As he marched in protest through Charlotte shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Theodore Smith could not shake a strange suspicion that a foreign force was stalking his city.
What had begun as a heartfelt popular response to the police shooting of a local black man was taking on an unfamiliar hateful edge that felt inauthentic. On the internet, he saw protest campaigns that seemed to be no more than mash-ups of images designed simply to stir instinctive emotions.
“I wasn’t the only one thinking, ‘This doesn’t seem like our community,’” says Mr. Smith, a dreadlocked warehouse worker who recalls seeing pages such as “Black Matters US” popping up on his phone screen. “It felt purposefully manipulated.”
Turns out, he was right.
About two-thirds of Russian activity on Facebook and other social media platforms seeking to influence the 2016 election was aimed at black Americans, according to a new Senate Intelligence Committee report. And at least one of the Moscow-linked trolls was focusing on Charlotte.
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The internet campaign appeared designed to convince African Americans, who traditionally favor Democrat candidates, that it was not worth voting – at least not for Hillary Clinton. It was built on false messages such as “HILLARY RECEIVED $20,000 DONATION FROM KKK FOR HER CAMPAIGN.”
It is impossible to gauge the campaign’s precise impact. But in 2016, African American voter turnout was 7% lower than in 2012, the largest such drop on record. It was even steeper in North Carolina, one of the six swing states in which President Donald Trump eked out narrow victories en route to winning the Electoral College.
“This is a national security issue that goes straight to our elections,” says Mr. Smith. “If you can infiltrate another country and cause people to take action, or not take action, you can cause civil unrest and collapse it from the inside out.”
In Charlotte, more than a few people were duped by fake Russian social media accounts as riots rocked the city in the wake of the police shooting. But when that controversy died down, many Charlotte residents not only began to realize the depth of the fakery, but grew determined to overcome its pernicious effects on the city’s fabric. Since then, civic engagement in Charlotte is up, activists say, and the city has changed for the better.
“At the direction of the Kremlin”
A report released in October by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee outlines how the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm in St. Petersburg working “at the direction of the Kremlin,” showed “an overwhelming operational emphasis on race” in its posts on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
The intended goal, it appears, was to demoralize and divide African American voters and to amplify racial tensions in U.S. society.
Drawing on research by data science firm New Knowledge, the committee found that half of the IRA’s most popular Instagram accounts targeted African American issues and users; the most popular, @Blackstagram, attracted 300,000 followers. The IRA’s Facebook advertisements sought to stir emotions after police shootings of black victims, while Facebook pages such as “Blacktivist” garnered millions of “likes,” shares, and comments.
On IRA-created YouTube channels, from “Black Matters US” to “Don’t Shoot,” 96% of the content focused on race and police brutality.
And these social media accounts were not just fringe internet dross; some of them attracted a lot of attention.
In Seattle, a team at the University of Washington had long studied Twitter conversations using the Black Lives Matter hashtag. When the social media giant last year released an archive of tweets it had identified as coming from the IRA, online disinformation researcher Kate Starbird described how the team discovered that those Russian accounts were at the heart of conversations in both left-leaning and right-leaning circles.
One of the influential accounts posing as an African American activist supporting #BlackLivesMatter was @Crystal1Johnson, who attracted more than 56,000 followers and 5.6 million likes over two years. When the protests erupted in Charlotte in September 2016 after a policeman killed Keith Lamont Scott, tweets from accounts now known to be linked to the IRA shot up, according to the Information Operations Archive, a searchable database on foreign information warfare.
One of the most prolific users? @Crystal1Johnson.
“9 y.o. Zianna Oliphant delivered an emotional testimony to the #Charlotte city council. I’m in tears …,” “Crystal” tweeted a week after the protests. Her profile located her in Richmond, Virginia, but she was neither in Richmond nor in tears. She was a figment of a Russian troll’s imagination.
Nor did the Russians call off their campaign after the U.S. presidential election. In fact, the Senate Committee report says, IRA-created posts appeared on the internet even more frequently after the poll. And last month Facebook took down a network of 50 Russia-linked Instagram accounts that it said were engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
For some black activists, this is not their overriding concern. Donna Davis, for example, who organized Black Lives Matter protests in Tampa, Florida, downplays the importance of Russian social media messaging compared with the impact of down-home discrimination.
“Most African Americans would concern themselves with people here stateside who are conspiring to oppress and incarcerate and marginalize them,” says Ms. Davis.
“Russian interference may not be a priority when the people next door are calling the police on you for barbecuing,” she adds. “The bigger fish to fry are on the next block, not across the ocean.”
This is not the first time that Moscow has paid close attention to black Americans, whose cause the Soviet Union espoused as far back as the 1920s. Soviet children’s magazines would highlight stories about American racism, and civil rights leaders such as Langston Hughes were invited to visit the Soviet Union, says Meredith Roman, author of “Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937.”
While some Soviet officials may have been genuinely committed to anti-racism, she says, the USSR’s motive was largely propagandistic, “to expose just how false [Americans’] claims of freedom and democracy are. Because they’re trying to build a better future, a socialist future.”
Vocal support from America’s communist archrival did little to help civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. make their case to the American people. It was easy to brand some of their ideals, particularly those concerning broader human rights beyond the civil rights struggle, as communist-inspired.
The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, devoted considerable time and resources to studying alleged links between King and the Communist Party USA, which was loyal to Moscow. Seeking to portray him as being under communist influence, the bureau infiltrated its agents into the civil rights movement; King was also subjected to an FBI counterintelligence program to discredit and disrupt his work.
Professor Roman, a professor of history at The College at Brockport, State University of New York, suspects that the Kremlin has sought to learn from the FBI’s example.
“They’re not only drawing on this long history of studying American racism … for much more duplicitous and unsavory purposes, but they’re also students of the ways in which the FBI during the Cold War was also using counterintelligence measures against African American communities to sow resentment, division, and even violence,” she says.
Indeed, the Russian disinformation campaign has sown distrust so that even legitimate activists have found their real identity – and motives – being questioned.
“Black Twitter is very much aware of this manipulation that has happened,” says Bret Schafer, a digital disinformation expert at the German Marshall Fund. “Awareness of the problem is a good thing but it has a negative side effect. We don’t know what accounts now are fake or pretending to be Black Lives Matter. It has led to some name-calling and accusations.”
It led to real-life confusion too on the streets of Charlotte where, in Theodore Smith’s words, “the mental can become the physical” as false social messaging seeps into the real world and sparks real events.
“I can remember it to this day”
When Keith Lamont Scott was killed in 2016, it was two years after Black Lives Matter grew into a national movement after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and four years after it was created following Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 at the hands of a vigilante.
Shortly before Mr. Scott’s death, Greg Jackson, a Brooklyn-born chef and rapper living in Charlotte, released a new single, “Bang Bang.” The song addressed police shootings, but also the conditions that breed violence. He saw it as a new expression of his budding activism.
Angered by the shooting, Mr. Jackson marched to the police department with thousands of other protesters demanding to know the truth about how Scott had died. He fell into conversation with a police lieutenant and secured the officer’s agreement to meet formally with activists to discuss the situation.
To seal the deal, he shook the lieutenant’s hand. And that’s when he first realized that something was off, that the crowd’s mood was not just angry, but ugly. Mr. Jackson was booed. “I can remember it to this day, being called a sell-out,” he says.
At the time, he had no idea that Russian internet trolls might be trying to manipulate the mood in Charlotte. Yet as protests continued for four days, shutting down parts of the city, Mr. Jackson did begin to wonder about the tweets, videos, and social media messages inundating his mobile phone.
“The message was so negative. They weren’t talking about rightful anger, but hate,” he recalls.
“It was easy to manipulate everyone by applying pressure … and antagonism, injecting different narratives and getting real action from it,” says Mr. Jackson.
“So much of the messaging wanted to stop forward progress, overpower it,” he adds. “It is an agenda to cause separation. It’s the perfect way to separate people. If you can get one crew to hate the other crew, then chaos happens.”
Jennifer Roberts, the progressive white mayor of Charlotte in 2016, was confounded too.
Though she had joined black activists in calling for more police transparency, she became a symbol of a corrupt system in the eyes of many black protesters. After she sided with their demands she was shocked that protesters picketed her front yard.
The Russian social media campaign “injected negativity made of lies,” Ms. Roberts says. “It reinforced a single idea: When all politics is corrupt, why vote? You can’t change the system anyway.”
During the next election
That democracy-deadening message did not get through in Charlotte, however. At mayoral elections in 2017, voter turnout leaped by 50% from 2015; Ms. Roberts lost her post to Vi Lyles, the city’s first female African American mayor.
City councilors are more attuned to popular sentiment: Braxton Winston, a protest leader, won a seat on the council in 2017, and Julie Eiselt, who was head of the city’s public safety committee when Scott was killed, told a local radio station that the uprising had “changed the way I try to talk … and [caused me] to see people in a different light.”
A number of public initiatives have sprung up since the 2016 protests to heal the city’s wounds.
The city council has funded a new network of community workers in local neighborhoods to help reduce crime. In a referendum last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a $50 million bond issue to finance tax credits for people buying older houses, so as to help keep rents down. Charlotte banks stepped up with $20 million in seed money to help home buyers with down payments, and a property developer set aside five acres of a large new project for affordable housing.
Mr. Smith is still engaged in local activism; Mr. Jackson quit his job to launch a nonprofit called Heal Charlotte. The group aims to strengthen trust and communication between the police and the black community by training officers how to calm, rather than inflame, tensions on the street after violent incidents.
In spite of Russian interference, “the protests brought a lot of people together like true Americans,” says Mr. Smith. “In the end, people were able to address their grievances and change Charlotte.”