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Crude, Expensive And Effective: How Russia Impacted The Election


We now know more about how Russia actually went about trying to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. The campaign was called Project Lakhta, and it was crude but effective. Here's Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR's new podcast, The Indicator, from Planet Money.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Russians invested money in Project Lakhta for years, and that is not counting the millions of dollars in bonuses that it handed out to employees for good work. David Kris was the United States' top lawyer on counterterrorism and espionage during part of the Obama administration. He oversaw some of the nation's biggest cases, including the ring of Russian spies captured in the summer of 2010. Now he works as a national security consultant and was at work on Friday when the indictment came out, and he says it was riveting.

DAVID KRIS: It reads a little bit like the technical aspects of a novel. It's really a very stunning document.

VANEK SMITH: David says for him the most amazing part was all the detail, all of the little ways in which this team of around 80 Russians went about trying to disrupt the culture of an entire country. Part of the indictment talks about Russia commissioning a little cage that would fit onto a flatbed truck and then hiring an actress to wear a Hillary Clinton costume and stand inside of the cage to get people riled up during a rally. The Russians also created social media accounts. They masqueraded as Trump supporters, Trump haters, Muslim activists, anti-immigration activists, Black Lives Matter activists. They organized Trump rallies in areas where the race looked tight. They bought a lot of Facebook ads. And that's about it. That is how Russia spent a million dollars a month trying to undermine American democracy.

KRIS: It's not highly polished, but in terms of attacking Democratic institutions and exacerbating divisions within the United States, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

VANEK SMITH: In other words, it worked. The Facebook groups and ranting posts and hashtags and custom-built built cages? It worked.

KRIS: They apparently have hundreds of thousands of online followers in their controlled groups. They have hundreds of social media accounts. In Florida, they bought Facebook ads that reached more than 59,000 users, and more than 8,300 of them responded by clicking through.

VANEK SMITH: Those numbers don't sound so impressive, especially considering there are 300 million Americans, but, David says, President Trump won Florida by around a hundred-thousand votes. So going after micro groups was probably a good investment for Russia, and the barebones approach was probably exactly the right way to target them.

KRIS: A certain ragtag element to the thing, I think, is actually in some ways really good tradecraft to actually look like the kind of people who spend time in the Twitter verse.

VANEK SMITH: The indictment quotes the email of one Russian spy as saying, I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people. David thinks 73 million rubles a month - more than a million dollars a month - was a pretty good deal for Russia.

KRIS: I am highly confident that they think of this as a very good bargain and that they got a tremendous bang for their buck, or, for their ruble.

VANEK SMITH: David says we can bank on the fact that the Russians will try this again. Now, he says, we have to start spending some money to figure out how to keep outsiders from meddling in our elections. And the solution might be as unsophisticated as the problem. For instance, one of the things Facebook plans to do in the future is send physical postcards with a verification code to people who buy their ads. That will make it harder for people in other countries to fake their locations. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.


MARTIN: Stacey co-hosts NPR's new daily podcast, it's called The Indicator, from Planet Money. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.