Russian charged with attempted election interference

A Russian who allegedly worked on funding online propaganda efforts to manipulate voters in the 2016 and 2018 elections was charged with a federal crime as part of a wider conspiracy to hurt American democracy.

Posted: Oct 21, 2018 7:19 AM
Updated: Oct 21, 2018 7:19 AM

Last year, Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance by video at the BET Awards, where Chance The Rapper was being honored for his charity work in Chicago.

Social media, naturally, went wild.

Among those catching the Twitter wave was @Crystal1Johnson, whose bio said she was from Richmond, Virginia, and who described the "responsibility to promote the positive things that happen in our communities."

Crystal's tweet praising the former first lady's Ivy League education was shared more than 120,000 times and liked by 325,000 users, according to a CNN analysis of data released by Twitter. In fact the post, the day after the awards show, went viral more than any tweet she and her colleagues ever posted.

Her colleagues at Russian intelligence, that is.

"Crystal1Johnson," since suspended form the social media platform, was a fake Russian account run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), according to Twitter.

It's one of thousands released this week by Twitter as part of a huge 9-million-tweet collection of the Russian group's activities -- the most comprehensive accounting to date of the so-called IRA's efforts to use fake social media posts to inflame American society and influence its elections.

There's evidence Russian meddling has continued into the 2018 election; federal prosecutors charged 44-year-old Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, of St. Petersburg, Russia, with conspiracy to defraud the United States for her work with the Internet Research Agency.

Prosecutors alleged in a complaint unsealed Friday she aided the Russian effort to "inflame passions" online related to immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March and the NFL National Anthem debate from December 2016 until May 2018.

Although not directly related, the allegations against Khusyaynova track with the data released by Twitter that sheds fresh light on just how pervasive -- and ongoing -- that Russian interference effort has been.

It also lays bare just how sophisticated the Russian operation became in presenting content that by appearance did not appear pernicious in nature -- and in fact promoted seemingly positive messages in many instances, to gain larger followings.

The Crystal1Johnson account was the most retweeted of any IRA fake identity in the newly released records -- her posts were shared a total of nearly 4 million times, according to CNN's analysis. Her account remained active throughout the 2016 election cycle and into 2017.

While the account spread positive stories about African-American parents and a woman who helped desegregate New Orleans' schools, it also at times took a more pointed tone about the treatment of minorities. In 2016, the account highlighted a case where "police brutally assault and arrest teacher, for no reason," and last year one tweet stated, "Anybody ever think this is why black people would throw the fist up."

The Russians loved a late-night comedy show

The new records also show the seeming absurdity of who was most likely to get shout-outs by the Russian accounts.

One of the most frequent Twitter handles mentioned in the entire 9-million-tweet collection is actually @midnight -- the rather obscure late-night game show that aired on Comedy Central during the week -- according to CNN's analysis.

The Russian trolls just loved @midnight: they shared clips from the show, live-tweeted jokes, retweeted arcane hashtags related to it and tagged the show's handle in all kinds of posts. It may not be immediately clear how "I Dream of Barbie #MakeTVShowsAustralian" or "Whiskers, Texas Ranger #CatTV @midnight" served the Russian cause.

But there may be one clue: midnight east coast time, when the show airs, is 7 a.m. in St. Petersburg, when many Russian officers behind the IRA might be starting their days.

Pre-election tweetstorms

A close examination of the fake tweets from the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign reveals new details about the Russian-backed accounts posting blatantly political messages that could influence covers, but also how many of the accounts were more subtle: posing as news outlets and tweeting about conventional stories. Seemingly flying under the radar to build a user following and amplify issues it wanted in the bloodstream of American discourse.

One account that claimed to be a newspaper in Chicago tweeted about "Cubs fever" as the city's baseball team progressed in the MLB playoffs. An account supposedly in Phoenix posted about a tractor-trailer accident that was closing traffic. Often the posts included links to real news sites.

Sometimes the underlying political motivations were crystal clear. "Wikileaks is revealing truth about Hillary," said one account as WikiLeaks released a deluge of hacked emails from Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. Another account said Republican voters "will not accept a Clinton win," amplifying Trump's claims of a rigged race and stoking fears of post-election chaos.

As CNN and others have previously reported, many of the troll accounts posed as activists and highlighted violence against African Americans and other racial tensions in American society.

Some of the accounts latched onto popular hashtags to get viral clicks, and perhaps gain followers. One account, posing as a woman from Pittsburgh, joined in on a popular hashtag about roller derby and suggested "Donald Thump" and "Killary Clinton" as team names.

Dozens of trolls posted hundreds of tweets with the hashtag #BetterAlternativeToDebates during the second presidential debate, perhaps in an attempt to make the meme go viral. One proposed playing "Russian Roulette (As long as Putin doesn't get to supply the gun)." Another account wryly suggested, "watching paint dry." One troll said, "having sex with my ex."

One week before voters went to the polls, one of the Kremlin-backed accounts denied that Russian meddling, saying: "Russia's Putin says Moscow not trying to influence U.S. election."

Strangely enough, at least two of the lesser-followed troll accounts had a positive message for Trump after his win. One of them said, "@realDonaldTrump Congratulations from Russia!"

Huntsville
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 75°
Florence
Scattered Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 73°
Feels Like: 78°
Fayetteville
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 73°
Decatur
Clear
74° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 74°
Scottsboro
Overcast
73° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 73°
Feels Like: 73°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 99926

Reported Deaths: 1781
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson13258244
Mobile10517207
Montgomery6835149
Madison544734
Tuscaloosa423076
Baldwin365125
Unassigned363064
Shelby330936
Marshall318937
Lee270047
Morgan241118
Etowah216232
DeKalb183013
Calhoun180717
Elmore173138
Walker153964
Houston141912
Russell13872
St. Clair135418
Limestone134913
Dallas133123
Franklin128820
Cullman122712
Colbert120716
Lauderdale118919
Autauga117421
Escambia108717
Talladega104814
Jackson10144
Tallapoosa86579
Chambers84438
Dale83525
Clarke82610
Blount8124
Chilton8097
Butler76736
Coffee7646
Covington73720
Pike7087
Marion58026
Barbour5765
Lowndes57324
Marengo56515
Hale47826
Bullock46611
Winston45711
Perry4454
Washington44312
Bibb4425
Wilcox43210
Monroe4215
Pickens4049
Randolph40310
Conecuh39310
Sumter36418
Lawrence3512
Macon33914
Crenshaw3265
Choctaw28712
Cherokee2758
Henry2643
Clay2635
Geneva2631
Greene25211
Lamar2292
Fayette2125
Cleburne1271
Coosa1033
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 123914

Reported Deaths: 1233
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby23485308
Davidson20722217
Rutherford658955
Hamilton622053
Knox468540
Williamson357725
Sumner344972
Unassigned31424
Out of TN294714
Wilson232123
Bradley195613
Montgomery195213
Sevier18947
Putnam178518
Trousdale15836
Robertson156720
Hamblen140514
Blount131411
Washington12772
Maury12727
Tipton121110
Madison116018
Sullivan103714
Hardeman93017
Bedford92811
Macon86013
Lake7920
Loudon7493
Gibson7266
Bledsoe7081
Fayette7028
Dickson6982
Anderson6936
Dyer6638
Henderson6043
Cheatham5997
Jefferson5844
Obion5794
Lawrence5756
McMinn55320
Coffee5483
Rhea5382
Warren5334
Carter5246
Lauderdale5148
Haywood5106
Greene5048
Roane4852
Hawkins4837
Hardin4828
Cocke4783
Weakley4634
Cumberland4586
Smith4554
Monroe4529
Giles38513
McNairy3815
DeKalb3652
Franklin3324
Carroll3253
Lincoln3091
Marshall3044
White2945
Henry2900
Johnson2850
Claiborne2760
Hickman2730
Crockett2695
Campbell2541
Wayne2282
Marion2274
Chester2232
Decatur2163
Polk2073
Grainger2000
Overton1981
Unicoi1690
Union1620
Benton1591
Cannon1510
Jackson1291
Humphreys1283
Morgan1261
Scott1220
Grundy1142
Meigs1060
Sequatchie1060
Fentress960
Hancock812
Perry810
Clay780
Stewart780
Lewis741
Moore610
Houston590
Pickett371
Van Buren360

Community Events