Class 22. Project Lakhta
A window into the creation of Russian talking points, which sound eerily like a lot of current GOP talking points. Which is the chicken and which is the egg?
In the last class we looked at the creation and inner mechanics of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm run by the late war criminal, Yvegeney Prigozhin. In this class I want to drill down into the specifics of the IRA’s operations, particularly through Project Lakhta, the IRA’s political and electoral interference operation in Ukraine, the E.U., and the United States. According to the 2018 indictment against the project’s manager, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, by the Eastern District of Virginia (this one was not brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller), “since at least May 2014, Project Lakhta's stated goal in the United States was to spread distrust towards candidates for political office and the political system in general.” The indictment estimates that between January 2016 and June 2018, Project Lakhta’s proposed operating budget for its information warfare efforts totaled approximately $35 million.
As the New York Times video above details, the most effective way to neutralize disinformation and propaganda is to expose them. The Khusyaynova indictment is one of my favorite documents from the DOJ’s investigation into 2016 Russian election interference because it details the specific narratives that Russia used to inflame divisions in the U.S. even after the 2016 election. The most potent of these, which involved exploiting racial divisions, is worth dedicating a separate lesson to given its scope and reach, which I will do in the coming weeks. Many of the others are just the same old greatest hits in America’s culture wars: LGBTQ issues, gun rights, immigration. But the political talking points are worthing homing in on, because they will probably sound very familiar. In fact, while the indictment makes clear that Project Lakhta was targeting both sides of the political spectrum as far back as 2017, they gained much more traction among the far right MAGA base. This merging of foreign and domestic narratives in the last six years creates a big problem for the government’s efforts to combat election disinformation — something we are already seeing in recent federal court rulings.
Laying the Groundwork for “Civil War”
It’s tempting to look at January 6 as an effort that Trump got rolling in the months leading up to the 2020 election. Indeed, the final report of January 6 Committee details how Trump began making claims of voter fraud and delegitimizing the election going back as far as April 2020. ProPublica has also detailed how calls for “civil war” became intensified in the nine weeks between Election Day and January 6, with posts like the following:
The thing is, I have been noticing the “civil war” rhetoric ever since I read the Khusyaynova complaint in 2018. At the time, it seemed pretty shocking: No mainstream conservatives were actually saying it out loud, yet. That would change over the next few years. In fact, the same themes underlying January 6 — allegations of voter fraud in the “blue states,” threats of civil war, and calls for a 1776-style “revolution” were specific narratives being pushed by the IRA going back to August 2017.