Charges have been filed against 13 employees of a Russian troll factory which is accused of attempting to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
It is the first legal document to name the Internet Research Agency, a private organisation based in St Petersburg, of illegally interfering in US politics – although a declassified intelligence community assessment had previously asserted the organisation’s attempts at interference.
The 13 individual defendants and three Russian entities are accused of engaging in operations to “spread distrust” in the US and its democratic systems.
After media reports that Facebook was working with the US Special Counsel investigating interference during the election, the defendants allegedly began to destroy evidence linking them to the influence campaigns.
According to the indictment, the organisation sought to conduct “what it called ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious US personas on social media platforms and other internet-based media”.
The Internet Research Agency’s funding came through a catering company owned by Evgeny Prigozhin, who is among the 13 charged in the indictment and is widely considered to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the legal document the troll factory’s monthly budget exceeded $1.2m by September 2016, which Prigozhin’s company paid for through 14 bank accounts in the names of his company’s affiliates.
The defendants “primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump”.
The Internet Research Agency had more than 80 employees conducting disinformation operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
According to the indictment, the organisation’s operations began in 2014 and by early to mid-2016 “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J Trump… and disparaging Hillary Clinton”.
The trolls also apparently discouraged minority groups from voting and used Facebook advertisements to promote allegations of voter fraud by the Democratic Party.
Using social security numbers and birth dates belonging to genuine Americans, the 13 Russian nationals fraudulently opened Paypal accounts and obtained fake driver’s licenses.
Following the election of Mr Trump, the defendants organised political rallies in support of him, according to the indictment.
The defendants also “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with Trump Campaign” said the US deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was engaged in the interference campaign, nor that it changed the result of the election, Mr Rosenstein stressed.
The Russians also allegedly travelled to the US under false pretences in order to collect intelligence for their interference operations, posing as Americans and contacting US political and social activists.
Their organisation spent thousands of dollars on social media advertisements every month, using fake accounts and IT infrastructure inside the US to conceal the origin of this funding.
Mr Rosenstein told reporters that the Department of Justice has had no communications with Russia regarding the indictments or the extradition process.
A spokesperson for the Kremlin did not immediately comment, stating they were not familiar with the indictments.
President Trump tweeted: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
In a statement circulated by the White House following that tweet, President Trump said: “It is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful.
“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
Russian politicians have declared the indictment “another anti-Russian push”.
One of the men named in the indictment, Evgeny Prigozhin, who is already has US sanctions against his personal and business ventures, said the charges did not upset him.
Prigozhin has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media due to his wealth in the catering industry and close ties to the Russian President.
Despite this, he dismissed the allegations to the RIA news service, stating: “Americans are very impressionable. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil, let them see the devil.”
The allegations were also described as “absurd” by Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, writing on Facebook.
“Thirteen people interfered in the US elections?! 13 against an intelligence services budget of billions? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest developments and technologies? Absurd? Yes.”