There’s nothing particularly new or interesting per se in the 37 page indictment of 13 Russian nationals, including its head Evgeny Prigozhin, for “meddling” in the US elections through online trolling.
The existence of the Internet Research Agency – or “Olgino”, as it is known in Russia, after the location of the first “troll factory” (since moved to Savushkina Street, Saint-Petersburg) – has been widely known in Russia for half a decade, thanks entirely to Russian journalists. Novaya Gazeta published a report on them in 2013. It is headed by Evgeny Prigozhin, a shady figure who did 12 years in a Soviet prison for robbery and fraud, but rose rapidly in the lawless 1990s in the restaurant business, and in more recent years has been entrusted with “black work” for the Kremlin. The most serious investigation about its involvement in the US elections was conducted by the Russian RBC media group, which came up with a figure of $2.3 million (that’s almost three orders of magnitude less than the combined $1.6 billion that the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent).
Moreover, as with the sanctions list – and despite the high-profile, seven figure lawyers recruited by Mueller for his investigation – there is a distinct tinge of incompetence to this indictment, suggesting a lack of conscientiousness and/or Russia expertise at the Department of Justice.
Here is what Andrey Zakharov, one of the co-authors of the original Russian RBC report, had to say about this in an interview with WaPo:
The other staff mentioned are very incidental. I mean, it seems like they put down all the names they could get. Some were people who worked there in 2014 — but most of these guys didn’t work for the troll factory for a long time. They didn’t even work there during the elections. Like Krylova, she didn’t work there then. [Aleksandra Krylova is one of the two named Internet Research Agency employees the indictment said traveled to the United States in 2014.]
It looks like they just took some employees from the that American department whose names they could get. But the American department was like 90 people. So my reaction was that, for me, it was like that curious list of oligarchs and Kremlin authorities where they put the whole Forbes list and the whole Kremlin administration on it. It’s very strange.
So it’s easy to make fun of this and slot it down as just another episode in the slapstick sitcom that is American domestic politics. As Alexander Mercouris optimistically points out, the indictment is “entirely declamatory,” since (1) there is zero chance that any Russian named in the indictment will be extradited, and (2) there are no claims that any member of the Trump campaign colluded with any of the people in the indictment.
I am considerably more pessimistic.
First, at the end of the day, free speech is free speech – what difference does it make even if it is done on the Kremlin’s payroll, or with the help of botnets? (Neither of which, incidentally, has been rigorously proven). This represents a radical retreat from the principles of the First Amendment, and one of that isn’t just going to impact Russians in the US and foreigners. With this new normal, mocking and trolling politicians remains all well and good – but only so long as the Russians (Chinese, etc.) aren’t behind it. And to ascertain whether or not that is indeed the case, you need investigations – investigations that will be overwhelmingly targeted against enemies of the centrist establishment from both Left and the Right. There is already a lot of squealing from Blue Checkmark Twitter and /r/politics on how the Russians aided Jill Stein and even Bernie Sanders.
Second, it expands the claimed sphere of American global jurisdiction beyond just espionage (Wikileaks/Julian Assange) to include – for all intents and purposes – the criminalization of foreign commentary on American politics during election years.
This is not an exaggeration.
While the Kremlin is obviously supportive of the Internet Research Agency, it has taken care to keep itself at arms’ length from it, and as with Wagner, no formal ties have ever been demonstrated; consequently, the indictment itself stops short of naming Putin or any Russian official figures. The flip side is that since so many Russians apparently work for or coordinate with the Kremlin in an official capacity, there is a new norm getting established that all Russians are suspect, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate otherwise. As Leonid Bershidsky points out, this may result in Russians in the US facing “increasing scrutiny when applying for jobs, bank accounts and other attributes of a normal life in the US – and the burden of proof that they are not Kremlin agents will be on them.”
However, one might argue that Russians in the US at least generally made their own decision to live in the US, which implies acceptance of All-American norms (and if that comes to include entrenched Russophobia, that’s too bad; they are free to leave if they don’t like it). The same cannot be said about Russians living in Russia, who never even plan to set foot in the US. But while Russia will not extradite anybody in the indictment, the same cannot be said of American satellite countries, which include most of Europe. The people working at the troll factory are young, Anglophone, and not poor; it is almost inevitable than sooner or later one of them will set foot in such a country, and presumably more likely than not that they will be arrested and extradited. In this scenario, Russia can be expected to do as little (that is to say, nothing) for them as it did for the Wagner mercenaries – coincidentally, another outfit “curated” by Prigozhin – murdered by Americans in Deir ez-Zor a couple of weeks ago.
And apart from monetary compensation, there’s ultimately not that much separating a Savushkina troll from any regular shitposter in Russia or anywhere else in the world outside the US.
PS. NBC News recently released a database of more than 200,000 tweets [.csv] that Twitter claimed constuted “malicious activity” from subsequently suspended Russia linked accounts during the 2016 US elections.
I notice that the “stars” of the Russia watching and Alt Right world get nary a mention. Noted Kremlin troll and bête noire of Western neoliberals Mark Sleboda gets 2 mentions. Mercouris – zero. Peter Lavelle – one. The journalist Bryan MacDonald – zero. Richard B. Spencer – twice (quite sad from Putler, “godfather of extreme nationalism” ala Hillary Clinton). His wife Nina Byzantina (Kouprianova) – twice. Valentina Lisitsa, the musician no platformed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for her support of Russian on the Crimea – a barely more respectable five times. Yours truly – zero times. In the meantime, affirmative action Kremlinologist and Russia truther Joy Reid was “boosted” by “the Kremlin” 267 times.