Sixteen months after the 2016 election, it’s no longer a surprise that the Russian government stooped to lies and disinformation to push a pro-Trump, hyper-divisive agenda. But now it’s clear those trolls went a step further: Actually stealing the identities of real Americans to impersonate US voices online and hide their tracks.
On Friday, the US Justice Department released a 37-page indictment of 13 Russians involved in the so-called Internet Research Agency, a shady organization based in St. Petersburg and long known to be focused on social media disinformation, often targeting US domestic politics. The indictment accuses the alleged trolls of everything from buying Facebook and Twitter ads to promote their fake news agenda to arranging astroturf protests. But there’s also one fresh element in those charges that goes beyond general fraud. The indictment also accuses the IRA “specialists” of outright identity theft and wire fraud, stealing American victims’ sensitive details including their names, birth dates, social security numbers and home addresses to speak in their names online and launder payments for their social media ad buys.
According to the indictment, the Russians not only created Paypal accounts, bank accounts, and false identity documents with stolen American identities, but also created social media accounts, using victims’ names to more authentically fabricate political sock puppets and avoid detection.
Facebook has estimated that 10 million people saw paid ads funded by the Internet Research Agency, and as many as 150 million people saw other non-paid content from the group’s accounts. But the company hadn’t revealed how those ads were funded without raising suspicion of foreign political interference—at least in some cases, it seems, by sending payments accounts created with stolen American identities.
‘You’d expect that the real people whose accounts were stolen would have had those accounts taken down.’
Thomas Rid, Johns Hopkins University
The indictment goes on to name two of the 13 Russians who the Justice Department says were directly responsible for the operation’s bank and wire fraud that enabled that money laundering, Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov and Gleb Igorevich Vasilchenko. Both men, the document states, created false bank, cryptocurrency exchange, and PayPal accounts in the names of individual Americans. They then allegedly used those accounts to fund everything from Facebook ads—preventing Facebook from detecting that the political ads were purchased from abroad—to buttons, flags and banners for the operatives’ rallies.
Bizarrely, the accounts were used not just to spend money but to receive it. According to the indictment, some Americans paid the high-follower Russian accounts like Being Patriotic, Defend the 2nd, and Blacktivist for the privilege of writing messages to those followers, offering $25 to $50 per post. The indictment accuses Vasilchenko and Aslanov of using their fraud accounts for “self enrichment” as well as serving the goals of the IRA, though it doesn’t include estimates of how much they might have profited personally, or as an organization, from their alleged fraud.
Even beyond that money laundering and financial fraud, the notion that Russians impersonated individual Americans by name to spout their targeted political messages shows a remarkable brazenness. And not an altogether logical one, says Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies who has testified before Congress on Russian disinformation.
“It’s a little surprising, because you’d expect that the real people whose accounts were stolen would have had those accounts taken down,” Rid points out. “It’s a strange MO.” The indictment doesn’t name any of the individual victims, or include the number of hijacked social media identities, or include any examples of the content from those accounts. WIRED reached out to both Twitter and Facebook to ask if the companies had any prior knowledge of those impersonation instances, and Twitter declined to respond.
Facebook didn’t respond to WIRED’s specific questions on those stolen accounts. But the company’s vice president of global policy Joel Kaplan offered a statement emphasizing the company’s close coordination with law enforcement on the Russian disinformation issue, including the FBI’s task force on election interference, and touting the company’s planned increase in security staff from 10,000 to 20,000 this year. “We’re grateful the US government is taking this aggressive action against those who abused our service and exploited the openness of our democratic process,” Kaplan wrote. “We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks…We’re committed to staying ahead of this kind of deceptive and malevolent activity going forward.”
Taken together with the indictment as a whole, those alleged identity thefts should dispel any remaining notion that the Internet Research Agency was merely an organization of freewheeling trolls testing the limits of American free speech. Instead, the charges describe a vast, organized, and explicitly illegal conspiracy. And, like the parallel hacking operations that Russia used to embarrass the Clinton campaign during the same election, it suggests that disinformation operation didn’t hesitate to resort to outright fraud and theft when it served the Kremlin’s goals.