Oh My God
Russian Trolls Didn’t Need Millions to Sow Chaos. They Had Jesus.
While senators and social media companies focus on paid ads, Russian-backed social media accounts highlight that ordinary posts can build a much larger disinformation pipeline.
“Trust. Vote Pray. How should Christians vote?” asks one meme from Army of Jesus, a Facebook account operated from a Kremlin-linked troll farm.
Later on, that same account pushed out anti-Clinton and pro-Trump rhetoric, including one that showed a face-off between Hillary Clinton, characterized as the devil, and Jesus.
That post, presented on a blown-up poster, was displayed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday.
But that was far from the only Christian-focused meme from this seemingly popular group, as well as a related Instagram account uncovered by The Daily Beast.
The Facebook and Instagram groups show how Russian trolls didn’t just create accounts and start posting political content straight away. Nor did they rely solely on paying to grow their audience. Many of the memes and images are what you might find in a normal, online religious community.
The Kremlin-connected “Internet Research Agency” put effort into building a following with typical, clickbait messaging to expand its disinformation pipeline for later use.
The strategy employed by Army of Jesus underscores that senators’ and social media companies’ focus on the money that the Kremlin spent on online advertisements might be somewhat misguided.
Many of Army of Jesus’ posts simply encouraged viewers to like or re-share content, much more than other Russian government-linked troll groups, allowing them to grow an outsized audience at no immediate cost.
One particular post implored users to “Like for a Christian American,” in an effort to target religious Facebook users and grow subscriber growth. Once subscribed, later posts would ask users to to “Like for Trump and Ignore for Hillary.”
The Army of Jesus Facebook account had, at one point, some 217,000 likes, according to one of the posts Warner shared.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Daily Beast that the troll farm maximized its impact by pouring their money into divisive content—and not necessarily ad money.
“I think what it showed is, if you really want to do damage to the system, it doesn’t cost very much,” said Feinstein. “American political ads, assuming they’re reasonable, don’t negatively affect the system. But the interference of a major foreign power in a presidential election does.”
The page was shut down by Facebook in August, but images and pages saved within Google’s search results, as well as posts from other users’ accounts, provide a look into other material the group and its partner Instagram account shared.
Many, and perhaps the majority, of the images are fairly standard pieces of Christian messaging, such as a picture of people holding hands with the text, “my prayer is for all Christians to stand as one army of Jesus,” or “a bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.”
But, as Warner noted, Army for Jesus started to post much more explicitly political content.
“This is another example of how people are lured in,” Warner said during the hearing.
Several posts tugged at political or theological divides.
“Defend Christian faith, stop atheist propaganda,” reads one image of a young girl grasping a framed picture of Jesus on the cross. “I did this because all lives matter,” reads another post, next to a picture of Jesus carrying the cross, clearly poking at political tensions over police brutality.
Others, like the Clinton vs. Jesus meme, bordered on the absurd, though.
“Satan: if I win Clinton wins! Jesus: not if I can help it!” the devil and Jesus say during an arm wrestling match in another meme, which the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic members published on Wednesday.
Importantly, many of these posts were not advertisements. Instead, they are freely posted pictures and memes, which, in some cases, encourage users to re-share or like.
“‘Like’ if you want Jesus to win!” reads the meme with Clinton fighting off against Jesus that Warner shared.
The more than $2 million spent on operations at the Internet Research Agency was mostly used for creating content that incentivized users to share posts organically—not on advertisements.
That helped the group expand the reach of pages for later events, where larger pipelines would be necessary to destabilize democracies across the globe.
“Part of what I was trying to convey this morning is, ads are just a small part of this. And what’s going to be important for people to see is the Supreme Court does allow for some limitations with respect to political advertising,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.
“But I also want people to walk away from this debate recognizing that ads are actually a small part of this and particularly those other areas, which I indicated this morning really can’t be regulated by government, better get some attention.”