Friday's election-interference indictment brought by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special counsel, underscores how thoroughly social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter were played by Russian propagandists.
And it's not clear if the companies have taken sufficient action to prevent something similar from happening again.
Thirteen Russians, including a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, were charged Friday in a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. The indictment said the Russians' conspiracy aimed, in part, to help Republican Donald Trump and harm the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The alleged scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the White House race.
"I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people," wrote one of the defendants, Irina Kaverzina, in an email to a family member obtained by investigators.
Tech companies have spent months pledging to fix their platforms ahead of the upcoming midterm elections this year, and reiterated those promises Friday. Twitter said in a Friday night statement it is "committed to addressing, mitigating, and ultimately preventing any future attempts to interfere in elections and the democratic process, and to doing so in the most transparent way possible." Facebook thanked U.S. investigators for taking "aggressive action" and pointed out its own role in helping the investigation.
Researchers, however, noted that the companies' business incentives don't necessarily align with improved security and anti-hoaxing measures that might have frustrated Russian agents.
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"I've never been convinced that these sites are motivated to fix a problem like this," said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that security controls make it harder for sites like Facebook to offer users new features and keep advertisers happy. "It's a really, really, really difficult problem."
The indictment confirms earlier findings from congressional investigations that Russian agents manipulated social media to promote social division by mimicking grassroots political activity. It also underscores that the problem wasn't just "bots" — i.e., automated social-media accounts — but human conspirators who fine-tuned propaganda and built online relationships with American activists.
"The idea wasn't necessarily to help one political party over another, but to sow as much discord as possible," said Melissa Ryan, a Democratic social media marketing expert who now keeps track of right-wing online activity. "This was America that was attacked."
The Russians, according to the indictment, created group pages on social media platforms to address certain demographics and hot topics in the U.S. Names for the group pages included "Secured Borders," "Blacktivist," "United Muslims of America," "Army of Jesus," "South United" and "Heart of Texas." These groups had garnered a following of hundreds of thousands of users by 2016.
At one point in September 2016, the person operating "Secured Borders" was criticized in an internal review for having a "low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton."
And those operating "United Muslims of America" were encouraged to post anti-voting messages, with language such as, "American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the middle east and voted yes for invading Iraq."
That group also promoted a rally called "Support Hillary. Save American Muslims" in July 2016 in DC and "recruited a real US person to hold a sign depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating 'I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.'"
On Twitter, the conspirators created the "Tennessee GOP" account with the handle @TEN_GOP, pretending it was operated by a state political party. This account eventually surpassed 100,000 followers.
Social media companies weren't the only ones subverted in the influence campaign. Federal prosecutors allege that Russian criminals used PayPal as a primary conduit to transfer money for general expenses and to buy Facebook ads aimed at influencing voters. Prosecutors say the accounts were opened using fake identities to help bypass PayPal's security measures.
PayPal spokesman Justin Higgs said the San Jose, California, company has been cooperating with the Justice Department and is "intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use" of its services.
Email servers Yahoo, Gmail and Outlook were also caught up in the scheme. The fraudulent bank accounts used to open the PayPal accounts were acquired with creative email addresses. Some of the addresses included usernames like "wokeaztec," "allforusa," "unitedvetsofamerica," "patriotsus," "staceyredneck" and "ihatecrime1."
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer outlined the complexity of preventing abuse.
"Election integrity is challenging because again, you're dealing with adversaries," Schroepfer said during a conference in Half Moon Bay, California. "They are trying to accomplish a goal and they have smart people who are trying to figure out their way into the system to accomplish that."
For instance, infiltrators often react immediately to countermeasures. If they figure out Facebook is checking the internet addresses of computers to identify visitors from particular countries, Schroepfer said, "they'll take over a machine with malware in the U.S. and post from there instead. People say, 'Why don't you just check the currency or the IP address?' And as soon as you do that, literally that afternoon, they will change tactics."
Schroepfer said the company is making "good headway" on the problem, although he declined to give specifics. "By kind of doing a lot better job of trying to figure out the authenticity of these different actors, we can certainly stop that sort of behavior," he said. "There's a big focus on that."
On the other hand, now that the Russians have shown how this sort of campaign is done, the door is open for others — including American special interest groups — to use the same tactics to target disaffected voters in the right places, said David Gerzof Richard, a communications professor at Emerson College.
"This is the new norm," he said. "It's not going away. It's not going to be magically fixed by a Silicon Valley CEO or a group of executives saying they're going to do better."
AP Technology Writer Ryan Nakashima contributed to this report.