Future Tense

The Mueller Report Shows Just How Much Russia Trolled Americans in Real Life, Too

Two men in front of an American flag with Trump on it.
Two men stand in front of a Donald Trump flag while attending a rally in support of him on March 23 near Trump Tower in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Within the more than 400 pages of the Mueller report released Thursday, plenty of space is dedicated to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll organization that’s been hard at work since at least 2013, churning out deceptive memes, posts, and more on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pokémon Go—all with the intention of swaying political conversations and stoking social divisions around the world. The report found that no one in the Trump campaign knowingly interacted with anyone from the Internet Research Agency. But it does lay out some new information about how the operation worked.

We got a close look at the troll operation when special counsel Robert Mueller indicted it and 13 Russian nationals in February 2018. The new report goes further, though, in examining how skilled the agency was at deceiving people offline, too—and also gives us a nice opportunity to reexamine and piece together some details that dripped out in the past couple of years while we waited for the final report.

The Russian trolls planned dozens of rallies across the U.S. ahead of and even after the 2016 election. The first known Russian operative–organized event was a “Confederate rally” in Houston in 2015, according to new information provided in the Mueller report. An Instagram account called “Stand for Freedom” invited people to join with a post attempting (and failing) to sound like a normal American trying to get the word out about a party. “Good evening buds! Well I am planning to organize a confederate rally […] in Houston on the 14 of November and I want more people to attend,” the post read.

The report describes the IRA’s attempts at field research in the U.S. In 2014, before the Internet Research Agency’s efforts to rile U.S. voters were in full swing, four employees applied to travel to the U.S., pretending to be friends who met at a party. But only two of the women who applied were granted visas, which allowed them to travel to America to conduct intelligence gathering, such as taking photographs that could then be later used in social media posts. It’s not clear how long they stayed.

The reconnaissance may have helped them later plan rallies across the country, some of which attracted hundreds of attendees. The Mueller report gives the playbook for how the trolls were able to organize these events from an office in St. Petersburg, Russia:

First, the IRA used one of its preexisting social media personas (Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, for example) to announce and promote the event. The IRA then sent a large number of direct messages to followers of its social media account asking them to attend the event. From those who responded with interest in attending, the IRA then sought a U.S. person to serve as the event’s coordinator. In most cases, the IRA account operator would tell the U.S. person that they personally could not attend the event because of some preexisting conflict or because they were somewhere else in the United States. The IRA then further promoted the event by contacting U.S. media about the event and directing them to speak with the coordinator.

One of the larger rallies was held in Miami in August 2016. The Trump campaign took notice of this covertly Russian-organized event and posted images of the rally on the then-candidate’s official Facebook page, prompting a Russian troll–operated fake American persona, Matt Skiber, to boast in a Facebook message that “Mr. Trump posted about our event in Miami! This is great!”

Black Matters, one of the larger Russian-run fake activist Facebook groups, hosted an event page for a protest in New York City the weekend after Trump won the election, which it promoted with an ad. More than 16,700 people signed up to attend on the event page, while 33,000 more listed themselves as interested. The Guardian at the time wrote that thousands of people actually showed up with protest signs in tow, though many of those protesters likely heard about the demonstration through other channels also promoting the rally.

Internet Research Agency operatives didn’t mind looking weird in their quest to stoke tensions in America’s deeply polarized political climate. Beyond the rallies, Russian agents were also selling sex toys, offering free self-defense classes in New York, recruiting Americans to work with them through job listings, soliciting women to send photos for a calendar, and even offering counseling to followers of a page called Army of Jesus who were struggling with porn addiction, as detailed in research last year from New Knowledge, a firm that studies Russian disinformation. One of the more bizarre anecdotes in the Mueller report on the Internet Research Agency’s organizing explains that the Russian trolls once even attempted to recruit someone to walk around New York City dressed as Santa Claus in a Donald Trump mask. But unfortunately, the report doesn’t say whether they found anyone up to the task.

Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified to Congress in 2017 about their efforts to rid their platforms of inauthentic behavior from the Kremlin-connected troll factory. Before the 2018 midterm elections, Facebook shared that it removed more than 100 more Facebook and Instagram accounts “due to concerns that they were linked to” the Internet Research Agency. The U.S. went so far as to turn off the IRA’s internet on Election Day 2018.

The final Mueller report still leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the scale of the impact of the Russian trolls’ attempts to make our elections awful. But it seems clear that 2020 is going to be weird, too.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.