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Russian Cyber Trolls Watched 'House Of Cards' To Understand U.S. Politics

Oct 17, 2017
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

File this next story under headlines you never expected to read. Russian cyber trolls were ordered to watch "House Of Cards." That's right, the Netflix TV series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. "House Of Cards" was apparently a required watching as Russia tried to craft its message during the influence campaign that U.S. intelligence says Russia carried out during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Now, all this is according to an interview with a former member of a St. Petersburg troll factory's elite English language department. And we learned of this story courtesy of Michael Isikoff, who's got the scoop as chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. Michael Isikoff, welcome.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.

KELLY: Were you able to verify the story? I mean, how credible do we think that this former troll giving an interview on Russian TV is?

ISIKOFF: Well, what we do know is that what he had to say is very consistent with the way U.S. intelligence officials have described the Russian influence campaign. He was also, according to Rain, the independent TV station...

KELLY: ...where the interview was broadcast. Uh-huh.

ISIKOFF: Right. He was able to produce a document that showed he indeed worked at the Internet research agency for about a year up until the end of 2015.

KELLY: Remind us what we know about this operation. I mean, what - when we say troll factory in St. Petersburg, what's happening?

ISIKOFF: This is an office in St. Petersburg, a company that hired hundreds of wannabe journalists, out-of-work folks and directed them to place messages on social media disguising where they were coming from to portray themselves as ordinary folks posting messages on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments section of newspapers and...

KELLY: ...This elite English language unit, we should note, is the same one that Facebook has acknowledged was placing messages on its site.

ISIKOFF: Exactly. This is the troll farm that was placing thousands of ads on Facebook, spending upwards of $100,000 to influence the American election. That's what Facebook has concluded. So the messaging described by this former troll who went by the name of Maksim is very consistent with what American intelligence officials have said the Russians were doing. The messaging was to denigrate Hillary Clinton, focus on her wealth, on the past scandals of our husband's administration or her private email server to stoke resentment among certain quarters of the American electorate. Maksim describes placing messages aimed at the religious community, talking about gay rights, talking about threats to the Second Amendment. And he says the goal was to turn the American people against their government.

KELLY: Let me pull you back to the heart of this story, which is "House Of Cards."

ISIKOFF: Yes.

KELLY: What did the Russians learn from it? Do we know what their takeaway was?

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, look. It's...

KELLY: ...From this intensely realistic depiction of Washington we should say (laughter).

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, look. I was going say, you know, it's interesting because much of the "House Of Cards" is not, although a caricature - you know, does resemble the way American politics has played out in recent years - a lot of backstabbing, a lot of corrupt dealings, a lot of placing damaging stories about your political foes with the press. But it does sort of veer off into areas that, you know, we haven't really seen in America, particularly the murder of a journalist and the murder of a political foe. But that is not all that dissimilar from what we have seen in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

KELLY: Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News talking about his latest story headlined "Russian Trolls Were Schooled On "House Of Cards." Thanks so much for stopping by.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BEALS' "HOUSE OF CARDS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.