Not many Russians are likely to understand a shotgun formation or the strategy behind not punting on fourth down. But between September and December 2017, social-media accounts now associated with the Kremlin-backed troll farm known as the Internet Research Association (IRA) showed a sudden interest in the National Football League. And like the Americans its accounts emulated, the IRA didn’t need any familiarity with football for its purposes.
“NFL Supports BLM After 5 Dallas Cops Were Murdered During a Protest,” tweeted one now-suspended account, @ANIIANTRS, on September 24. BLM is a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the slayings the tweet referenced were over a year old at that point. @ANIIANTRS wouldn’t let any interest in week-three games derail its messaging. That same day it tweeted: “NFL Star Ray Lewis Linked to MURDER But Takes A Knee Against ‘Police Brutality.’”
The next week, a different IRA account, @PAMELA_SHARKY13, expressed displeasure with the Rams’ then-cornerback Marcus Peters. “Marcus Peters sits during the anthem after a national tragedy. Congrats on being a piece of shit!” wrote the account's Russian operator.
The background for the tweets was a coordinated social justice protest by NFL players. The protest was begun by Colin Kaepernick, who was quickly supported by his then-49ers teammate Eric Reid, and saw mostly black players "take a knee" during the National Anthem in a silent but visible protest calling attention to police killings of of African-Americans. The protesters' demand was minimal—black people deserve not to be executed by police; police do not deserve impunity for those executions—but sparked a massive reaction from a white audience and power structure incensed at being called to confront a life-or-death issue up close. The backlash enjoyed vocal support from the president of the United States, whose repeated outrage over the protests led the largely white ownership of the NFL’s teams to institute a policy of fining players for taking an on-field knee, one that remains in limbo amidst negotiations with the players’ union. Less officially, it led to teams banning Kaepernick and Reid from suiting up as a deterrent.
All this genuine white American outrage looked, to Moscow, like an opportunity. In fact, it looked like an extension of the same propaganda opportunity the Kremlin and its allies had already capitalized upon the previous year.
Through the 16 weeks of last year’s NFL season, IRA-backed accounts took a keen interest in players’ police-brutality protests. The tweets and Facebook posts are now gone, but thanks to Clemson University researchers and Five Thirty Eight, their digital impressions remain available for study. Bret Schafer, a social-media analyst with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, estimates that approximately 10 percent of the tweets during that period in late 2017 concerned the players’ protests. A search of the Clemson-gathered data show nearly 4,900 tweets referencing the NFL from Russian impostor accounts between September and December 2017. “And especially on that first NFL Sunday, it’s over 60 percent of the tweets they sent out,” Schafer told The Daily Beast.
The IRA didn’t just impersonate white Americans furious at athlete protests. And it didn’t give up the game after the social media companies, Congress and journalists began digging into the texture and scope of Russian propaganda last year, leading to the suspension of thousands of impostor accounts. On March 19 of this year, Twitter user @kanijjackson, another Russian creation, issued a “reminder that Colin Kaepernick is ready to get back on the field. It's been 382 days since he played an NFL game. But in this country fighting for justice makes you unemployable.” Two months later, once the NFL issued its new policy, the account continued: “The NFL has approved a new rule forcing players to stand during the National Anthem. I'm trying to figure out how #TakeAKnee is un-American but letting people die because of lack of health insurance is patriotic.” As academic researchers noted, the left-wing missives from the IRA “often adopt the personae of Black Lives Matter activists,” in Five Thirty Eight’s phrase.
Nearly two years after the IRA helped Donald Trump win the presidency, it’s become a cliche to describe the goal of the Russian propaganda campaign as “sow[ing] discord in the U.S. political system,” as one of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s court documents put it. True as that assessment may be superficially, it also reflects a conspicuous dodge, the latest in a series of evasions as old as the United States itself. The January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment, Mueller’s indictments and the broader discourse they have inspired neglect to grapple with the underlying message of the Russian propaganda—without which it is impossible to understand why the messaging found such broad purchase.
The cynical brilliance of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda campaign is that it exploited America’s foundational commitment to white supremacy. The term itself is so raw and so hideous that it inspires an allergy to its usage within mainstream political discourse. But no other term—racism, white privilege, etc.—better captures the dynamic at issue. White supremacy is exactly what it says on the label: a social structure by which whites, a pseudoscientific grouping with a definition that changes over time as is convenient, dominate America’s complex and often informal hierarchies of power.
American history is many things, but among them is a catalog recording the mutating shape of a white power structure and how that structure responds to various challenges to its existence. Amongst white supremacy’s greatest contemporary triumphs is its portrayal of racism as individual prejudice rather than maintenance of the social order. Our schools teach children that racism is about hatred, and hatred is disreputable—not that racism is about power, with hatred merely one downstream effect amongst many. And so, nearly every day, the public discourse shows another white person objecting that the definitions have changed on them in a dizzying way. Those objections predictably run a gamut from left to right, since white supremacy’s roots sink deeper in America than any mere political persuasion. Putin's trolls wisely selected a fuel source that white Americans of all political stripes, consciously or not, ensure is inexhaustible.
With every tweet, Facebook post, YouTube video and Tumblr page, Russia showed that it understands America with a depth that prompts much of white America to avert its eyes. Russian propaganda expertly grasped that even the most meager challenges to white supremacy prompt a politically powerful and useful white resistance, and that this dynamic is a persistent feature of American life. All Russia—or any foreign power, or no foreign power at all—needs to do is breathe on the embers until they ignite. White supremacy murders millions of people, steals their wealth to distribute it up the social ladder, and denies untold millions their true human potential. America does this to itself, and left undisturbed, will continue doing it. Russia’s only unique contribution in 2016, and beyond, was to underscore the threat white supremacy poses to U.S. national security.
The reactionary Russian political theorist Alexander Dugin has written explicitly on the benefits of operationalizing American white supremacy for Russian benefit. While Dugin’s true influence on Putin remains a subject of debate, his 1997 tome The Foundations of Geopolitics presaged the Russian active-measures campaign of the past three years.
“It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements—extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S.,” Dugin wrote. His clarity might have benefitted the 2017 CIA-FBI-NSA intelligence assessment.
To credibly put that into practice 20 years later, Russians merely needed to be ready online. They observed the idioms adopted by left and right online political subcultures and repurposed them, using “cultural, linguistic and identity markers in their Twitter profiles to align themselves with the shared values and norms of either the left- or right-leaning clusters,” write University of Washington researchers Ahmer Arif, Leo G. Stewart and Kate Starbird in a paper to be presented at an academic conference in November.
IRA stereotypes were crude, speaking to how Russians understood the social currency of their marks. One fake profile, hilariously titled @USA_Gunslinger, read: “They won’t deny us our defense! Whether you’re agree [sic] with me or not, you’re welcome here! If you don’t want to be welcomed, go f*ck yourself.” Another, anticipating Atlantic writer Adam Serwer’s thesis that contemporary white supremacy portrays itself as disgusted by racism, included “Anti Racism” in its profile alongside “Southern. Conservative. Pro God.” IRA Tumblrs attempting to portray themselves as black were titled such things as Hustle In A Trap and Ghetta Blasta. But the accounts, whether left or right, showed more sophistication—at least on a level analogous to what a machine could spit out, given enough data—in their appropriation of how authentic accounts within the targeted groups spoke to one another.
“What really struck me in studying the activities of these accounts up close, was the level of knowledge they demonstrated of American culture,” Arif told The Daily Beast. “They talked about the movies, they talked about specific holidays and things like that, so it speaks to an organized, kind of a digital marketing operation, almost, knowing your audience really thoroughly … [For] a country that is already divided in some ways by things like race and politics, this is a case of someone coming along and giving us just a little nudge.”
Arif and his colleagues didn’t set out to study the IRA. As academics examining human-computer interaction, they wanted to examine the online discourse around Black Lives Matter. But last year, after Twitter and Facebook began shuttering accounts associated with the IRA, they noticed Russian accounts popping up with sufficient frequency in Black Lives Matter discussions that they studied that phenomenon on its own. Their preliminary work has already attracted coverage in Mother Jones, The Atlantic and Mashable, but their final product has more information about, among other things, “what content they were propagating,” Arif said.
What they found matched a series of 2017 exclusives from The Daily Beast that showed white supremacy was never far from the surface of surreptitious Russian propaganda. The fake group SecuredBorders urged a real-life rally in Idaho in August 2016 under the cry, “We must stop taking in Muslim refugees!” The IRA Twitter account Being Patriotic called on followers to actually kill Black Lives Matter activists: “Arrest and shoot every sh*thead taking part in burning our flag! #BLM vs #USA.”
It’s true that the Russians also impersonated what they saw as left-wing and nonwhite American audiences. Arif and his colleagues have documented the IRA pretending to be both #BlackLivesMatter and its white-backlash antagonist #AllLivesMatter. But a look at the substance of the messaging the Russians geared to an ostensibly non-white audience looks distinctly congruent with the prejudices reflected by its white right-wing one. When the IRA pretended to be non-white, it portrayed its fabricated in-group as threatening, provocative or anti-American.
A Facebook page impersonating the United Muslims of America pushed memes falsely claiming the U.S., and particularly the Russian adversaries Hillary Clinton and John McCain, created ISIS—before claiming that Clinton was the guardian of Muslim interests. Arif’s paper notes that the IRA impostor group BlackMatters pushed a series of inflammatory gifs purporting to show police officers sexually assaulting a black teenage girl—which participants in the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag subsequently debunked. “[T]he video incident functioned both to further stoke anti-police sentiments on the left and, once it was debunked, increase anti-BlackLivesMatter sentiments on the right,” Arif, Stewart and Starbird write.
The Russians posturing as Black Lives Matter “favored an uncompromising and adversarial stance towards law enforcement,” they found. “This activity feeds directly into attempts to frame #BlackLivesMatter as an anti-police hate group. From prior research we know that such framings were actively resisted and addressed by #BlackLivesMatter activists… [T]hese accounts did not just speak to the communities that they were pretending to be a part of, but also aimed to communicate an antagonistic representation of those communities to others.”
That strategy is on display in Europe as well as America. According to a knowledgeable European Union official who was not cleared to talk to a journalist, social media accounts strongly suspected of being Russian cutouts are waving digital red flags to ideologically contrary audiences. In the run-up to the September 9 election in Sweden, the EU official noticed pro-refugee messaging emanating from suspected Russia-controlled accounts, aimed this time at audiences expected to feel anxious about immigration. “You strengthen the grievances, and then exploit” them, the official told The Daily Beast.
While each surreptitious Russian influence campaign is distinctly tailored to its particular audience, continuities amongst them point to the particular sort of chaos in the West that the Kremlin considers beneficial. It inflames a sense of grievance amongst a white overclass which fears the collapse of its social, political and economic supremacy. It inflates even the most modest challenge to that supremacy as an attack on its fundamental way of life, essentializing entire national histories to nothing more than white prerogatives. This is how immigration becomes perceived as an invasion, Black Lives Matter becomes a “domestic terror outfit,” and the poor white masses feel besieged into silence before crying out for a champion to make them feel great again.
It is easier now than it has ever been to leverage such messaging to a mass audience. In 1903, the fabricated pamphlet The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion—which also originated in Russia—had to physically circulate to spread its lie of a Jewish global conspiracy. But when Democrats on the House intelligence committee a year ago released dozens of IRA-created ads, the associated information from Facebook showed how minutely the ads could find their targets. An ad for the fake organization Defend The 2nd could be targeted to viewership within the United States, between the ages of 18 and over 65, matching users with a click-demonstrated interest in the National Rifle Association and other gun-centric content.
Social media, potent as it is at scaling communications upward to an unprecedented degree, is merely a delivery system. The social-media companies are formally committed to cracking down on imposter accounts. That won’t matter so long as white Americans continue to follow what is indisputably an authentic tradition of theirs. The tech giants are already hostile to any suggestion of their editorial responsibility, and only police the most explicit versions of “hate speech” on their platforms to ward off periodic consumer backlash.
Russia neither introduced nor nurtured this contagion across American history. White supremacy found a formal anchor within the United States the moment the Constitution defined enslaved African-Americans as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of keeping the slaveholding states in the new union. It has persisted, in mutated form, through every subsequent challenge to its prerogatives. It is the reason the very words “Black Lives Matter” discomfit so many whites, from the devoted supremacists marching through Charlottesville to the handwringing white liberal who prefers order to justice. White supremacy is once again overtly ascendant in the White House, which sees fit to strip non-white children from their families, ban Muslims from entering the country, restrict both refugee influxes and legal immigration and permit police departments to plunder non-white communities. But it is also on display in the segregated schools of anti-Trump New York City, where whites consider themselves progressive while keeping their children out of the public education system in the neighborhoods they gentrify. White supremacy does not need devoted ideological battalions to survive, only acquiescence.
In April, while accepting Amnesty International’s ambassador of conscience award, Colin Kaepernick observed that “there has never been a period in the history of America where anti-blackness has not been an ever-present terror.” (Disclosure: my wife is a senior official at Amnesty USA.) Kaepernick continued: “How can you stand for the National Anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates freedom and justice for all, yet is so unjust to so many of the people living there? How can you not be in a rage when you know you are always at risk of death in the streets or enslavement in the prison system? How can you willingly be blind to the truth of systemic racialized injustice?”
White supremacy asserts that rejecting such willful blindness is an attack on a glorious heritage, rather than the eradication of a cancer that threatens American achievements and murders actual Americans by the score. For the second time in less than a century, it has mobilized across the globe, as the forces of white reaction feel a wind at their backs throughout America, Britain and Europe. Its capacity for bloodshed, particularly when on a global march, is beyond dispute. To use Arif’s phrase, Russia is just giving what has always been present a little nudge. It has been resident throughout not only The Daily Beast’s first 10 years, coalescing in intensity during that period, but the United States’ first 242 years.
But the destruction of white supremacy and all its works is not some geopolitical cudgel. To reduce a struggle for liberation to a cheap tactical slogan for use against Russia would preserve the noxious American delusion known as white innocence. White supremacy must be destroyed because it is a socially permissible murderer and thief. Whatever else Russia achieved in 2016, it demonstrated that despite a generation of grueling foreign war, white supremacy is the only true existential threat America faces.