Homenews

How Russian operatives recruited and manipulated American civil rights activists

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Among the highlights of the recent revelations from the Russian outlet RBC’s findings on the fake social media accounts run out of Russia was the fact that approximately 100 Americans were unwittingly roped into Russian operations. From armed rallies in Houston to pro-Donald Trump flash mobs across Florida, some 40 events were planned and plotted across the U.S. with the help of Americans — all directed by operatives out of Russia.

While many Americans have yet to be revealed, ThinkProgress identified one of the first Americans contacted by Russian actors when we broke the story on the “Black Matters US” group last week — a group later confirmed by RBC as Russian. “Black Matters US” was the first Russian site identified as posing as an independent news source, creating a roster of fake writers and helping promote other Russian-organized events.

Other Americans manipulated by Russian operatives have been identified elsewhere, but Nolan Hack, a Los Angeles-based activist, is the only American described thus far as an official member of “Black Matters US.”

ThinkProgress spoke with Hack about his experiences with “Black Matters US,” tracing his first contact, the benefits that came alongside membership in the group, and their eventual falling out.

How did you first make contact with folks saying they were from Black Matters US? Did you ever meet any of them in person?

I came into contact with them in early 2016, and we parted ways in September 2016. I talked to a few of them, never in person — through phone messages, texts — but I wasn’t meeting any of these people in person.

And that wasn’t strange?

I chalked it up to security issues. Because when you’ve entered this realm, you’re a target. So I looked at it as, they’re just being really careful. There are activists I’m friends with that are that careful, or even more careful. Even the friends of mine who knew I was working with “Black Matters US,” and knew how cryptic they were — nobody said Russia. Other people who did similar work had absolutely no idea they were Russia.

When you spoke with them, did they sound American? We’ve seen some reports so far that some of these contacts had African, or West African, accents.

They were non-American accents. Most of them were I think from African countries. But I didn’t think much of that. If you go back to the 1960s, you have Black Panthers going to Africa, and Africans coming over, all for the same cause. So I didn’t think much of it.

But there was a piece on their site — I didn’t see it at the time — about that idiot Dinesh D’Souza, the guy who said that thing the other day about Hitler being a fan of gay people. If I’d seen that I would have left quicker – but other than that, everything looked like a pro-black, anti-racist group that was aboveboard.

So you mentioned you parted ways with the group in September 2016, even before the election. What caused the break?

It was a number of things that had been building up that I was upset about, and eventually it was a straw that broke the camel’s back. One of the things was — and I hate saying this, but it’s true — most black activist groups are anti-Native. Think about it. Look at the NFL protests right now — how many Chiefs players who are black are protesting? And do they look at the jersey they’re wearing? And then look at the team in Washington. What the hell are these guys doing? You’re wearing that word on your chest! So I would pitch ideas, some they’d agree with and fund, but the ones that were pro-Native were 9 out of 10 times a no-go. They’d humor me, but they’d say no. That was one thing that drove me crazy.

Another thing was that they really messed with my financials. They’d say they’d pay for this trip or this event, and then they didn’t, and I had to pick up the bill. One time, right near the end, my bank account got overdrawn, and a few other activists had to pay out of their own pocket because they were lied to by the group — and technically by me, because I was regurgitating information from “Black Matters US.” They didn’t get the money, and I’m like, this is so wrong, and I’m apologizing profusely, I had nothing to do with this, and I’m in the red now, and I can’t give cash out of my own pocket.

The people behind “Black Matters US” were incompetent, to be honest with you, on too many occasions. They would get an event together and change the date so many times, or would contact the wrong people.

It sounds like the group, even besides the fact that it was run out of Russia, had plenty of internal issues in terms of organizing. But was there anything worthwhile you think came out of it?

It’s very rare to be in the movement and have your trips paid for [like “Black Matters US” would do]. That’s so rare. So I knew that I had an opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have had were I not with them. The fact of the matter is there were some legitimate wins during my time with them. Had I not been with them, I would not have a multitude of friends that I have now that I treasure.

But it just got to the point where the negatives outweighed the positives and I was being harmed too much. It was them taking me for granted, as well too much incompetence.

It’s kind of strange that they failed to follow through on these offers of payment, right? Wouldn’t the people running this presumably have deep pockets, if it was run out of Russia?

I look at this and my questions go to, did they just run out money? I don’t know if the FSB said, “All right, cut the cord, this isn’t working,” or, “This is boring,” or if whoever was funding it ran out of money or what. Because it looks weird looking back for a page with 200,000 likes on Facebook, to have that kind of reach and be talking about the realities of racism – and then bam, the page is gone.

So how does it feel? It’s a weird position to be in — are there any lessons in this?

It’s almost like a movie, the New Red Moon or something. I do think there are lessons, and I’ve learned lessons. If you’re going to get in that deep with someone, you definitely want to be able to trust them. And even though, as we kept moving on in our relationship, I didn’t trust them because I kept having to pay out of my own pocket, I was with them because of the opportunities I would not have had otherwise. But really just being more careful. My father was in the movement himself, when he was about my age – he looked just like Stokely Carmichael, and the FBI actually followed him around because they thought it was Carmichael. Being careful is serious with this, and the lesson I learned is be more careful.

It’s funny how things repeat themselves, especially in this country. Even with Russia and the U.S. fighting against each other again, but in the 1960s the Russians did the exact same thing. They infiltrated groups, made up things between Jewish groups and black groups, and now they have the same thing here.

Other than financials, the thing that I am heartbroken about is there are a couple relationships with people and a group that I don’t have a good relationship with anymore. But I honestly moved on. I was angry at “Black Matters US.” But it was like an ex-girlfriend – you move on. But it was like a spy movie.

And if they somehow scrounged up the money they still owe you, would you take it?

There’s cash that could have come back in my pocket, and it’s spilled milk at this point. But if it’s Putin’s money, I may have to donate that to UNICEF or something.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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