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The Week in Tech – The Mueller Investigation Details Exactly How Russian Nationals Used Social Media to Influence the 2016 Election

There’s a ton of tech news to get to! Maybe you didn’t get to it all, because who’s got time for that? Well, that’d be us — here are a handful of stories from the week that was that might affect you!

The Mueller Investigation indicts 13 Russian nationals in 2016 election interference

The next chapter of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections was released on Friday. Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three companies for election interference, with much of the report focusing on the Internet Research Agency. Sound familiar? Late last year, Facebook and Twitter both allowed users to see if they had interacted with one of the many politically-themed pages created by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency to inflame and confuse political discourse in the United States. The lists from Facebook and Twitter revealed that the Internet Research Agency had created a wide variety of fake pages, including those claiming to be affiliated with the Republican party, the Democratic party, the LGBTQ community, pro-police activists, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Facebook’s tool to inform users whether or not they had interacted with an IRA-created Facebook page

The details in the indictments are particularly alarming. Mueller’s investigation details how those indicted used VPNs to make it appear as if they were posting material and purchasing ads for posts from locations within the United States, not Russia, and how they paid for those ads with bank accounts opened under fake names or the names of deceased people. Those ads were used to promote posts from their fake Facebook pages, many of which were widely shared and discussed during the 2016 election cycle. There are even details about how those indicted tricked actual U.S.-based activists on both sides of the aisle into helping with their fake pages. The report also includes specific examples of when those fake pages were used to encourage people to either vote for Donald Trump, not vote at all, or vote for either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, the two most prominent third party candidates in the race. It’s worth noting that, as cited in the report, some fake pages seemingly aligned with left-leaning groups, like the ‘Blacktivist’ page, were used to argue against voting for Hillary Clinton.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller / By Federal Bureau of Investigation (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/executives) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s also important to understand what the report doesn’t say. The report specifically says the genuine U.S.-based activists were “unwitting.” The report says nothing of collusion on the part of anyone based in the United States, including the Trump administration. It’s purely an indictment of a the Internet Research Agency, one that the report says started in 2014, shortly after the removal of President Yanukovych of Ukraine. While it has been heavily implied that the Internet Research Agency is backed by the Russian state and Vladimir Putin, Mueller’s report stops short of making that connection.

Pro-EU protesters in Kiev, Ukraine in 2013 / By Ilya (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The report is terrifying in that we’re not really talking about hacking here. What the Internet Research Agency did was not technologically sophisticated — it simply used and abused the open flow of information within the United States and the relatively open ad platforms of Facebook and Twitter, to devastating effect. The most technical part of the project may have been establishing and using VPNs to allow the Internet Research Agency to make it appear that Russian posters were located in the United States.

However, the report should also not be viewed as an exoneration of the Trump administration or the end of the Mueller investigation. Although the Internet Research Agency project did begin in 2014, that fact doesn’t rule out the possibility that the company at some point changed its focus and established contacts with the Trump campaign in 2016. As more evidence and testimony is collected, it’s possible that more indictments, including some of U.S. citizens, could be on the way.

Next page: Nokia considers ditching the consumer health tech industry

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