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Russia's use of fake accounts seems to have gone deeper than we knew

A New York Times report details how Russian-backed social media accounts tried to sow division among participants in the 2017 Women's March.


The Russian government’s influence campaign designed to sow division in U.S. political coalitions seems to have been more extensive than we thought. 

A Senate report released in 2018 already confirmed that the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency established “troll farms” — or masses of fake accounts — to pose as Black people online and suppress the Black vote to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. 

Now, thanks to a New York Times report on Sunday, we know details about how Russia’s psychological manipulation campaign reportedly targeted the 2017 Women’s March, which was launched by activists as a protest against Trump’s oppressive agenda.

The Times report cited research from a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Advance Democracy Inc. The organization found that hundreds of Kremlin-linked accounts posed as men and Black women critical of the march and, particularly, critical of march organizer Linda Sarsour. The Times said Sarsour received a torrent of hateful tweets in the lead-up to the march, which was held the day after Trump’s inauguration. 

According to the Times: 

More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.

The investigation found that Kremlin-backed accounts posed “as Black women critical of white feminism, conservative women who felt excluded, and men who mocked participants as hairy-legged whiners.” Anyone who was online during that time can attest to the cacophonic debates that stemmed from this triad’s criticism of the Women’s March. Some of that criticism came from real Americans living in the U.S., but the Times report shows the Kremlin’s clear strategy in sowing disunity among political factions. 

Here are some examples the Times gave of posts shared by Russians pretending to be Black women: 

  • “White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend”
  • “Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance”
  • “Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit”
  • “Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support”

The Times report said hundreds of Kremlin-run accounts spread hateful content about Sarsour, including some that spread lies claiming she was “a pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim” who “was seen flashing the ISIS sign.”

Those lies were meant to capitalize on anger some Women’s March participants felt over Sarsour’s and co-founder Tamika Mallory’s affiliation with the conservative, anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. 

It’s notable that, in the wake of Russia’s successful meddling in the 2016 presidential race, lawmakers have done next to nothing to stop similar attacks — despite the fact multiple whistleblowers have come forward with dire warnings about the ways social media platforms can be used by foreign adversaries that want to nudge Americans politically. The problem with fake social media accounts is just as grave a threat to democracy as laws that deliberately stop people from voting. In fact, fake accounts are arguably a more insidious form of suppression, because voters who make decisions after being bombarded with propaganda are likely to believe they made those decisions of their own volition. 

Americans need to worry that our justifiable concern about legislative voter suppression is leading many of us to ignore another form of voter suppression that is, as the Times report shows, equally effective in wreaking havoc on our politics.

Fake accounts warrant our attention. Free and fair elections depend on it.