A landmark investigation from Russian news outlet RBC uncovered a Kremlin-sponsored scheme that used Facebook to recruit black activists in the US as part of Russia's election interference campaign, reportedly paying them to organise Black Lives Matter rallies, self-defence classes and produce content for Russian-owned sites decrying police brutality. Contacted by Buzzfeed News, the activists had no idea they were part of any Russian plot, recalling odd, but not alarming, phone calls with a man with an "African" accent. Racial division, subsequent reports have uncovered, was key to Russia's interference campaign.
The St. Petersburg building known as Russia's "troll farm." (Photo: AP)
The RBC investigation uncovered that the two sites, BlackMatters US and Black Fist, were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian state-affiliated troll farm at the center of the disinformation campaign that pushed fake news sites and troll posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Google News and Gmail. Both sites are still online, though their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts have been suspended. Neither Twitter nor Facebook would confirm to Buzzfeed if their suspensions were part of either platform's recent ventures to purge Russian influence ads.
At least three activists were paid for activities that ended up on the BlackMatter US and Black Fist sites. Conrad James, a rally organiser, was contacted via a Facebook message from BlackMatters US last September and paid to organise two rallies in North Carolina. Video from that rally is still on the Black Matters US YouTube page. Contacted via Instagram in January, Omowale Adewale, an MMA flighter and trainer, was briefly a trainer for Black Fist, which purported to teach self-defence classes to the black community ("organised by Black for Black," it still reads).
Presumably, Russian agents wanted to stoke fears of rising black militancy. Black Lives Matter protests terrified white moderates and racist anxieties were inflamed in the months leading up to the election. Earlier this month, Facebook turned over 3,000 ads to Congress linked to Russian troll farms. As The Daily Beast and The Washington Post have reported, many of these ads employed racist tropes to sway political beliefs. One Facebook page, amassing 268,000 followers before being deactivated, impersonated a Muslim rights organisation and implied Senator John McCain and then-candidate Hillary Clinton funded both ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists. Another ad featured a black woman holding a gun and decrying police brutality, prompting a public apology from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Facebook has announced a whole suite of news-checking features to mitigate the spread of fake news on its platform, from community policing to marking posts as "disputed" based on Snopes verifications and even AI-fuelled detection. There's no easy technological fix for racism, however, and racial rifts have divided Americans along distinct political lines for centuries. There's no way to end that, but we can at least make it somewhat less exploitable.