By Sari Horwitz, Devlin Barrett and Craig Timberg
The Justice Department's special counsel announced the indictment Friday of a notorious Russian troll farm - charging 13 individuals who allegedly were involved in a scheme to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Internet Research Agency, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, was named in the indictment.
"From in or around 2014 to the present, defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the grand jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016,'' the indictment states.
The indictment charges that some of the Russian suspects traveled to the United States to gather information to help in the scheme, and that they also impersonated Americans online in order to try to sway voters' opinions. None of those charged are in custody, according to Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel's office.
The grand jury charges that some of those suspects interacted with Americans associated with the Trump campaign, but those Trump associates did not realize they were being manipulated.
Some of the Russians posed as U.S. persons and, without revealing their Russian identities, "communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities," the indictment said.
By February 2016, the suspects had decided whom they were supporting in the 2016 race. According to the indictment, Internet Research Agency specialists were instructed to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump - we support them.)"
Prosecutors say some Russian employees of the troll farm were chastised in September 2016 when they had a "low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton" and were told it was "imperative to intensify criticizing" the Democratic nominee in future posts.
The charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft.
One of those indicted is Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, who has long been identified in the Russian media as the financial backer of the Internet Research Agency. He is a caterer who has been nicknamed "Putin's chef" because of his close ties to the Russian president. Concord Consulting and Concord Catering, two Russian businesses also charged by Mueller's team Friday, have previously been identified as Prigozhin vehicles.
The Internet Research Agency was at the center of Silicon Valley's investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google all found evidence that the private firm used social media to divide American voters across a range of polarizing issues, including race, religion, gun rights and immigration.
Tweets and Facebook posts that have been made public as part of these investigations make clear that the Russian disinformation effort broadly sought to favor Republican Donald Trump and undermine the support for Democrat Hillary Clinton. This conclusion has been backed by the work of several independent researchers.
Typically called a "troll farm," the Internet Research Agency is regarded as the most prominent part of the Russian disinformation campaign, though congressional investigators pushed for evidence of other operations, including from countries other than Russia, that shared the same purpose.
Overall, Facebook acknowledged to Congress that the Internet Research Agency had bought 3,000 ads on its platform that reached 11.4 million users. The agency's employees also reportedly made many free posts that reached 126 million users.
In addition to polarizing online political conversation, Facebook reported that the Internet Research Agency used Facebook pages to organize 129 real-world events that drew the attention of nearly 340,000 Facebook users.
One of these, organized by a group called Heart of Texas, took place on May 21, 2016, under the banner of "Stop Islamization of Texas."
On that same day, another Russian-controlled Facebook group, called United Muslims of America, publicized a competing rally to "Save Islamic Knowledge" at the same place and time.