Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office charged three Russian entities and 13 Russian nationals with “violating US criminal laws in order to interfere with US elections and political processes.”
The indictment revealed for the first time the extent to which Russians tried to sow political discourse in the US in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The Russians weaponized social media to organize political rallies, both in support of and against certain candidates, according to the indictment. Although the Russians organized some rallies in opposition to Trump’s candidacy, most were supportive.
“To conceal the fact that they were based in Russia, Defendants and their co-conspirators promoted these rallies while pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists who were located in the United States but unable to meet or participate in person,” Mueller’s indictment read.
The rallies, which began in June 2016, took place both before and after the 2016 election, spanning New York, Florida, and North Carolina.
Here are three examples of rallies organized by the Russians, as described in the indictment:
June 25, 2016: New York
The Russians used a Facebook group called “Being Patriotic,” the Twitter account @March_for_Trump, and other social media accounts to organize a pro-Trump rally in New York called “March for Trump.”
To promote the rally, the Russians purchased ads on Facebook and privately messaged people encouraging them to participate, even offering to reimburse some of their traveling expenses.
They also solicited support from a volunteer for the Trump campaign in New York, who agreed to supply the rallygoers with signs.
July 9, 2016: Washington, DC
- Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Around June 2016, the Russians started using a Facebook group called “United Muslims of America” to promote an upcoming rally in DC: “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims.”
During that rally, they allegedly paid a real American to hold a sign portraying Clinton alongside a quote: “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
July 23, 2016: New York
A couple weeks later, the Russians organized a rally similar to the protest in June called “Down with Hillary.”
They used many of the same techniques to spread the word about the rally, including buying ads on social media, contacting grassroots organizations, and communicating with unwitting Trump campaign volunteers.
August 20, 2016: Florida
Later that summer, the Russians extended their operations into Florida, a critical battleground state in US elections.
Using tactics similar to those they employed in New York, the Russians bought ads on Facebook and Instagram to promote a series of pro-Trump rallies they dubbed “Florida Goes Trump.”
They coordinated with Trump campaign staff, who were unaware they were working with Russians, to organize the rallies, and paid real Americans to perform specific tasks during the protests.
In one instance, according to the indictment, the Russians asked certain individuals to “build a cage on a flatbed truck and another U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.”
More rallies in New York and Pennsylvania
- Reuters/Carlos Barria
Throughout the rest of the campaign cycle, the Russians continued organizing rallies mirroring previous ones staged in New York and Florida.
They communicated with unwitting Trump campaign volunteers, promoted the rallies on social media, and paid individuals to perform certain tasks.
November 12-19, 2016: New York and North Carolina
Russian interference didn’t end with Trump’s election victory.
Shortly after the November vote, the Russians helped organize several pro-Trump rallies at the same time they organized anti-Trump protests, calling on people to object to the election results.
On November 12, the Russians helped coordinate an anti-Trump rally that drew as many as 25,000 people, according to NBC News.
Fox News reported that Michael Moore, the prominent documentary filmmaker who strongly opposes Trump, attended that rally.
About a week later, the Russians organized a protest called “Charlotte Against Trump” in North Carolina.
These rallies represented just a fraction of the dozens of other rallies that took place in cities across the US after Trump’s victory.
Many more possible Russian rallies
The Russians were also allegedly responsible for organizing other rallies throughout the 2016 campaign, although these were not outlined in Mueller’s indictment.
According to The New York Times, a group of about a dozen protestors in Houston, Texas, met to protest “the threat of radical Islam” in May 2016. That group was met with dozens of counter-protestors, drawing a large local police presence.
Both groups were organized by Russians.