Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
It’s a technique the FBI’s COINTELPRO program perfected in the 1960s.
Revelations that Russian government-associated companies reportedly used Facebook and Twitter to both promote groups like Black Lives Matter and stoke fear of them have enraged policymakers. Sources told CNN that Russian-backed accounts with names like “Blacktivist” posted updates and fraudulent news stories, placed ads, and shared events on issues connected to police brutality, immigration, and Muslims. Social media experts say this was likely done to undermine ideas around American exceptionalism and democracy.
Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents Baltimore, Maryland, said he was “deeply concerned” about reports that some of these Russian social media accounts targeted his city, which exploded in unrest after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. Congresswoman Robin L. Kelly of Illinois, wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg imploring him to revisit his company’s rules and standards.
“Facebook cannot be the Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” wrote Kelly.
So far, the primary beneficiary of Russia’s propaganda plays has been Donald Trump. Investigators who have been monitoring the Russian social media gamesmanship say that the campaign helped discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, propped up third-party candidates like Jill Stein, and split liberal voters—particularly in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where the Russian tweets and posts were targeted. All this served to help get Trump elected, but the effects go beyond domestic politics.
“This wasn’t only about the election,” Dave Troy, the CEO of Baltimore-based 410 Labs, told the Baltimore Sun. “This was an effort to sort of destabilize and sow discord within American society more broadly.”
The Russians didn’t need to get into our voting machines to hack us, they only needed to get into our heads. They did this by manipulating the flurries of social media activism and outrage that have consumed much of political and pop culture over the last few years. Right now, much of the public anger is aimed at Twitter and Facebook for allowing this to happen (and at Russia, of course, for pulling off this mass trolling of the American electorate). But it was our own FBI that wrote the blueprint for this kind of sabotage.
It started with the Bureau’s secret surveillance of civil rights leaders such as Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early 1960s, aimed at digging up information that could be used to turn the public against these figures. In the late 1960s, the FBI focused on disrupting social justice movements and war dissenters. The program was called COINTELPRO, and while it set its sights on groups like the New Left and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, it was particularly obsessed with black liberation.
COINTELPRO did some of its worst damage on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, an organization formed in Oakland, California, in 1966. By the early 1970s the Black Panthers had chapters in dozens of other cities, all of them calling attention to police violence, substandard housing, job discrimination, and lack of city services in black neighborhoods. The FBI planted provocateurs who would stoke distrust and cook up beefs between various Black Panther city chapters, and often within chapters themselves.
The infiltrators would also whip up conflicts with other black liberation organizations. One infamous fight between the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers and the black nationalist Organization US on UCLA’s campus led to the death of Panther member Bunchy Carter.
The media was another tool to create division. Agents distributed fliers in black neighborhoods with incendiary messages like “Off the Pig,” and planted stories in Black Panther newspapers that aroused suspicions between members and chapters. To stoke fears among white audiences, agents wrote newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor, under fake names. The real Black Panthers were mostly occupied with providing free breakfast to poor families and providing medical and ambulance services in black communities. But the COINTELPRO media campaign managed to frighten white readers into thinking the Panthers were stockpiling arms for a race war. All of this played neatly into helping Richard Nixon get elected president in 1969.
The racialized fears and general discord around race issues during that time period were all politically commodified as part of the GOP’s “Southern strategy” to help shake loose white Democrats in Jim Crow states and bring them into the Republican Party. That strategy was based upon the idea that cities were becoming undone not because of racial segregation and government neglect, but because African Americans were protesting and rioting. The rise in urban crime during that time period, which was also a product of racial segregation and deprivation, was also exploited under the Southern strategy. It was used not only as a pretext for electing white conservatives like Nixon, but also for accelerating the mass incarceration of African Americans. The strategy is not much different than the one used by Trump during his campaign.
Today, the Russian government seems to be employing similar tactics to similar outcomes. There’s been fallout and discontent within the Black Lives Matter network, which is also spread across city chapters as the Black Panthers before it. There have also been plenty of words written disparaging or provoking suspicion of Black Lives Matter, from Trump’s White House down to the proliferation of right-wing news outlets that have been empowered since his election. The Russian COINTweetPRO Russian strategy appears to have played a role in all of that. Different media, but same damage. It turns out the Russians have managed to turn an old saw into a new sickle.
“Unfortunately the fact that there is fear among some Americans about Black Lives Matter’s commitment to speaking out against anti-black racism, to raising the voices of people who are queer, to challenging U.S. foreign policy and speaking out against U.S. colonialism and the situation in Palestine in particular—because of all of those reasons the pump is primed for the general public to believe the propaganda that is being put out there and that’s how it was in the Black Panther’s hey day,” says Robyn C. Spencer, author of the 2016 book The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland.
It would hardly be the first time that Russia has used racial injustice as a weapon against America. Writes Terrell Jermaine Starr in The Root:
As early as the 1920s, Soviet leadership realized they could take on Western imperialism by exploiting its mistreatment of black people—be they under Jim Crow in the United States or colonialism on the continent of Africa. … The USSR financed tens of thousands of black people to study in various republics throughout the union with the hope they would return to their homelands to start their own Red Octobers. On the United States front, the USSR also recruited black Americans to spread its propaganda. One of their prized recruits was the great writer Langston Hughes.
In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison created a fictional Communist organization called “The Brotherhood” to depict Russia’s deceptions and betrayals of African Americans. The difference between that deception and the one happening on Facebook is that, unlike back in the 20th century, black activists today have unwittingly and unwillingly become participants in Russia’s charade.
Baltimore activist Heber Brown III recently posted this exchange he had over Twitter in April 2016 with the so-called “Blacktivist,” who appeared to be attempting to organize Freddie Gray protests. The account has now been exposed as a Russian front.
“We knew people were coming from everywhere at the time trying to get their shine and make a name for themselves at the expense of Freddie, his family and the city,” wrote Brown on his Facebook page. “I didn't know they'd be coming from Russia too.”
The story of how deep this latest campaign of deception goes is only beginning to be written: Congress is gearing up for public hearings on the Russian social media debacle. They are hoping that the heads of Twitter and Facebook will take the hot seats to answer for their roles in this. Those social media company executives have already turned over thousands of ads and account profiles tied to the Russian government. If any Russian propagandists end up on the stand as well, they might say that they learned their tactics from us first.