The first group Special Counsel Robert Mueller named in his indictment on Friday is the same group Lt. Col. Jared Prier, author of “Commanding the Trend: Social Media as Information Warfare,” identified as the one responsible for fanning the flames of unrest at the University of Missouri in November 2015.
That group would be the Internet Research Agency (IRA). Based in St. Petersburg, the IRA is the control organization for the Russian social media campaign. Prier described the IRA as an “army of professional trolls.”
As Mueller notes in his indictment, the defendants began to track and study groups in social media beginning in 2014, a year before anyone knew Donald Trump was a likely candidate for president. By organizing for Trump against his Republican primary opposition and for Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, their apparent motive was to create chaos. They also organized anti-Trump events after his election.
At Mizzou, they hit pay dirt. In an interview with the Columbia Tribune, Prier explained that the goal of the trolls was less to spark a controversy than to amplify an existing one. “It is like when someone gets in a fight and there’s someone in the back of the room saying ‘yeah, punch him. He thinks you’re weak,’” said Prier.
According to Mueller, the defendants insinuated themselves into the Black Lives Matter movement through the Twitter handle “Blacktivist” among others. Blactivist was active in the Mizzou meltdown.
As Prier relates, on November 11 #PrayforMizzou began trending on Twitter. Although the hashtag appears to have emerged organically, the Russian-spawned fake news that the KKK was marching through Columbia and the Mizzou campus intensified interest. One fake Twitter user, “Jermaine,” warned that “cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!”
Jermaine’s tweet, including a picture of a badly bruised black child, was retweeted hundreds of times. “Jermaine” and a handful of other Twitter users, some presumably real, chastised the media for “not covering the racists creating havoc on campus.”
Prier estimates there were 70 Russian “bots” involved in disseminating the message, including “Jermaine,” but “real people” helped swell the retweets into the thousands. “The plot was smoothly executed and evaded the algorithms Twitter designed to catch bot tweeting,” writes Prier.
Among those caught up in the plot was the student body president, who was gay, black, and deeply involved in the protests. He tweeted out a warning to his followers to lock their doors and stay off the street because “KKK members were confirmed on campus.” As Prier notes, the media fell almost as hard as the student body president.
“National news networks broke their coverage to get a local feed from camera crews roaming Columbia and the campus looking for signs of violence,” he reports. “As journalists continued to search for signs of Klan members, anchors read tweets describing shootings, stabbings, and cross burnings. In the end, the stories were all false.”
Truth be told, the Russians have been playing the American media since they involved themselves in the Sacco and Vanzetti case nearly a century ago. In the Soviet days, they worked to advance the cause of the left. To suggest Russians were influencing or politics our infiltrating our government was to invite mockery. In 2016, they were a bit more evenhanded. So now, it’s Russia, Russia, Russia.