Some Baltimore activists saw right through one of the many Russian social media accounts said to have meddled with Americans online before last fall’s presidential election.
Rev. Heber Brown III, a community organizer and the senior pastor of North Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, on Friday shared a screenshot of a private April 2016 Twitter exchange in which he confronted the operator of the popular “Blacktivist” page. Upon seeing that Blacktivist was trying to organize a rally here in Baltimore on the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death, Brown had his suspicions, and posed an important question: “Are you a local organizer/activist or not?”
The page’s operator responded surprisingly sincerely: “Me personally – no. But there are people in Baltimore. Volunteers. We are looking for friendship, because we are fighting for the same reasons.”
Brown told the operator the best way to organize an effective rally would be to work with the people who actually live here. The operator apologized, “I got you. This must be really wrong. I feel ashamed.”
CNN reported late last week that Blacktivist was actually one of hundreds of Russian government-linked social media accounts that were used to fuel tensions in the United States during election season.
The tricks were subtle. Accounts like Blactivist would share videos of police brutality and post phrases like, “our race is under attack,” as The Guardian pointed out. And it worked. Blacktivist, sporting a profile picture featuring Gray himself, had around 360,000 likes on Facebook, well over the 302,000 that the actual Black Lives Matter movement page has. (The former has been taken down.)
Jamye Wooten, an organizer with Baltimoreans United for Change, also reportedly interacted with Blacktivist. He told The Guardian that based on their exchange, the page “did a good job of creating an online narrative.”
Congress is now busy digging into how Russia’s Internet Research Agency infiltrated American social media spheres using fake pages and ads over the last three years to deepen existing social divisions. The Blacktivist Twitter and Facebook pages are among 470 accounts that both companies are handing over to the feds.
Brown told The Guardian the disingenuous rally cry from Blacktivist struck a nerve, regardless of where it was coming from.
“I thought it was just another person who wanted to take advantage of the misery and pain of black people in Baltimore,” he said. “We are just sick of people – anybody, conservatives and liberals – using black people’s pain as a football to advance other agendas.”