How Russia Exploited Black Lives Matter, Sean Hannity, and Mass Shootings

Here are some key tactics used in the Kremlin’s disinformation attack.

leirbagarc/123RF; FrankRamspott/Getty

On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for attempting to sabotage the 2016 US elections. The 37-page indictment alleges that Russians working for the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, engaged in a multiyear campaign to spread misinformation and actively supported Donald Trump’s bid for the White House. Operatives used fraud to pose as real Americans on social media, seized on politically divisive topics, and even tried to suppress minority turnout. The latest revelations also indicate that Facebook and Instagram were key platforms used in the Russian attack. 

The indictment lays out numerous details about the Kremlin’s operation—so-called active measures deployed on social media that Mother Jones contributor Denise Clifton has been reporting on since last fall. Here are some key aspects of the Russian disinformation campaign and the role of “fake news” covered by Clifton that resonate with Mueller’s latest indictment.

Russian trolls stoked anger over Black Lives Matter, even duping Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey twice retweeted @Crystal1Johnson, an account run by the Internet Research Agency. Researchers at the University of Washington found at least 29 known Russian trolls tweeting about Black Lives Matter and police shootings, spreading content widely over a nine-month period. The accounts targeted both left and right-leaning audiences: “It’s striking how systematic the trolls were,” Ahmer Arif, one of the researchers behind the study, said. “The content they’re sharing is tailored to align to each audience’s preferences.”

Russian Trolls Stoked Anger Over Black Lives Matter More Than Was Previously Known

The Kremlin targeted Trump’s Republican critics including Mitt Romney, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake—and especially John McCain. In these cases, trolls tended to spread stories from far-right American outlets such as Breitbart News. “The Russians are latching onto hyperpartisan content,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a group of national-security experts behind a dashboard working to expose Kremlin interference in US politics. 

Putin’s Trolls Are Targeting Trump’s GOP Critics—Especially John McCain

Russian trolls weaponized Fox News pundit Sean Hannity. Hannity’s website ranked among the top 10 shared by Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence-campaigns, including a big effort behind GOP Rep. Devin Nunes’ push to #ReleaseTheMemo.

Sean Hannity Is Now a Favorite Weapon of Russian Trolls Attacking America

Exploiting the latest mass shooting to sow more discord over gun politics. Following a massacre in Sutherlands Spring, Texas, Russian-linked Twitter accounts helped spread and amplify false conspiracy theories about the shooter being connected to antifa. A similar effort followed the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida this week, with Russian bots sharing stories trying to frame the shooter as mentally disturbed, as well as other stories falsely connecting the shooter to antifa groups. 

Putin’s Trolls Used the Texas Church Massacre to Sow More Chaos

The Russian operation zeroed in on key battleground states in 2016. An Oxford University study showed that fake news content was shared most in battleground states including Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, where Trump won by slim margins. Another study over a month-long period from the University of Southern California found that bots accounted for 1 in 5 election-related tweets, and that bots were just as effective at spreading messages as human accounts were. 

Fake News on Twitter Flooded Swing States That Helped Trump Win

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.