Trump Acknowledges 2018 Cyberattack Against Russian Troll Farm

News and Analysis

The U.S. president has acknowledged that the U.S. Cyber Command launched a cyberattack on a Russian media company Internet Research Agency back in 2018. The agency is colloquially known as the “troll farm” that had gained international fame through the interference of the 2016 presidential election and 2018 midterms.

The acknowledgment came in an interview with The Washington Post. The president said that he ordered a cyberattack as intelligence suggested potential Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

The attack pulled off by the U.S. Cyber Command took place on the night of the elections and involved disrupting the internet access in IRA’s office building in suburb Saint Petersburg. The goal was to stop the “troll farm” from spreading misinformation aimed at U.S. voters on social media.

“Look, we stopped it,” Trump told The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, “nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”

In 2019, the U.S. introduced sanctions against the IRA and entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin who is considered to be the source of financing behind the “troll farm” and “Putin’s personal chef.” In 2018, Robert Mueller indicted Prigozhin and a dozen other people connected to the organization.

“Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts,” the indictment said, “Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.”   

According to the 2017’s Intelligence Community Assessment, the influence campaign was ordered by the Russian government and President Putin, for whom Donald Trump was a preferred candidate:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

Despite the reportedly tight security measures and overall secrecy, the Internet Research Agency has got a significant amount of press in Russian-language media. According to one of the employees, the “factory” is, in fact, a large enterprise with multiple divisions: some work with social media posts and comments, some operate entire fake outlets, and some specialize in working specifically with foreign audiences.

In Russia, any dubious comments are commonly attributed to the “Olgino center,” which refers to a former geographical location of the infamous “troll farm” just a couple of miles north of the city of Saint Petersburg.

Notably, the “troll farm” isn’t just a tool for political manipulation, its services are also available to businesses and individuals willing to pay for user reviews or likes in bulk—there are special subsidiaries just for that.

Still, according to some of the people close to Prigozhin and the “troll farm,” there is no such organization and a task like influencing the outcome of the U.S. presidential election would be impossible for a group of about a hundred to a few hundred people.

Earlier in 2020, the New York Times published a comprehensive report about the changes in IRA’s deception tactics before the elections this fall.

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