A website hosted by Russia’s “troll farm” in St. Petersburg attempted to push an African-American boycott of Christmas with articles and a line of typo-ridden merchandise last year.
BlackMattersUS, which independent Russian media outlet RBC identified as one of the most influential websites and troll accounts operated out of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, pushed T-shirts imploring its users to “Say no! To ho-ho-ho,” alongside a picture of a candy cane.
As representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google this week are set to testify before Senate and House Committees on Russian interference in the 2016 election, BlackMattersUS’ tone-deaf efforts to launch a boycott while posing as African-Americans shows the lengths the troll farm would go to try—and sometimes fail—to sow racial discord in the U.S.
The shirts are often nonsensical and filled with phrases that don’t make sense. One shirt, sold by the U.S. shirt printing company Represent on BlackMattersUS’ custom Christmas-themed store, reads “Dear Cops, Don’t Shoot—SUCK.” The phrase encompasses two candy canes and a Christmas ornament.
A sweatshirt sold by BlackMattersUS’ holiday store “Boycott Christmas,” says “Black don’t need white X-Mas,” and is still available for $39.95.
Another shirt that reads “Black Power” underneath an illustration of gingerbread cookies is still live at the custom address represent.com/black-power.
Other shirts had a message that conflicted with its central theme, like a shirt that simply reads “Thug Life” over three Christmas trees and handguns. “How about this cute t-shirt for Christmas?” the the shirt’s description reads.
Represent, which is based in Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment.
BlackMattersUS shut down last week and was replaced with a notice that a Reddit Ask Me Anything session “with Russian trolls” is “coming soon.” The Q-and-A is scheduled for Friday, according to Reddit’s Ask Me Anything subreddit calendar.
An unnamed person emailing from BlackMattersUS’ domain name emailed The Daily Beast last week to encourage journalists to participate in the Reddit thread, but did not respond to a request for comment on its Christmas boycott.
Before the site was replaced by a Reddit Q-and-A advertisement, BlackMattersUS purported to be a “nonprofit news outlet” featuring writers like “Crystal Johnson” who had been “with Black Matters since October 2014,” even though the site was created in 2015. The site said “Crystal Johnson” interned at Atlanta’s WEYI, but the station never employed someone by that name, according to ThinkProgress.
Five days before Christmas last year, BlackMattersUS wrote a story titled “Reasons to Boycott Christmas” that was largely plagiarized from a blog at the “Nation of Islam Research Group,” but used several different opportunities to link out to BlackMattersUS’ online store.
The post cites several historical examples, but does not include the 1963 civil rights protest of Christmas in Greenville, North Carolina, where African-American residents boycotted the purchase of Christmas gifts after local businesses refused to hire black employees.
The post also claims that “The Bible outlaws XMas,” and tells African-Americans to boycott the holiday because "you can't afford it."
The Internet Research Agency used Kremlin funding to impersonate African-American, American-Muslim, and LGBTQ groups on Facebook, Twitter, and other parts of the social web. The groups gained hundreds of thousands of followers, and sometimes used them to push Kremlin talking points or to push real-life protests in the United States.
Some Kremlin troll accounts, like the Twitter account Ten_GOP, which claimed to be run by Tennessee Republicans, looked considerably more authentic than the BlackMattersUS’ poorly copy-edited merchandise. That account was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., Trump campaign adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale just days before the election.
Right-wing media outlets like Fox News have pushed the narrative of a “War on Christmas” for years, claiming that Starbucks cups that don’t explicitly say “Merry Christmas” represent “the latest battleground in a cultural war over Christmas.”
The Kremlin troll accounts frequently took advantage of those already existing right-wing talking points, but were only sometimes successful.
“In a normal influence campaign, you do these things called ‘audience analysis’ and ‘product testing’ to see what works before you put it out there. They didn’t. They try everything, then go with what works,” former FBI counterterrorism agent and Russian cyber warfare expert Clint Watts, told The Daily Beast last month.
“They skipped the product testing phase. They didn’t do it. And they also don’t care.”