“This case demonstrates that federal law enforcement will work aggressively to investigate and hold accountable cyber criminals located in Russia and other countries, which serve as safe-havens for this type of criminal activity,” U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement.
According to prosecutors, Lifshits applied to work on Project Lakhta in 2015 and became a manager in the “Translator Department,” which engaged in social media campaigns designed to stoke political division among Americans.
Some of the alleged conduct, including stealing identities to set up cryptocurrency accounts, dates to 2017. But the criminal complaint said that the social media campaign has been active through this year.
“Law enforcement have identified social media accounts used by Project Lakhta members since August 2019 up until the present to post about a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, the Second Amendment, Black Lives Matters, and LGBTQ issues,” prosecutors wrote. They “are using sophisticated methods to obfuscate the origins of their social media activity, including the use of virtual private servers, software enabling anonymous communications, and single use or ‘burner’ email accounts,” the complaint said.
The group set up a fake nonprofit organization in Ghana called “Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa” and then began efforts to reach Black Americans, according to the complaint. That group was shut down by Facebook in March.
The investigation of the Internet Research Agency and Project Lakhta began with the special-counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Thirteen Russian individuals and three companies were charged by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by orchestrating a social media campaign in which they pretended to be American political activists.
The Internet Research Agency, based in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, was described as prosecutors as the hub of efforts to allegedly trick Americans online into following and promoting Russian-fed propaganda. The material, prosecutors said, pushed voters toward then-candidate Donald Trump and away from his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
In 2018, a Russian accountant was accused of financing similar social media campaigns during that year’s midterm elections. But unlike in 2016, prosecutors say there was no clear effort to boost one candidate or party; instead the Russians sowed division on both sides of the aisle.
The Justice Department earlier this year dropped its case against one company, citing classified concerns about the material prosecutors were forced to share with the defense.
According to court records, the Russian efforts began in 2014, when three conspirators visited 10 states to gather intelligence about U.S. politics. Over the next two years the group began forming relationships with unwitting Americans, including Trump campaign staffers.
Russia does not allow its citizens to be extradited to the United States to face trial, so it is unlikely the individuals will be turned over.