There might be a reason why politics has been so crazy lately. Over the past two years, we’ve seen conservatives and liberals stretch their beliefs into some completely insane territories. We’ve seen the rise of neo-Nazis and anti-fascists, and we’ve seen them get violent.
As it turns out, all of this might just be on purpose. Recent reports are saying that a lot of the extreme social media accounts that have been pushing these agendas weren’t created by Americans at all. Thousands of them were created in Russia as part of a propaganda war to tear the United States apart.
It’s an old Cold War tactic. In the words of one Russian political strategist, it’s designed to encourage “all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social, and racial conflicts” and destabilize American politics. And now that Facebook has let them reach more than 126 million people, it’s working better than ever.
It sounds like an insane conspiracy theory, but this is really happening. And it’s bringing something important to light. We’re seeing the fractures that tear a nation apart exposed for what they are. We’re seeing what Russia thinks could break America—and, in the process, we’re getting a map of what needs to be fixed to put it back together again.
Black Lives Matter vs. Police
Race was one of the biggest ways by which the fake Russian accounts tried to pull Americans apart. The Russians made accounts that tried to lure supporters from both Black Lives Matter and the police—and then the Russians tried to turn both groups violent.
One fake account called “Being Patriotic” told its 200,000 followers that Black Lives Matter activists who disrespected the flag should “be immediately shot.” At the same time, the Russians used another fake account called “Blacktivist” to call for violence against police. “The law enforcement officers keep harassing and killing us without consequences,” Blacktivist told its 250,000 followers. “Black people have to do something. An eye for an eye.”
The strangest story, though, has to be the attempt to use Pokemon Go to turn black activists against the police. A Russian-run account challenged its followers to find and train Pokemon in places where police brutality had been reported, name their Pokemon after the victims, and post the pictures online.
It was a petty move, but it had a purpose. It frustrated the police and pushed African Americans to feel separate from the rest of America. It subtly poured a little salt in the wound of US race relations, all in the hopes that the wound would fester.
“The Russians don’t want groups like Black Lives Matter [and] the Alt-Right to sit there and have discussions,” Mark Jacobson, an expert on Russian influence operations explained. “They want violent clashes.”
The Secession Of Texas
A couple of accounts were set up just to try to convince Texans to secede from the US. The most successful was “Heart of Texas.” This account with almost 250,000 followers spent its time posting anti-Islamic sentiments, calling Hillary Clinton “Killary Rotten Clinton,” and telling its followers to “Get ready to secede!”
The most troubling part of this account is the possibility that it isn’t just happening in social media. It has called attention to a segment aired on RT America, the news agency controlled by the Russian state, that encouraged Texans to take a cue from “Brexit” and become their own country.
Heart of Texas tried to throw a rally, inviting its supporters to come up and demand independence on November 5, 2016. This time, though, a little sanity prevailed. No one showed up.
The Russian accounts actively tried to disenfranchise voters. In fact, the Russians went out of their way to trick voters into not showing up to the polls.
Some fake accounts ran campaigns that claimed to have been “paid by Hillary for President” and said that you could text “Hillary” to 59925 to cast your vote. Another showed a Photoshopped picture of comedian Aziz Ansari holding up a sign telling people to “vote from home” by tweeting the hashtag #PresidentialElection.
Obviously, neither of these was true. They were just a way to trick people into thinking they’d cast their votes. They ended up getting spread far enough, though, that Twitter had to send out a reminder to its users: “Remember: You cannot vote via text or Tweet.”
It wasn’t just Hillary supporters who were discouraged from going to the polls, though. Fake accounts for Bernie Sanders told their users that they “shouldn’t bother to vote.” Meanwhile, fake conservative accounts like Heart of Texas told their followers, “The Election is RIGGED, the US are BROKEN.” Everyone was discouraged from voting and encouraged to think that the American political system just didn’t work.
Democrats vs. Republicans
The fake Russian accounts directly attacked political candidates—usually with the weakest arguments imaginable. Still, people bought into them. In fact, the Russians managed to organize a four-day protest.
The attacks started during the election, and they were usually completely insane. For example, one pushed by a fake account called “Donald Trump America” circulated a petition to disqualify Hillary Clinton from the election.
Their complaint wasn’t about corruption or manipulation or anything that a sane person might consider reasonable. Instead, their reason for barring her was that Bill Clinton had already been president. If Hillary became president, they argued, it would be a “dynastic succession” and that would make the United States a monarchy.
The petition got a few signatures, but it was nothing compared to what the Russians pulled off after the election. A fake Black Lives Matter account sent out event invitations saying that “racism won” because Trump won. It called on people to protest at Union Square on November 12.
Which they did. Thousands of people showed up and spent four straight days protesting in Union Square—and they were enticed to do so by an account run by Russian intelligence.
‘Buff Bernie’ and #KIDS4TRUMP
Some of the Russian accounts actively promoted political candidates, but they didn’t do it in a normal way. These ads didn’t analyze political policy, explain a candidate’s better judgment, or really do anything that might sway an undecided voter. Instead, they just campaigned for people in the strangest ways possible. Like “Buff Bernie.”
“Buff Bernie” is a coloring book that was promoted by the Russian account “LGBT United,” and it’s a little weird. In the words of LGBT United, the book is full of “very attractive doodles of Bernie Sanders in muscle poses,” usually wearing next to nothing.
Sanders wasn’t the only one with weird fake supporters. Another account called “_american.made” called on Trump supporters to share the hashtag #KIDS4TRUMP. And they did, which led to Twitter being filled with pictures of little girls dressed up like Melania and kindergartners wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
It might be hard to see how rainbow-colored beefcake pinups of Bernie Sanders were supposed to tear America apart, but the ridiculousness seems to be the point. “Buff Bernie” and “#KIDS4TRUMP” won’t sway any undecided voters. But they’ll absolutely infuriate the other side and feed into every negative stereotype they’ve ever imagined.
‘Hillary Is A Satan’
Another way that the Russians tried to turn Americans against each other was by trying to convince American Christians that Democrats were servants of Satan.
One fake account called “Army of Jesus” was designed to lure God-fearing Christians with Facebook ads that shared some fairly tame religious messages. Once these Christians signed up to follow the Facebook group, they’d slowly start seeing crazier and crazier messages come through, all designed to suggest that Hillary Clinton was Satan.
One showed Clinton and Jesus in a boxing match, with Hillary dressed up as Satan. Another had Jesus in an arm wrestling match with Satan who taunted, “If I win, Clinton wins!” And another spelled out its message in plain, broken English: “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”
It all told Republicans to think one thing: Democrats aren’t just people with different opinions, they’re pure evil. And it gave Democrats a straw man that let them think: “This is how Republicans see you. They’re completely insane.”
Gun Lovers And Patriots
Several accounts were designed to push the Second Amendment. By saying that the accounts were made for “guns lovers & patriots,” they managed to get hundreds of thousands of followers to sign up for what they thought was a group of NRA supporters. The followers didn’t realize that they were just being used as a straw man—a way to make their views look as stupid as possible.
One account brought in Trump supporters with some fairly tame posts, like pictures of the Trump family and quotes from the president. Then, once it had people in, it started putting up pictures of eight-year-old children carrying firearms.
“This is the way our children have to be raised,” one post said. It showed a picture of a father helping his son, who was barely out of kindergarten, to fire a pistol inside their house.
It seems to be an image that was only created to trigger the other side of the political spectrum. It was custom-designed to let gun control advocates believe that Second Amendment advocates are out of their minds—a surreptitious scheme to make sure we never try to understand one another’s point of view.
America First vs. Illegal Immigrants
A Russian account called “Secured Borders” told its followers that it knew how to stop illegal aliens from coming into the United States. “The only way to deal with them,” it said, “is to kill them all.”
The account called for violence against almost everyone. It didn’t stop at calling for the death of immigrants. It said that “the state department needs to be burned to the ground” and promised that “if Killary wins there will be riots nationwide.”
It wasn’t the only account like it, but they didn’t stop at immigrants. They sent out targeted posts to conservatives, NRA supporters, and illegal immigration opponents with the message that they needed to strengthen America’s “cultural” boundaries.
Mostly, that meant picking on Muslims. These pages put out pictures calling for burkas and sharia law to be banned. One showed a Muslim woman in a burka with a caption complaining, “Who is behind this mask? A man? A woman? A terrorist?”
Texans vs. Muslims
The fake Russian accounts almost started a riot. Two fake accounts—“Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims of America”—managed to organize pro- and anti-Islam rallies at the same place in Houston, and dozens of people came out.
The fake “Heart of Texas” account put out a message telling its nearly 250,000 followers that a new library was being opened at an Islamic center in Houston and that their tax dollars had paid for it.
The message was a lie. The government hadn’t put a dime toward the library, but the account’s followers didn’t know that. They just knew that there was going to be a rally to “Stop Islamification of Texas” and it was their duty to show up.
At the same time, another fake Russian account, the “United Muslims of America,” called for a “Save Islamic Knowledge” counterprotest. Dozens of people came out for both sides. Soon, the streets of Houston were full of angry, misinformed people waving signs and screaming at each other from across the street.
The people didn’t realize they’d been tricked into fighting, but some got the vibe that something was wrong. One “Heart of Texas” follower logged on the next morning and wrote, “Heart of Texas promoted this event, but we didn’t see one of them.”
The Presidential Retweet
The strategy used by these accounts was to start with tame messages to lure people in. Then, once people were following the account, the messages became crazier and crazier. A lot of people fell for it. Millions, in fact.
That includes the president. You may have already heard that Donald Trump responded to a message from what turned out to be a Russian account. The account sent a message reading, “We love you, Mr. President!” Believing it was just a follower, Trump acknowledged them in a short reply of “So nice, thank you!”
Trump has gotten a lot of flak for it in the news, but in all fairness, he’s hardly the only person to do it. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey retweeted multiple posts by a Russian troll account on the other side of the spectrum, this one pretending to be run by an African-American woman named Crystal Johnson.
The things Trump and Dorsey retweeted were fairly innocent, but they were just the bait. The Russian accounts used them to get more followers, who would soon see these accounts start pushing out crazier things.
The account that Trump replied to started spouting conspiracy theories about Benghazi and Seth Rich, while the account Dorsey retweeted started telling its followers things like this: “Amelia Bassano is the lady who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays. Because she was black they would not publish her work.”
These accounts lure people in with ideas that sound sane and then slowly push them to increasingly wild extremes. And when people start listening to extreme ideas, they start tuning out the sane ones from the other side out altogether.