Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

How Unwitting Americans Encountered Russian Operatives Online


By SCOTT SHANE                                                                                             FEB. 18, 2018

About a dozen people protested against what they called the threat of radical Islam in Houston in May 2016. They were met by a much larger crowd of counterprotesters. Both sides were organized by Russian groups. CreditJon Shapley/Houston Chronicle

They were politically active Americans scattered around the country, dedicating their spare time to the 2016 presidential campaign or various causes. And the seeming fellow activists who called them to rallies via Facebook, or joined in the free-for-all on Twitter, appeared unremarkable.

Except that their English sometimes seemed a little odd.

“We are looking for friendship because we are fighting for the same reasons,” someone purporting to be with an online group calling itself Blacktivist wrote via Twitter to the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III, a Baltimore pastor, in April 2016. “Actually we are open for your thoughts and offers.”

In late October 2016, in Nederland, Tex., the Texas Nationalist Movement got a Facebook message from someone representing a group called Heart of Texas, which planned to organize rallies in favor of Texas secession on the eve of the election. But on a follow-up call, “something was off,” said Daniel Miller, the president of the Texas Nationalist Movement.

Despite their wariness, neither Dr. Brown nor Mr. Miller had any inkling of what was really behind those odd encounters. Heart of Texas and Blacktivist were phony groups, part of a sweeping Russian disinformation campaign that was funded with millions of dollars and carried out by 80 people operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Russian attempt at long-distance choreography was playing out in many cities across the United States. Facebook has disclosed that about 130 rallies were promoted by 13 of the Russian pages, which reached 126 million Americans with provocative content on race, guns, immigration and other volatile issues.

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Thirteen Russian nationals have been charged with illegally trying to disrupt the American political process through inflammatory social media posts and organized political rallies.

An indictment filed in court on Friday by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the election, laid out for the first time, in riveting detail, how Russia carried out its campaign on social media. And while the indictment did not suggest any involvement by President Trump or his associates, it did say many Americans engaged with the Russian trolls without knowing who or where they really were.

“Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment said. Among others, it said, the Russians contacted “a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grass-roots organization,” who advised them to focus their efforts on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.”

The indictment did not name the activist, but Mr. Miller said in an interview that the mention had set off a slightly unnerving guessing game in his state as to who the helpful Texan might be. It was not him, he said.

“Every organization in Texas that’s been politically involved over the last few years is sort of eyeing the other ones,” said Mr. Miller, whose group decided not to endorse the Heart of Texas rallies. “Mueller’s team needs to clarify this.” (A spokesman for Mr. Mueller declined to comment.)

Sometimes the Russian efforts fell flat. Dr. Brown had challenged Blacktivist on Twitter because it seemed to be an out-of-town group, yet it was calling for a Baltimore rally to mark the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained a fatal injury while in police custody. The pastor had no idea just how far out of town.

“The way you’re going about this is deeply offensive to those of us who are from Baltimore and have been organizing here all our lives,” Dr. Brown wrote to the stranger.

Seemingly chastened, Blacktivist replied, “This must be really wrong. I feel ashamed.”

The pastor replied: “Post a public apology. Cancel the event and take your cues from those working locally.”

The Heart of Texas group had more success with a Houston rally to “Stop the Islamization of Texas,” which provoked an angry confrontation in May 2016. United Muslims of America, another Russian creation, called its own rally to “Save Islamic Knowledge” for the same time and place, outside the Islamic Da’wah Center.

A dozen people who turned out for the first event, some carrying rifles, Confederate flags and a banner saying “White Lives Matter,” faced off across a street with a far larger crowd of counterprotesters. The police kept the crowds apart, and there was no trouble at the event, which was caught on video.

Later, on social media, some puzzled participants complained that no one from Heart of Texas, which had about 250,000 likes on Facebook, had shown up for the group’s own rally.

But the online pitches reached a big audience. In written answers to questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook said some 338,300 people saw the announcements of rallies promoted by the bogus pages — and 62,500 said they planned to attend one. Those numbers are modest against the background of the entire presidential campaign, but they show that the Russians were able not just to attract Americans to their ersatz groups but actually manipulate their actions.

“The fact that they got people to show up at real-world events is impressive,” said Renee DiResta, the head of policy at Data for Democracy, a nonprofit that has studied the Russian activity. “What we have is an engine for reaching people and growing an audience, which is fantastic. But this shows that it can be used for very shady purposes.”

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Facebook’s vice president for advertising, Rob Goldman, said on Twitter on Friday, “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal” — a statement that President Trump retweeted.

But Mr. Mueller’s indictment repeatedly states that the Russian operation was designed not just to provoke division among Americans but also to denigrate Hillary Clinton and support her rivals, mainly Mr. Trump. The hashtags the Russian operation used included #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain, #MAGA and #Hillary4Prison, and one Russian operative was reprimanded for “a low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton,” the indictment says.

A glance at the Russian posts supports the idea that they focus on candidates. Heart of Texas ran an unflattering portrait of Mrs. Clinton with the tag “Pure Evil”; posted a fake photo of her shaking hands with Osama bin Laden; and paired her with Adolf Hitler as a supporter of gun control. Mr. Trump was shown surrounded by police officers wearing Trump hats and grinning outside a fake cage with Mrs. Clinton inside.

While most of the Americans duped by the Russian trolls were not public figures, some higher-profile people were fooled. The indictment mentions the Russian Twitter feed @TEN_GOP, which posed as a Tennessee Republican account and attracted more than 100,000 followers. It was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.; Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor; Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser; and his son, Michael Flynn Jr.

They have expressed no regret that they were apparently taken in by the Russian operatives. Instead, since Friday’s indictment, Donald Trump Jr., like his father, has pointed mainly to the fact that it did not accuse the president or his associates of assisting the Russian operation.

Jeremy Bowers contributed research.

Read the special counsel’s indictment against 13 Russians and three companies here.

A version of this article appears in print on February 19, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: How Russians Exploited Web In ’16 Meddling.

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