As The Daily Beast has uncovered, Russian government hackers set up a fake Facebook page during the 2016 election campaign pretending to be a Muslim American grass roots organization known as United Muslims of America (UMA) to help Trump win the presidency. Beyond that, these Kremlin-backed trolls also set up an Instagram account under the name “muslim_voice” that boasted over 77,000 followers. In fact, one of the images they shared on Instagram was of me—created by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization I have worked with—that featured my photo together with my quote, “It’s not Islam versus the West. It’s all of versus ISIS.”
If your head is shaking back and forth in disbelief, think about how I and other Muslim Americans feel hearing this! Just when I thought I had heard it all in regard to the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump win and hurt our nation, this cut alarmingly close to home. (Add to that a few months ago I had the Neo Nazis at The Daily Stormer fabricate tweets that made it look like I was involved in the Manchester bombing. Between these Russians and Nazis I feel like I'm living in a Tom Clancy novel.)
What’s interesting is that UMA is an actual Muslim American organization that had held events in the past with the goal of fostering interfaith alliances and encouraging Muslim Americans to become more active in U.S. politics. But as the Beast learned, the group has been dormant in recent years.
Consequently, this was a perfect organization for Russian hackers to pose as on Facebook. The Russians had the cover of a bonafide Muslim American organization that had actual board members—a friend of mine from the Muslim community knew at least one. But since they weren’t active, they hoped that the organization’s leaders wouldn’t notice the fake Facebook page set up in the organizations name. And they were right.
So what did the Russians post in name of the UMA on Facebook to help Trump? Well if there were actually sending out pro-Trump messages I can assure you that I and my Muslim American friends would have heard about that and would’ve slammed them on social media. (Given Trump’s despicable demonization of Muslims, our community overwhelmingly opposed him in the 2016 election.)
Say what you want about the Russian hackers, they apparently were aware of that.
So to help Trump, they simply started slamming Clinton in ways they believed would turn American Muslims off to her as well as rile up Trump supporters by playing to their anti-Muslim sentiments. One meme they pushed, as Beast reporting noted, was that Clinton “created, funded and armed” al Qaeda and ISIS. This parroted one of Trump’s lies during the campaign.
But another post on the fabricated Facebook page in June 2016 was far more sinister. After the Orlando terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub that left 49 dead, the Russian-run Facebook page praised Clinton and even created an event titled, “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims!” that was to take place outside of the White House.
If you think that the goal of that post was to help Clinton’s campaign you simply don’t get how this works. In the days after the Orlando attack—as I can personally attest—the exclusive focus of the American Muslim community was making it clear that we absolutely denounced the terror attack and that we stood with our fellow Americans. No American Muslim group would have been planning a political event in the days after that attack to support any candidate. Not only would it have been horribly insensitive to politicize a tragedy, we fully get that would’ve caused a backlash against our community and the candidate. (UMA officials confirmed to The Daily Beast that they did not plan any such event.)
That Facebook event— and any ads they ran to publicize it—were not intended to support Clinton but to rile up Trump supporters. Keep in mind 65 percent of 2016 Republican primary voters supported Trump’s call for a total ban on Muslims coming to America. These people would surely read that Muslims were praising Hillary in the aftermath of a horrible ISIS related terror attack and say “Look at these damn Muslims supporting Hillary!” The Russian hackers’ goal was clearly intended to further the narrative that Trump is tough on Islam while Clinton was palling around with Muslims.
The Russian government-linked operatives certainly understood how Trump’s base would respond to Muslim bashing. No doubt they had seen how Fox News, Breitbart and many in the GOP openly demonized Muslims and it had yielded ratings and votes. And that’s undoubtedly why Russian bots peddled other anti-Muslim views on Facebook apart from this fabricated account that would further Trump-championed themes, as they did in August 2016, supporting an Idaho rally demanding, “We must stop taking in Muslim refugees!”
Having Kremlin-linked hackers pretend to be Muslims and use anti-Muslim bigotry to help Trump win is despicable. But they didn’t create the climate where anti-Muslim bigotry could be weaponized to help a candidate attract votes. That was all the work of people on the right from media outlets like Breitbart to politicians like Trump. And to me the latter is just as un-American and just as vile—if not worse—than the Russian hackers who posed as Muslims.