The Long Con
Jenna Abrams, Russia’s Clown Troll Princess, Duped the Mainstream Media and the World
Roseanne Barr and Michael McFaul argued with her on Twitter. BuzzFeed and The New York Times cited her tweets. But Jenna Abrams was the fictional creation of a Russian troll farm.
Jenna Abrams had a lot of enemies on Twitter, but she was a very good friend to viral content writers across the world.
Her opinions about everything from manspreading on the subway to Rachel Dolezal to ballistic missiles still linger on news sites all over the web.
One website devoted an entire article to Abrams’ tweet about Kim Kardashian’s clothes. The story was titled “This Tweeter’s PERFECT Response to Kim K’s Naked Selfie Will Crack You Up.”
“Thank goodness, then, that there are people like Twitter user Jenna Abrams to come to the celebrity’s wardrobe-lacking aide,” reads a Brit & Co. article from March of 2016.
Those same users who followed @Jenn_Abrams for her perfect Kim Kardashian jokes would be blasted with her shoddily punctuated ideas on slavery and segregation just one month later.
“To those people, who hate the Confederate flag. Did you know that the flag and the war wasn’t about slavery, it was all about money,” Abrams’ account tweeted in April of last year.
The tweet went viral, earning heaps of ridicule from journalists, historians, and celebrities alike, then calls for support from far-right users coming to her defense.
That was the plan all along.
Congressional investigators working with social-media companies have since confirmed that Abrams wasn’t who she said she was.
Her account was the creation of employees at the Internet Research Agency, or the Russian government-funded “troll farm,” in St. Petersburg.
Jenna Abrams, the freewheeling American blogger who believed in a return to segregation and said that many of America’s problems stemmed from PC culture run amok, did not exist.
But Abrams got very real attention from almost any national news outlet you can think of, according to a Daily Beast analysis of her online footprint.
Abrams, who at one point boasted nearly 70,000 Twitter followers, was featured in articles written by Bustle, U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, several local Fox affiliates, InfoWars, BET, Yahoo Sports, Sky News, IJR, Breitbart, The Washington Post, Mashable, New York Daily News, Quartz, Dallas News, France24, HuffPost, The Daily Caller, The Telegraph, CNN, the BBC, Gizmodo, The Independent, The Daily Dot, The Observer, Business Insider, The National Post, Refinery29, The Times of India, BuzzFeed, The Daily Mail, The New York Times, and, of course, Russia Today and Sputnik.
Many of these stories had nothing to do with Russia—or politics at all. Instead, stretching back to 2014, Abrams’ account built up an image of a straight-talking, no-nonsense, viral-tweet-writing young American woman. She was featured in articles as diverse as “the 15 funniest tweets this week” to “#FeministAMovie Proves Why Twitter Can’t Have Nice Things.” Then, once she built her following, she would push divisive views on immigration, segregation, and Donald Trump, especially as the 2016 election loomed.
Abrams’ pervasiveness in American news outlets shows just how much impact Russia’s troll farm had on American discourse in the run-up to the 2016 election—and illustrates how Russian talking points can seep into American mainstream media without even a single dollar spent on advertising.
Remnants from some of Abrams’ most elaborate conspiracies and xenophobic opinions still remain in replies from celebrities sparring with—or agreeing with—her account.
Roseanne Barr responded to one of Abrams’ tweets on Feb. 2, 2016, to call a common enemy “pro-pedophile.” Abrams’ tweet earlier in the day about a Saudi Arabian Starbucks went viral, meriting pickup from The Telegraph and Russia Today, and even a response from Starbucks’ corporate Twitter account.
Barr elaborated in a tweet later in the month, saying “dems repubs libertarians indies greens, black white yellow red-all religions” are “#PEDOPHILES.”
Even Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia and an expert in Russian propaganda, got into a number of Twitter spats with Abrams. McFaul responded to Abrams’ posts in 10 separate months between February of 2015 and August of 2016.
Before they knew the account was run by paid disinformation agents, Abrams’ ahistorical slavery revisionism irked journalists and historians alike.
Al Letson, the host of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal podcast, received over 65,000 retweets and 153,000 likes when he refuted Abrams’ incorrect Civil War claim.
“It’s much easier to say the Civil War was about money, when your ancestors weren’t the currency,” said Letson, whose tweet is still pinned to the top of his Twitter page.
Historian Kevin Kruse’s quote-tweet of Abrams accrued over 41,000 retweets.
“No, the Civil War was about slavery,” he wrote. “Sincerely, Historians.”
“I responded to the tweet because it echoed an argument I’ve heard many times: that the Civil War was somehow not about slavery, even when the seceding states and the Confederate government made it quite clear, in their own words at the time, that it was entirely about slavery,” Kruse told The Daily Beast.
That argument was echoed once again just this past week, as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly claimed the Civil War was only fought because of “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
Kruse said both Kelly’s thoughts, and the Kremlin-funded viral tweet that preceded it on Abrams’ account, “are deeply at odds with the historical record.”
“The Confederate statues across the South that [Kelly] and others in this administration now defend were a vital part of the ‘Lost Cause’ myth constructed in the early 20th century to obscure the basic truths about the Civil War,” he said.
While the the typical image of a Russian troll may be a hastily put together Twitter account blaring out non-stop political messages, Abrams’ account went to great lengths to simulate a real, American person who existed outside of Twitter fights and amplifying racist disinformation.
Her Twitter account was created back in 2014. She had a personal website, a Medium page, her own Gmail, and even a GoFundMe page.
When The Daily Beast attempted to email Jenna’s email address, [email protected] (“Yes, there are 3 Ns,” her Twitter bio read), an automatic reply from Google stated that the “account that you tried to reach is disabled.” Google refused to comment when asked if the company had pulled the account for its ties to the Kremlin troll farm.
One of Abrams’ earliest media mentions came well before the 2016 election, in a June 2015 BBC article that aggregated Twitter users’ feelings about women choosing not to shave their armpits. Later that year, British newspaper The Telegraph picked up one of her Twitter jokes about punctuation.
But in the run-up to Election Day, Abrams’ account, and the people who were in control of it, became much more political.
In September 2016, Abrams wrote a now-removed Medium post titled “Why do we need to get back to segregation.”
“Humanity has gone full circle. Never mind how many activists of any color died to get rid of segregation, and fought for inclusion, black people want it back. 100% free people made their choice, and their choice is segregation,” Abrams wrote.
She also posted a summary of former FBI Director James Comey’s public testimony, writing “Comey admitted Hillary is a liar,” plus a picture of black and green olives, mocking the Black Lives Matter movement. CNN subsequently picked up the photo.
This sort of content seemed to become Abrams’ niche, and it tended to accrue the most replies and shares.
Abrams’ Confederate flag tweet was one of her most viewed posts, with a slew of journalists, commentators, and other high-profile Twitter users catapulting Abrams’ rhetoric to new heights. Even if those users were attempting to engage or argue against Abrams’ views, they likely did not know that, in fact, these were manufactured opinions of a Russian manipulation factory.
As The Daily Beast reported on Wednesday, Michael Flynn Jr. retweeted Abrams at least once to his 30,000+ followers shortly before the election.
Still, Abrams went to great lengths to tell most people that she was not a Trump supporter, just a real person with an email address who wanted Americans to send her a message.
“Calm down, I’m not pro-Trump. I am pro-common sense,” Abrams’ biography read on Twitter. “Any offers/ideas/questions?”
The Twitter user Ironghazi couldn’t remember what Jenna Abrams wrote in April that made him pose as a news reporter so he could call her a “dumbass moron,” but he knows whoever wrote it was pretty vacant.
“If she got the ‘Hi, I’m Ironghazi from (CBS News)’ treatment, she must’ve been [a moron],” he told The Daily Beast.
It was Abrams’ Civil War tweet that prompted this reply from Ironghazi, which racked up over 1,000 retweets and 5,600 likes:
“Hi Jenn, I’m a reporter with CBS News and I’m doing a story on dumbass morons,” it reads. “Do you mind if I feature your tweet and avatar?”
Ironghazi, who declined to give his real name for this story because “when you make people mad online, they tend to try to find you for some reason,” is a notorious Twitter troll in his own right. In his most viral tweet, he shrank every continent with Photoshop to make them fit inside a map of the USA so he could illustrate “just how vast our great nation is.”
In other words, one of Twitter’s most infamous American trolls had been out-trolled by a state-sponsored Russian influence operation.
Now, over a year later, he says he didn’t suspect a thing. From one troll to another, Ironghazi thought Jenna Abrams, the sometimes funny, often stupid, always angry American, was a natural.
“The key to being a good troll is being just stupid enough to be believable, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is making people mad online,” he said. “To that end, this Jed Abraham account succeeded.” He then clarified that the misspelling of Abrams’ name was intentional.