The Justice Department’s indictment Friday of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for allegedly using social media to interfere with the 2016 presidential election gives more insight into the ongoing federal investigation into election tampering.

Northwestern University professors Juliet Sorensen and Jordan Gans-Morse are available for comment on the indictment, and insights into potential impacts going forward.

Sorensen, the Harry R. Horrow Professor in International Law, in the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said the indictment tells a “compelling and disturbing story.”

“It paints a picture, frankly, of an electoral system that was caught unaware in the digital age with how easy it can be to hack the integrity of the democratic process,” she said. “Importantly, the indictment does not say their actions impacted the outcome of the election, but the goal was to influence and create discord during the electoral process.”

Sorensen said the indictment gives a preview of what evidence federal prosecutors would show at trial if any of the individuals or organizations were to proceed to trail.

“It does show that Mueller is taking an international scope in the individuals and entities he’s investigating. Whether the U.S. will ever actually have custody of the individuals is another matter.”

Sorensen said the indictment can be lodged with Interpol, which would then issue “red notices,” or international arrest warrants, meaning those indicted could be arrested if they try to cross international borders.

Even if that never happens, the indictment helps show where the investigation – and Mueller – are heading.

“He’s sending a message,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen is the Harry R. Horrow Professor in International Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights. Her teaching and research interests include international law, corruption, and health and human rights. She can be reached at [email protected]edu, or312-503-1482.

“In terms of details about election meddling, the indictments don't offer much that is new, given that journalists have covered this ground already,” said Jordan Gans-Morse, a professor of political science. “But the indictments make it tougher for Trump to claim that election meddling did not occur given that Mueller appears to have evidence solid enough to pursue criminal prosecutions.

“However, none of this evidence links the Trump campaign to election meddling or ‘collusion.’ And these indictments seem to be tied only to social media operations, which, in my opinion, were problematic but less troubling than direct FSB (Federal Security Service in Russia) contact with Trump campaign officials, the hacking of the DNC, and efforts to probe states' voter registration systems,” Gans-Morse said.

“The only ‘big fish’ in these indictments seems to be the tycoon [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, who is already under U.S. sanctions for the role he played in Russia's interventions in Ukraine. So practically speaking it's not clear that these indictments cause real pain to anyone of importance in Russia.  

“As for retribution, I could see things going multiple ways. On the one hand, Russia doesn't seem to think there is a benefit to escalating this conflict at the moment, particularly given that Trump continues to say favorable things from their perspective. On the other, down the road this could perhaps set out a precedent for Russia to consider legal action against whatever groups with ties to the US it deems to be meddling in its own elections.”

Gans-Morse is a professor of political science. He is an expert on political corruption, political and economic transitions, and authoritarian institutions with a primary regional expertise in the former Soviet Union. He can be reached at [email protected]northwestern.edu or 847-467-1154

More News at Northwestern Now