to the operation of its Facebook accounts, by continuously posting original content to the accounts while also communicating with U.S Twitter users directly.”
Multiple mainstream media personalities retweeted or liked posts from IRA accounts, including Sean Hannity and Roger Stone. Democratic politicians Michael McFaul and Michael Flynn Jr. also retweeted posts from Russian controlled accounts.
The Man Behind the IRA: Putin’s Chef
The report identifies the IRA’s chief operator as Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as ‘Putin’s Chef’ due to his influence in Russia’s catering industry. Prigozhin’s past is every bit as colorful as you’d expect of a Russian spy including prison, robbery, fraud, and possible child sex-trafficking. Rumors suggest this is the man trusted with Putin’s most ‘sensitive’ directives.
Russian dissident journalists who have crossed paths with Prigozhin in the past tie him to disappearances and attempted assassinations. Bloomberg reported in 2018 that Prigozhin was likely the financial orchestrator of Russian mercenary work in Africa and Ukraine.
Prigozhin was indicted by a grand jury in February when the extent of his involvement with the IRA became apparent to U.S investigators. He is back in Russia and has not made any comments since the indictment or the release of the Mueller report.