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How A Russian Troll Factory Waged An Aggressive Campaign To Disrupt The U.S. Election

Feb 22, 2018
Originally published on February 28, 2018 7:02 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. In the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, a Facebook group called "United Muslims of America" staged a rally in support of Hillary Clinton. They handed out posters with this quote attributed to Clinton - "I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom." The quote was made up, and the rally was actually organized in St. Petersburg, Russia. The rally and sign were part of a Russian effort to affect the election, according to a grand jury indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller last Friday against 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies.

The indictment details how Russian computer specialists created hundreds of social media accounts that in turn created and spread political memes and messages in an attempt to undermine the Clinton campaign. Our guest Scott Shane covers national security and intelligence issues for The New York Times. He's been reporting on these Russian social media accounts for months and has broken stories on how Russian operatives used Twitter and Facebook to spread anti-Clinton messages and sew political discord in the U.S.

Well, Scott Shane, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, there's a lot of talk now about Russian efforts to interfere with - in the American political process. This is not new to you. Last fall, you were digging into clues of this kind of activity. Give us a sense of what you found and how easy or hard it was to put things together.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, with colleagues, I had written a long story in December of 2016 about the Russian hacking and leaking, as everyone remembers, of emails from prominent Democrats, the DNC and so on. But, you know, we kept hearing that the intelligence agencies thought this was part of a broader sort of information attack and that one of the elements was social media. So I started looking at Facebook and Twitter and talking to a lot of people. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to identify who were Russians out there, what were Russian efforts on Facebook and Twitter, and what were just part of the, you know, cacophony on both sides of the presidential election or the many sides to the presidential election in 2016.

But eventually, I found a couple ways to identify what appeared to be Russian efforts, and one of them was - the intelligence agencies had identified a website called DCLeaks that popped up in the middle of 2016 and started posting some of this hacked material. And one of the things that I found - I had searched on Facebook to see who had started promoting DCLeaks leaks, and it took about a month for DCLeaks to get any media attention. But I found that there were a handful of Facebook users who got very enthusiastic about DCLeaks right away, on the first day that DCLeaks appeared, and they were promoting it heavily across Facebook and various groups. And also, I noticed that their English was not ungrammatical, but a little odd. It wasn't idiomatic.

So I started trying to see if these were real people. If I could find them, I messaged them on Facebook. I looked for them in other ways. And most of them - you know, you just - they had generic names. You couldn't really track them. But there was a guy named Melvin Redick, and that was an unusual enough name. And he had put enough information on his Facebook page to try to track him. He'd put his high school. He'd put his college. He lived in Pennsylvania. He'd grown up in Philly. He lived in Harrisburg and so on.

So I set out to find him, and it turned out there was no Melvin Redick in Pennsylvania. No one had graduated by that name from his high school. No one had graduated from his college with that name or attended the college. And so gradually, I was able to determine that this guy was a Russian creation. And that was the first time I really was able to nail one of these imaginary American voters who had been created by this Russian effort with the notion of influencing the American public.

DAVIES: So tell us about the size and scale and reach of this operation. How big was it? Where did it come from?

SHANE: Well, it was operated by - you know, mostly from a company called the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, which appears to be controlled by a guy named Prigozhin, who is a close ally of Vladimir Putin, and has made a fortune in the catering business - school food business and that sort of thing - and has close Kremlin ties, has done other favors for the Kremlin, seems to be one of these oligarchs that Putin calls on from time to time for special projects, and this was a special project.

So, you know, they hired a bunch of people we would refer to as trolls in Internet language who had - you know, many folks may not know that they had major domestic operations. So they would attack the Russian opposition, the opponents or critics of Putin. They would go on the comment areas of various media outlets and post comments, you know, along the sort of guidelines they were given.

But then they created this separate project to deal with the United States. Eventually, as you suggested, that started in 2014 when they dispatched some people to the U.S. to travel around and apparently do sort of intelligence work. They sent two women over in 2014. They were here for three weeks in June of that year. They visited nine or 10 states - nine states, I guess it was. You know, so who were they meeting with? What were they looking at? What were they doing? I would love to be able to reconstruct that.

DAVIES: So when this thing got rolling, how big was it? What was its reach?

SHANE: It ended up, according to the indictment, involving about 80 employees of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. So they were, you know, working on shifts, trying to sort of imitate U.S. time zones to lend a little more credence to their operations. So they were sort of posting away on Facebook, creating these pages, firing away on Twitter - quite a big operation on Instagram.

So they were working a way - you know, to me, it had an entrepreneurial feel. You know, these people were given general instructions, and guidelines and the messages they wanted to convey, and then they were given, you know, a bit of leeway, and they could use imagination. And there's a little bit of a sense of throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing what stuck.

DAVIES: Right. It included, we are told, establishing hundreds of email, PayPal and bank accounts, include - and including the theft of some - the identities of some Americans. Why would they need to do that? I mean, anybody can, you know, sign up for a Twitter or Facebook account pretty quickly, right?

SHANE: Yes, but they paid for ads, in some cases. And they also - you know, it appears they wanted to sometimes borrow people's identities just to lend a little more credibility to their operation. Ultimately, you know, this really became a pretty large-scale operation. Facebook estimated that the Russian material, which is basically these pages, if people haven't seen them - they have these memes, these sort of posterlike images with a slogan, usually.

And those were, you know, followed by hundreds of thousands of Americans, and so they would start seeing the messages in their Facebook feed. So Facebook estimated that over two years, about 126 million Americans, you know, had this stuff in their feeds. You know, how many Americans actually saw the material and focused on it is impossible to say. But that's half of the U.S. adult population, so by then, it was a pretty big operation.

DAVIES: Wow. They sought to connect with actual American political operatives and activists, Trump supporters and others. You want to give us some examples of how they tried to do that and how successful they were?

SHANE: Sure. The - you know, this is where it gets both even more impressive and kind of creepy. But they were using direct message on Twitter, Facebook messages and other means to reach out to real American activists. So these pages were anti-immigrant pages. They were, you know, sort of taking volatile stances on race. They were, generally speaking, vociferously anti-Hillary Clinton, often pro-Donald Trump. So they could reach out to activists in all of these fields and try to say, hey, you know, we're part of your cause. And in many cases, they started calling people to rallies.

So, you know, it's hard to even get your mind around this, but these are people - Russian citizens - sitting in St. Petersburg, 4,000, 5,000 miles away, calling people to rallies, saying, you know, be at such and such a place at 1 p.m. on Saturday for a rally on so and so. And in many cases people actually showed up. You know, Facebook has sort of gradually become a little more transparent about this. Took them a long time to acknowledge any of this had happened, but they have said that 13 of these Russian Facebook pages called a total of 129 rallies, that about 338,000 different Facebook users viewed these events, the calls to these events, and about 62,000 Americans at least said on Facebook that they planned to go to one of these events. So you have people, Americans, being manipulated from thousands of miles away by people who they assumed to be fellow activists but are actually these Russian trolls.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. I cover state and local politics here in Philadelphia, and I remember in October of 2016, in the heat of the presidential campaign, seeing a notice in my email of a Miners for Trump Rally in South Philadelphia. South Philadelphia, as you know, is nowhere near coal country. And I just thought this was odd. And with all the other things to do, I didn't go. But now it turns out this appears to have been promoted by something called Being Patriotic, which I guess is one of the Russian-inspired fronts. And there's a Facebook post of theirs that reads, America has always been hinged on hard-working people. The state of Pennsylvania rose owing to multiple companies mining coal, producing steel and creating the need for other jobs, groceries, doctors, dentists, insurance, gas, vehicles, et cetera. That's closer than I could get to vernacular in any foreign language, but it's a little off.

SHANE: (Laughter) A little off - exactly. And that's sort of classic. Sometimes they hit the target. Sometimes you see their stuff and you say, huh, little bit off. I remember seeing one that spelled nationalist within an E instead of A, netionalist (ph), which is actually sort of the Russian. You know, if you're pronouncing English with a Russian pronunciation, it's more netionalist. In Baltimore, where I live, there was a pastor who was also a big activist, named the Reverend Heber Brown III. And he saw a group on Facebook, called Blacktivist, calling a rally, a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, who, some listeners may remember, was a black man in Baltimore who died after being injured in police custody.

And Heber Brown went on direct message on Twitter to contact this group, Blacktivist, and said, you guys don't even seem to live in Baltimore. How appropriate is it to call a rally when you're not even here? And, you know, but he still assumed they were Americans. And they answered in that same kind of English that you were just citing. They said, we are looking for friendship because we're fighting for the same reasons. Actually, we are open for your thoughts and offers. So (laughter), again, you know, he was a little perplexed by this. Told them to, you know, back off and stop meddling in other cities' affairs, but, you know, only found out months later that these guys were in another city that was far, far away.

DAVIES: So it doesn't seem there's a lot of evidence of them generating mass events, although clearly there are some people who responded to some of their appeals in some way. But it's harder to estimate how much these efforts might have influenced the thinking opinions and votes of Americans. There were some pretty colorful ads. You want to describe one or two?

SHANE: Yeah. I mean, one had sort of a debate between Jesus and Satan in which Satan was promoting Hillary Clinton. There was...

DAVIES: Satan actually has horns, right? And he's arm-wrestling Jesus.

SHANE: Yeah. I mean, you know, something that has occurred to me, especially as I got back into this in recent days after the indictment, there must have been some fun and joy involved on the Russians' part just getting into creating these images, fooling people, you know, sort of insinuating themselves into these divisive American debates. You know, it seems to have been quite a vigorous and, maybe for them, a kind of enjoyable effort.

DAVIES: Scott Shane covers national security and intelligence issues at The New York Times Washington bureau. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Scott Shane. He covers national security and intelligence issues for The New York Times at its Washington bureau. He's recently written about Russian efforts to influence American politics and the charges coming from the Mueller investigation.

Apart from promoting Donald Trump and attacking Hillary Clinton, once the general election campaign was underway there were other more subtle efforts - right? - like depressing black votes.

SHANE: That's right. I mean, one thing that you see is that these Russian trolls promoted not only Donald Trump, but also Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. And the Sanders efforts seemed to be when Senator Sanders, you know, had given up his campaign and endorsed Hillary Clinton. These Russian efforts kind of went into overdrive to tell Sanders supporters, don't betray the cause, don't go with Hillary Clinton. Stay home. Don't vote. And similarly, there was some Russian messaging that was mentioned in the indictment addressing Jill Stein supporters, the Green Party candidate, saying, vote for Stein. Your vote will not be wasted. And some of these efforts were directed at the black community.

There were also these Russian trolls took advantage of, I think it's fair to say, existing currents in the black community during the campaign where folks had gone back and taken a harder look at Bill Clinton's record, at the beginnings of mass incarceration and sort of zero-tolerance policies against crime, and Hillary Clinton's infamous labeling of some criminals as super predators. And the Russians played up that, as well, to try to apparently depress black turnout for Clinton.

DAVIES: You know, this might be a point to talk about how we regulate our political speech. I mean, you know, there are rules about political advertising in this country, right? If you're affecting a campaign, you have to disclose who you are, the name of your organization, and you have to file reports disclosing your donations and expenses. So-called news reports, I guess, aren't subject to those same rules, right, 'cause they're not paid advertising. They're theoretically, you know, journalism or some kind of nonfiction. What obligation do social media sites have to regulate something like this?

SHANE: Well, I think it's fair to say that social media companies have been extremely wary of regulation because their business model has been based on user growth, getting millions and then billions of people to use their sites, and then directing advertising at them. So, you know, they've worked very hard to avoid regulation. But now there are some proposals to begin to regulate social media political advertising the same way, you know, say, political ads on TV are regulated.

Everyone remembers the kind of, you know, I'm Donald Trump and I approve this message, the notion that you have to have somebody to take responsibility for a particular ad. You know where it's coming from. Of course, that is imperfect, too. On TV, you see these ads for paid for by citizens for a better America, and you have no idea who that really is. But there's some accountability there, at least. And there are efforts in Congress now to perhaps apply that to the social media world.

But I should say that there's been a little bit of misunderstanding out there about how the Russians operated. You know, there have been a lot of reports that they only spent a hundred-thousand dollars on Facebook ads, and only about half of that was before the election. And that's true, but the vast majority of the exposure of the Russian material was not in the form of paid ads. The paid ads were really a small effort. It was more this, you know, what Facebook calls this organic spread of material from the Facebook pages, stuff that the Russians didn't have to pay for that people were liking and sharing with their friends and that was making its way through Facebook organically as opposed to being paid for.

DAVIES: Facebook estimated that these Russian efforts reached roughly 126 million Americans, which is a huge, huge number. We don't know how many of them took them seriously or acted upon them. I'm just wondering, do we have any context for that number? Do we know how it would compare to a Koch marketing campaign, or some other big effort to influence public opinion?

SHANE: Well, you know, Facebook has emphasized that even that huge number, half the adult population in the United States, is small by Facebook standards. The amount of information that's out there on Facebook being looked at by people, that was only one out of 23,000 pieces of content placed in people's news feeds on Facebook during this period. So it's a tiny percentage of everything on Facebook. But of course at the same time, it's a whole lot of stuff. They put up 80,000 posts over two years, the Russians did, and a lot of it was shared quite a bit.

And, you know, we've been kind of picking on Facebook here. On Google, you know, the Russians created 18 channels, put up more than a thousand videos totaling 43 hours. Twitter identified - and I'm quite sure this is incomplete, but - they identified more than 50,000 automated accounts, these so-called bot accounts, on Twitter that were linked to the Russian campaign. So they were sort of firing on all cylinders during this period.

DAVIES: Scott Shane reports on national security and intelligence issues for The New York Times. After a break, he'll talk about President Trump's response to the charges in the Russia investigation and about past efforts by the United States to influence political events in other countries. Also, Ken Tucker reviews Brandi Carlile's new album. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane about the Russian effort to influence American politics, including the 2016 election. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with orchestrating a massive online campaign to interfere with the presidential election.

You know, Masha Gessen, the Russian-born New Yorker writer, posted a piece this week in which she essentially says the impact of all this is exaggerated. She wrote, loyal Putinites and dissident intellectuals alike are remarkably united in finding the American obsession with Russian meddling to be ridiculous. She is, by the way, certainly no fan of Putin. She's been very critical of him. Do you have any sense of what the reaction's like in Russia, other than the official Kremlin denials of responsibility?

SHANE: Well, I think she's right. And I have the greatest respect for Masha Gessen. She knows this stuff, and she certainly knows the Russian political scene extremely well. But, I mean, there's a certain Russian cynicism that says there's no way the government could actually have done a good job on this. You know, you can argue till the cows come home about whether this had a big impact, a little impact, no impact. But I guess I've been impressed on the more than a year that I've been looking at this.

As the picture filled in, I'm more and more impressed by what they achieved. And I'm not just talking about the social media aspect of this. You know, everyone who's looked at this would agree that the biggest impact the Russians had by far was to hack into the Democratic National Committee, into the Clinton campaign and then, through WikiLeaks mostly, put up these emails. You know, they managed to disrupt the Democratic National Convention, forced the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the eve of the convention. They dripped out John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman's emails over a period of weeks before the election.

Day after day after day, they produced many, many news stories. And actually, Donald Trump picked up the contents of some of that leaked material, including Clinton's speeches, and made that the centerpiece of many speeches that he gave. So there was that. That was very high profile, very significant. And then you have all this social media stuff. You know, the analogy that I have come up with in my own head to try to understand this is the Russians were wielding a firehose of information during the campaign. But a campaign is a hurricane.

So there was a whole lot of stuff coming from the Russians, but there was a whole lot more stuff coming from Americans, a very polarized, very divided American public. And that's, you know, again, that's one of the reasons it was so hard to tell on social media what was Russian and what was not. There were anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton pages on Facebook. Some were Russian, many were American. And so they were adding to the - sort of the cacophony of political noise.

And the only reason I think it's possible to speculate about a significant effect on the election is this was an extremely close election. As everybody knows, Clinton won 3 million popular votes more than Donald Trump. And Donald Trump, you know, won the election by fewer than 100,000 votes in three states. So we're talking about a squeaker of an election. And so therefore I think it's hard to discount, with all due respect to Masha Gessen, I think it's hard to discount entirely the notion that the Russian activities did have an effect on the outcome.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, I've covered a lot of elections. And when they're really, really close, you can point to a half a dozen things that, had they gone differently, might have affected it. And this could be among those. I want to ask kind of a naive question. You know, we know that campaign contributions from foreign nationals to political candidates in the United States is banned. This was different. I mean, this was an independent social media campaign. What laws did the Russians allegedly break in doing this?

SHANE: Wow. That's a great question. You know, they're accused of something that sounds very grand, which is conspiracy to defraud the United States. And then there are a number of other counts including things like other kinds of fraud and identity theft for stealing the identities of Americans who they then - whose identities they then use to create these accounts on social media.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, the - I mean, the anger is really borne of a sense of outrage that you don't want a foreign country meddling with your elections. And it's fair to note that this is not the first time this has happened and that the United States itself has done this, which you've written about and have talked to intelligence officials about their reactions. What did you find?

SHANE: Yes. I mean, something that has gone mostly unnoticed in this, you know, year-long debate on what happened, what the Russians did to our election was what the U.S. has done to other countries elections over the decades. The CIA, in particular, has a long and colorful history of intervening in other people's elections and, indeed, in some cases going much farther - certainly much farther than the Russians went in 2016 in countries like Guatemala, Iran, Brazil.

They actually helped overthrow elected leaders who, you know, were seen by American officials as antithetical to U.S. interests. We haven't seen that in quite a while, but in other instances that - some of the older ones are well documented now. The CIA, between the '40s and the '60s, intervened repeatedly in Italian elections trying to prevent the election of the communists to power. And the Soviets were undoubtedly on the other side. But we were delivering suitcases full of money to a hotel in Rome in one instance a CIA retiree described. Those went to various candidates, financed all kinds of activities.

In other instances, the CIA would put in - would insert into foreign newspapers - would pay to have inserted true information, in some cases, that would hurt a particular candidate, in other cases, false information. So they did - many of the things the Russians did in 2016, the U.S. has done historically using the, you know, whatever technology was available at the time. In more recent cases, post-Cold War, it's harder to get information. The stuff is still classified and still carefully protected.

But we have certainly put our thumb on the scales in elections once in Russia, trying to prevent the election of a communist in 1996 who was leading in the polls against Boris Yeltsin. And so we, you know, we intervened in a significant way to help Yeltsin's re-election. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, where, of course, we were and are at war, we're pretty heavy-handed in showing our preference and working to get particular candidates elected in both those countries as well.

DAVIES: Scott Shane covers national security and intelligence issues at The New York Times in their Washington bureau. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Scott Shane. He works for The New York Times covering national security and intelligence issues at their Washington bureau. He's written recently about the Russian efforts to influence American politics and the Mueller investigation.

We should talk about the president's reaction to all this. One thing he said is that the American election was not impacted by the Russian activities. The Mueller indictment made no such claim - right? - and no one can know for sure.

SHANE: Exactly, yeah. I mean, the president has always reacted to news about the Russian attack on the election in terms of what it means for him. And so he immediately took to Twitter to essentially say, initially, case closed because the Mueller indictment and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, when he announced it, said, no American appeared to, you know, had willingly cooperated with this operation or was named in the indictment as wittingly cooperating with this, knowingly cooperating. So, you know, the president took that opportunity to say, you know, I'm off the hook. Good news.

My colleagues who cover the White House said that his attitude evolved over the weekend and became somewhat darker because he realized this was not be being taken as a sort of clean bill of health but, in fact, proof that there had been crimes committed during the Russian operation. You know, there were violations of American law. And also that this was, you know, a very significant effect. It was not a hoax. It was something very specifically that was carried out by a large team in Russia. So the president at times has said Russia hoax. And this does seem to say whatever this was, it wasn't just a hoax.

DAVIES: You know, President Trump said, you know, this clears me. It shows there's no conclusion. It didn't really do that. He said it shows there was no effect. The indictments don't do that. One thing the president hasn't done is to comment on the seriousness of this effort to undermine American democracy. What's the impact of his lack of attention to that part of this?

SHANE: Well, I think it concerns a lot of people in Congress and across the government and across the country because, you know, intelligence officials told Congress last week that there are already signs that the Russians are thinking about the midterms and are likely to intervene in various ways in the midterm elections held later this year. You know, primaries are coming up in many states, you know, in the near future.

And so there's been a lot of unhappiness that the president has not shown sort of leadership in terms of saying, you know, Russia intervened in our election, in our democratic process. And we are going to use all the forces of the government, all the resources of the government to make sure they don't do it again. He hasn't focused on that. He hasn't said that. And that has distressed a lot of people inside and outside the government.

DAVIES: You know, one reason I like to read indictments is that they often provide clues to how investigators learned what they know. What does this indictment tell us about how the FBI figured this out?

SHANE: Well, there are some clues and some interesting ones. Among other things, the indictment quotes from emails. For example, an email that a woman working for the Russian troll operation in St. Petersburg sent to her family saying - you know, actually last year - saying, geez, you know, sorry I've been busy. We were really scrambling to cover our tracks because the FBI has busted us. (Laughter) You know, the FBI is on to us. Now, how did the FBI get a hold of an email that a woman in St. Petersburg sent to her family? You know, one would have to assume that the National Security Agency might have been targeting some of these folks and picking up their emails.

So there seems to have been, you know, signals, intelligence intercept - intercepted communications involved. And another possible clue is that three people are being described - are described the indictment, Russians, as having visited the United States on sort of intelligence missions in advance of this operation in 2014. And two of them are named, but one is not named. Now, there doesn't seem to be any reason to treat that person differently unless that person is cooperating with the investigation, in which case their name, you know, would be left out of it. So that does raise the possibility that there's an insider from the Russian operation who's cooperating with Mr. Mueller.

The other thing that's interesting about that is from the description of the person who visited Atlanta in November of 2014 and who's not named, his colleagues, his bosses in Russia could certainly identify him. And the fact that that he, you know, that they did put that information in the indictment could potentially endanger that person. So it makes you wonder whether not only is he cooperating, but is he perhaps in the United States now?

DAVIES: I gather nobody expects the Russians charged in this investigation to be, you know, brought to justice. Why do you think Mueller unveiled this indictment, made these accusations public?

SHANE: That's right. I mean, I don't think, you know, about the biggest effect of this is likely to prevent these Russians from traveling without fear that they might be, you know, arrested not only in the United States but in other parts of Europe and so on an arrest warrant from the U.S. One of the bosses from this troll factory in St. Petersburg actually said in an interview after the indictments Russia is a big country with a lot of beautiful places, and so he's going to limit his travel to Russia.

But so, you know, I think one answer to why Mueller, you know, indicted these Russians, you know, knowing that they probably would not be punished is that that's, you know, that's what he was asked to do. He was assigned to investigate, carry out a criminal investigation of the Russian interference in the election and any possible, you know, cooperation, collusion from President Trump or his associates. And that's what he's doing. And this is sort of so - he found that these Russians had violated American law, so he indicted them.

But one former government official told me that he thought this was a message indictment and that he thought that one reason Mueller did it was to settle once and for all the question of whether the notion of Russian interference in the U.S. election was or was not a hoax, as the president has said. By, you know, indicting three companies and 13 Russian individuals, you know, he's certainly sending the message that this was not a hoax. And also, perhaps the same official thought putting some Americans, you know, on notice that if they had had any communications with these Russians or other Russians as part of the election campaign - that basically, you know, Mueller was going to come after them, and it might encourage some of those people to come forward and offer what they knew in hopes of ultimately avoiding punishment or mitigating punishment.

DAVIES: The attention in the Mueller probe focused on the effect of the elections. Are these networks still active? What are they doing now?

SHANE: Yeah, it's - you know, certainly, the experts who follow this stuff closely - while it's impossible to be absolutely certain what's Russia and what's not, they say that these Russian trolls, who are believed to be government-sponsored, are still very active, and their continuing activity appears to be in dividing, you know, Americans. And so every time there's a divisive issue - a school shooting, the controversy over, you know, NFL players kneeling to protest against police shootings, anything that's sort of a hot topic on which Americans have strongly divided feelings - you find these suspected Russian Twitter accounts especially pumping it out at a very high volume. And so it appears that the Russians have not abandoned the idea of doing their part to divide America, not that we're not pretty well divided on our own.

And the motive here is that Vladimir Putin does not want the United States to be a model for his own country. In 2011, there were big demonstrations in Moscow and other cities against Putin and essentially in favor of democracy. And he - you know, to the degree that he can help mar the image of the United States, make the U.S. look like a chaotic, and gridlocked and divided place, a very troubled country, neither Russians nor their neighbors are going to say, hey, geez, let's create a society like the United States.

DAVIES: Well, Scott Shane, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

SHANE: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Scott Shane covers national security and intelligence issues at The New York Times Washington bureau. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Brandi Carlile's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

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