Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment against Russia’s Internet Research Agency contains a number of striking moments, from the inflammatory ads bought by the so-called “troll factory” to the rampant identity theft against US citizens. But what stands out most may be the reminder that for Russia, subverting the foundations of US democracy was just another 9 to 5.
The IRA is by now a known quantity; Adrian Chen detailed operations in deeply reported New York Times piece in 2015. At the time, Chen described rank and file workers huddled together in bland office spaces, charged with meeting trolling quotas intended to rile up Ukraine, for instance, or sow general confusion in the US. If the focus were on anything other than upsetting the geopolitical order, it would all seem pretty mundane.
But while previous IRA accounts are plenty jarring in and of themselves, the Justice Department’s indictment—with its unfiltered internal communications and an unthinkably urgent target—feels even more so. It’s a picture of an attack on the US that’s all the more alarming for its blandly bureaucratic approach, hundreds of employees punching in each morning to grab some coffee, bitch about the boss, and pick away at the fabric of society.
In fact, as described by Mueller, the IRA looks probably not unlike your office, especially if you work at a digital marketing agency. It has a graphics department, a data analysis team, and SEO boffins working to game Google. It all feels almost satirical, The Americans meets Mike Judge.
It was also more than that, of course. One of the named defendants, Sergey Pavlovich Polozov, allegedly managed the IT department, which in this case involved setting up illicit US servers with untraceable VPNs through which to funnel internet traffic. And while Anna Vladislovovna Bogacheva had a seemingly rote position overseeing the project’s data analysis group, the indictment alleges that her job description included traveling to the US under false pretenses for intelligence-gathering purposes.
It all feels almost satirical, The Americans meets Mike Judge.
What stands out most among the charges isn’t the radical, though, but the mundane. Russia allegedly had 80 full-time employees specifically dedicated to its “translator project,” an effort to flood YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and more with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton propaganda. The program’s $1.25 million budget apparently included incentive bonuses, just shy of naming an Employee of the Month.
So-called specialists allegedly created social media accounts posing as politically active US citizens, limiting their vitriol to a list of relevant topics handed down by management. They worked regular shifts, their work monitored and evaluated both for authenticity, with regular feedback coming from their superiors. They received guidelines on how to maximize engagement, down to the ratio of text to graphics to video in a given post. The tracked engagement, says the indictment, with the zeal of a Fortune 500 social media manager:
“They tracked the size of the online US audiences reached through posts, different types of engagement with the posts (such as likes, comments, and reposts), changes in audience size, and other metrics,” reads the charge. “Defendants and their co-conspirators received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts.”
Even the feedback they received feels familiar to anyone who has occupied a lower rung of the corporate latter. The operator of Russia-backed Facebook account called “Secured Borders” was allegedly reprimanded for a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton.” The rigid requirements of an assembly line, applied to stoking partisan flames 5,000 miles away.
Or take an email included in the complaint, from a defendant to an unnamed family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke),” it reads. “So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”
It’s a new spin on an email you’ve sent yourself: Sorry I’m late; work got out of hand.
That’s what makes this all so chilling. The people chiseling away at the foundations of US democracy weren’t zealots, or necessarily even true believers. They were collecting a paycheck, presumably doing just enough not to catch hell from middle management. America faced—and continues to face—not a fevered onslaught, but a swarm of interchangeable corporate drones.
It’s important to remember that Mueller’s indictment does not cover the activities of other Russian groups, like the so-called Fancy Bear hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s emails, or Russia’s probing US election infrastructure. Russia came at the US from multiple angles. But in the work of the IRA, you can see a glimpse of how systematic, how unerring, how coordinated the threat truly was and continues to be. Bureaucracies are bland, sure, but they’re also ruthless.