American racists are reusing some of the ugliest elements of Russia’s election interference operation.
Memes published by some of the worst Kremlin-backed trolls of the 2016 campaign are being echoed online by American neo-Confederates. The Russian accounts, overseen by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), have since been taken down. But American parrot accounts running some of the same racist crap—and worse—are still live on Instagram, an investigation by The Daily Beast and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found. At least one of these live accounts claims to belong to a Russian network persona.
The accounts—which hail the Confederate flag as “Protecting Us From Tyranny Since 1861” and claim that “The Civil War was not about slavery”—highlight the blurry and politically charged boundaries between domestic and foreign trolling. The American racists didn’t need Russia’s help to hate, of course. But the Kremlin supplied a well of ready-made memes for lazy neo-Confederates to post online.
“I think the similarities between these accounts and those of the IRA highlights how complex the IRA operations around elections have been. It is possible that memes originally created by the IRA have found new or renewed life on social media,” Kanishk Karan, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Daily Beast. “The way they camouflaged within the political conversations is also a fascinating detail: We’ve reached a point where it is harder to verify whether an online social or political movement is astroturfed or from grassroots participants.”
When Russian trolls went hunting for targets and content during the 2016 election, race was their “preferred target,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee study.
South United, a Russian Facebook and Instagram persona that featured in the IRA’s 2016 meddling campaign, took this theme and ran with it, plastering followers with all kinds of racist, bigoted appeals to the Confederacy.
During the 2016 election, South United was one of the “10 most active IRA-administered Facebook pages,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. It was also undoubtedly Russian. The ads that South United ran were paid for in rubles using a Russian payment processor, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller cited the page as the work of the IRA in a 2018 indictment of 13 IRA employees and officials.
Some of the images published by South United included racist memes of former President Obama dressed as a Nazi with the caption “Don’t support illegals, support own people.” One meme published by the IRA’s account showed a picture of Black Lives Matter protesters next to the question “Black lives or black thugs?” These memes can still be found on active Instagram accounts that pose as state chapters of the original South United page.
The accounts also published the same racist and neo-Confederate images originally published by Russian trolls, such as one with a Confederate flag middle finger bidding viewers to "Say hi to the Yanks” and another wondering, “How many likes can this battle flag get?” The IRA’s South United watermark can still be viewed on these posts.
It’s unclear when the IRA’s South United Facebook and Instagram accounts were first created, but Twitter users were reposting material from the accounts as early as November 2015. Facebook ad data shows that the IRA’s @South_United Instagram page started running ads that same month. By contrast, the earliest post from among the dozen American-run echo-chamber mimic accounts was in May 2016.
In August of that year, the operators of some of these state chapter Instagram accounts also promoted a Russian-organized pro-Trump rally. As The Daily Beast first reported, the IRA announced a “patriotic state-wide flash mob” in support of Trump’s candidacy on a separate Facebook page it ran called “Being Patriotic” using an image of Hillary Clinton in a prison cell. Two of the state chapter Instagram accounts, @south_united_fl and @south_united_il, promoted the rally using the Hillary image taken from an IRA-run Facebook page.
The accounts still live on Instagram also share considerable overlap with the original Russian page in other ways. All of the accounts, for instance, claim to be state chapters of the original South United page, with names like “South United Iowa” and “South United Tennessee.” They all use a similar logo to the IRA Facebook account, and some posts even use memes with stilted phrases like “History is written By victor...” and “Can it be any simple?”—language reminiscent of the non-native English used in some IRA propaganda memes.
Some of the accounts on Instagram even claim to be directly related to the original Russian page. “South United Louisiana” says it’s “the South United page for the state of Louisiana,” while the “South United Georgia” page says it’s the “@south_united page made for the great people of Georgia.” (The latter was taken down at some point prior to The Daily Beast’s discovery, although the Louisiana page remains live.)
The parrot accounts used not just IRA memes but other inflammatory content from outside the South United network. The accounts reposted a variety of memes along the same lines of Southern political and cultural resentments, including pro-Confederacy, pro-gun, anti-Islam, and anti-Hillary Clinton content. In one particularly egregious example, the @south_united_florida account posted an image of four bodies with gunshot wounds to the heads and the words “King Barrak, Queen Michelle, Usurper Hillary, George Soros” above each corpse.
The Daily Beast made repeated attempts to contact the owners of the Instagram accounts still up but received no reply.
Nathan Gleicher—head of security policy at Facebook, which owns Instagram—said the accounts, for now, haven’t violated company policies aimed at helping users distinguish between “inauthentic behavior and authentic speech.” So they're staying online.
“When we take down influence operations, we take action based on the behavior we see on our platforms, not the content they post,” Gleicher told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen these manipulation campaigns reuse content created by innocent people. Most of the content shared by coordinated manipulation campaigns isn’t provably false, and would in fact be acceptable political discourse if shared by real people. That’s why content alone is not a strong signal for identifying these operations.” To disinformation researchers at the DFRLab, the Instagram accounts that are still live show signs of being dedicated to amplifying IRA material.
DFRLab researchers found evidence that someone may have used engagement-for-hire services to interact with the American Instagram amplification accounts. A few accounts with defunct jewelry and crystal storefronts posted generic comments on the state chapter network accounts’ images.
Not that the IRA needed much help in amplifying its neo-Confederate content. The IRA’s South United Facebook page reached a height of 138,000 followers and harvested a total of 1.5 million likes and 2.3 million shares before it was shut down in 2017. Of the dozen American state chapter Instagram accounts, none have more than 1,000 followers and most have just a few dozen.
Facebook told The Daily Beast that the parrot network accounts appeared to be authentically American. "It appears that these accounts belong to real people in the United States whose content was likely mimicked by these operations we removed in the past," Gleicher told The Daily Beast.
DFRLab researchers found some evidence that the IRA’s neo-Confederate persona may have copied organic memes created by authentic American bigots outside the state chapter network. The IRA’s South United Instagram account published a picture of a Confederate stick person attacking an LGBT pride flag stick person in late 2016—a meme copied from an unrelated American Instagram account posted in 2015.
In other words, the Russians copied the American racists. And the racists copied the Russians. It’s a circle of hate.
During 2016, the Kremlin’s sophisticated understanding of the United States led its propaganda to amplify it. They invented memes to exploit racism, secure in the knowledge that the memes would find wide purchase in America. But while the larger social-media firms purged the accounts that promoted them, the memes have achieved exactly what the Russians wanted: persistence.
And sadly, material aimed squarely at Confederate sympathizers apparently remains a popular topic for Russian trolls: Facebook announced just two months ago that it had removed dozens of Instagram accounts that originated in Russia, some of which published pro-Confederate material targeted at American audiences.