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How Russia’s Facebook ads inflamed America’s social tensions

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Gun rights and same-sex marriage. Secession movements and refugee intake. Racial tensions and, of all things, dog lovers.

These are a smattering of the topics unearthed so far from Russia’s fake Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.

Many of these social media accounts, recently revealed as Russian, offered clear messaging on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton when it came to the socio-political fault-lines running through the U.S. ThinkProgress covered these subjects in part 1 and part 2 of this series.

But other Russian accounts preferred to play both sides, amplifying discord and ratcheting rhetoric. For these fake accounts, it wasn’t a matter of pushing certain policies, or even reinforcing the types of ultra-conservative talking points and legislation Moscow has brought to bear in Russia. Instead, it was about inflaming divisions, and, in a throwback to Kremlin policies from the Soviet period, increasing domestic tensions.

An analysis by the Daily Beast in September said that as many as 70 million Americans could have been exposed to fraudulent social media ads, and Facebook has also admitted that it was “possible” that they haven’t found all the Russian-linked ads. A new study from Oxford University also found that fake news and misinformation was significantly more present in swing states.

Facebook, as it has over the past few months, remains hesitant to publicly identify the accounts they’ve since pulled down. But the handful of accounts reporters have uncovered thus far highlight how Russian actors viewed the types of schisms running through the U.S., and how best to incense, provoke, and enrage millions of followers.

For instance, when it came to race relations in the U.S., we’ve learned that Russian actors pumped out material aimed both at Black Lives Matters supporters and the nativist, xenophobic contingent within Trump’s base.

As CNN reported, one of the pages identified as Russian called itself “Blacktivist,” which used its Facebook and Twitter accounts — the former of which gathered more followers than the official Black Lives Matter feed — to “regularly [share] content intended to stoke outrage.” The feed, which described the “Blacktivist” organization as a “Non-Governmental Organization,” went so far as to purchase ads aimed at audiences in Ferguson and Baltimore. The material, wrote CNN, was simultaneously “meant to appear both as supporting Black Lives Matter but also could be seen as portraying the group as threatening to some residents of Baltimore and Ferguson.” The account pushed videos that racked up millions of views.

In one ironic tweet, the “Blacktivist” feed reminded followers that “only the sheep” fall for “propaganda.”

But where the “Blacktivist” account pushed nominal racial equality — even as it was peppered with disinformation and hyperbolic posts — other Russian accounts catered to Americans more attuned to white nationalism, or at least open to the types of anti-immigration attitudes of the current White House.

The Russian “Secured Borders” account, which attempted to host an anti-immigrant rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, pushed material regularly regurgitating nativist talking points. According to a search through Google Cache, the “Secured Borders” page was fraught with the types of anti-migrant language familiar to the current administration. One post, for instance, suggested filling tunnels underneath the Mexican-American border with TNT to “cause a shockwave and collapse the rest,” while another complained about the “$ billions wasted to appease illegal alien scum,” describing immigrants as “leeches.”

Not all anti-immigrant rhetoric aimed at Hispanic communities, though. Some of the posts appeared to show Muslim families, for instance, describing such immigration as “new modern warfare by birth rate,” with these communities “taking over the countries without single bullet.” A different post described Islam as a “barbaric cult of death, destruction and violence.”

The site appeared to espouse a special ire for refugees, especially those from the Middle East. One post from August claimed a link between increased refugee resettlement and higher rates of tuberculosis, complaining that refugees were allowed to be hired at Starbucks (which the site referred to as “Shariabucks”).

The rank Islamophobia extended to other topics, including Texas secession. On the Russian “Heart of Texas” site, when the page wasn’t pushing to fracture the U.S., it was railing against Muslim populations in the state. As CNN found, it even helped organize at least one tense, Islamophobic protest in Houston. One post uncovered by ThinkProgress read, “No more mosques on American soil!”, and another called for keeping Texas a “Christian state.” As it pertains to refugees overall, the site was even more vitriolic, describing them as “lawless thugs who came to our land illegally.”

The “Heart of Texas” page further called on supporters to “[g]et ready to fight and die for the Confederate flag and flag of Texas!”, while a second called for thousands of militia-members to surround federal officers — all while using a digitally altered photo of Burning Man.

Beyond Islamophobia, race relations, or anti-immigrant sentiments, the New York Times on Monday began filling in a bit more on how Russian actors covered LGBT issues and gun rights. While questions still hang on both, the Times uncovered one pro-equality site — which described the LGBT community as “fabulous a f” — and a site advocating expanding gun rights, pushing arms-friendly memes. The report even found a Russian Facebook page dedicated to, of all things, dog lovers — a site that may have arisen “to build a large following before gradually introducing political content.”

CREDIT: NEW YORK TIMES

Preying on an American prejudice with a long and troubling history

Chief among the divisive messaging was the idea that there is a horde of foreign men, with a propensity for sexual violence, poised to flood the United States.    

This is a theme which has become more and more overt on the far right since Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” back in 2015. But ground zero for this phenomenon was seen in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho. In the summer of 2016, two young boys, from a refugee family, were accused of attempting some kind of sexual attack against a five-year-old girl. Information about the attack is sealed under Idaho state law, but rumors swirled about how the two boys were Syrian refugees who gang-raped the girl at knife-point while filming the attack, despite repeated denials by law enforcement. Breitbart’s former chief investigative “reporter,” Lee Stranahan, who now hosts a radio show with Sputnik news, covered the specious story extensively, as did Alex Jones’ InfoWars.

The Kremlin fed into this hysteria by using fake profiles to remotely organize an anti-Muslim rally in Twin Falls, according to an investigation by the Daily Beast. “The Citizens before refugees” event, which featured a young girl wide-eyed with a hand clasped over her mouth as the main photo, demanded “an open and thorough investigation of all cases regarding Muslim refugees” in Twin Falls. It was organized by a group called “SecuredBorders”, which was outed as a Russian front in March, and previously had 133,000 followers.

Fake news stories like this fed into a long-standing — and deeply racist — myth that non-white men pose a unique and violent sexuality which threatens white American families. In the slavery- and Jim Crow-era American South, white supremacists used the spectre of rape as a justification for lynchings and other forms of racial violence. “To…excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of this country,” journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote at the time, “the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.”

This type of fear has now been transposed onto Muslim immigrants, according to writer and attorney Wajahat Ali. “It’s a very similar playbook to that which has often been used against African Americans, Jews, and Catholics,” he told ThinkProgress. “A foreign horde will come in, then they’ll be a demographic explosion, take over the country and impregnate the women. It’s the same DNA and it’s been transplanted to the Muslim horde.” 

Ali pointed out that immigrants commit fewer crimes then other Americans, and they are a net gain for the U.S. economy. But any singular crime by an immigrant is used to portray the entire community. “[I]t’s always using the worst example to paint the whole lot as criminals,” he said. “All you need is one undocumented immigrant to commit a rape and the right-wing media will run with it.”

Twin Falls, for its part, seems to have recovered from the fake news hysteria that it was subject to over the summer. The local Times News recently ran an editorial praising the town’s spirit in overcoming the conspiracy. But the town still provides a worrying template for how fake news, propagated by Russian Facebook ads, can help feed into an age-old American fear.

“This is the next step,” former FBI agent Clint Watts told the Daily Beast. “The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia create and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you get people to physically do something.”

Between a string of distinctly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton pages and posts, Moscow’s strategy of Facebook deception mirrors the Kremlin’s broader efforts in swaying the recent presidential election. And in leaning into current socio-political rifts, it’s clear that Russian actors viewed Facebook as another means of exacerbating existing domestic tensions in the U.S., all the better to keep Washington distracted from focusing on combating illiberalism abroad, but also to try to convince Americans that the U.S., as one of the Russian posts said, is “on the brink of another civil war.”

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