People believed to be Russians meddling in American politics swiftly chose a new target in the days after the 2016 election: trying to organize anti-Trump rallies, according to private messages from a page aimed at black civil rights activists that has been linked to a wider Russian effort.
“We’re holding a protest against Trump on Saturday,” read a message obtained by BuzzFeed from the BlackMattersUS Facebook page to an activist who’d spoken at a previous rally organized by the group in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The BlackMatters page also sent a poster for the “Charlotte Against Trump” rally on Nov. 19, 2016, and a now-unavailable link to a Facebook event.
The page was identified in a bombshell investigation by RBC, a Russian outlet, as one of 180 social media accounts created by a St. Petersburg “troll farm.” BuzzFeed News reported last week that its activities extended well beyond trolling, to luring unsuspecting American activists into events and propaganda opportunities apparently aimed at seizing on and exploiting U.S. domestic conflicts across the political spectrum.
Facebook suspended the BlackMattersUS page; RBC reported the suspension was part of a crackdown on Russian-linked accounts. A spokesperson has told BuzzFeed News he was “not able to confirm” the account was suspended as part of that purge. The pages are no longer accessible; private messages sent by the group are still accessible for those who received them.
The pivot to an anti-Trump message was in keeping with the page’s broader strategy of piggybacking on an existing social movement to exploit divisions in American society. But it also offers a glimpse at a Russian campaign that was not simply aimed at American elections, but also at deepening rifts in American society that echoes century-old Soviet exploitation of domestic American injustice, and lines up more with the idea that Russian interference campaigns were about highlighting and deepening tensions in the West, rather than outright supporting Donald Trump.
The source who shared the messages with BuzzFeed News said they didn’t respond to them, after becoming skeptical the group was really invested in the cause of racial justice because of an earlier, disorganized rally BlackMattersUS had put on: a protest after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black North Carolina man, in October 2016.
But the post-election rally did take place, and at least two activists who spoke at that October rally were also present for the “Charlotte Against Trump” protest, according to fliers for the events posted with the BlackMatters watermark and cross-referenced with a report from the Charlotte Observer.
Kimberly Owens, one of the speakers at the November 2016 event, told BuzzFeed News that she wasn’t contacted by the group and the protest had an open invitation for speakers (anyone could speak). After learning a group believed to be backed by Russians promoted the event, she said she wouldn’t be surprised, noting how disorganized the protest was.
There are a number of unresolved questions about the BlackMatters page, like who actually operated these social media accounts day to day. One activist who interacted with the group told ThinkProgress he would pitch BlackMatters on various events and BlackMatters would approve or deny those pitches.
In its investigation into the Russian troll farm, RBC details how BlackMatters worked and some of the unusual aspects to the group’s accounts: The since-suspended BlackMattersUS Twitter account was registered to a phone number that begins with a Russian country code, according to RBC; the outlet also identified two staff members for BlackMattersUS, which had framed itself to some activists as a news outlet, but one account has been suspended, and the other not active since 2016.
BlackMattersUS also scheduled a second rally for Nov. 26, 2016, which took place in Marshall Park in Charlotte; an article on the BlackMattersUS site detailed the event and linked to a petition on Change.org calling for North Carolina officials to open a 24-hour “hate crime” reporting hotline. The petition is sponsored by a group called Charlotte Against Hate. A Facebook page for that group is now unavailable.
In New York, BlackMattersUS attempted to organize a protest on Dec. 3, centered around the electoral college.
“Trump won the Electoral College but is behind by almost 840,000 votes,” reads the description on a cached version of the deleted Facebook events page hosted by BM, another alias of BlackMattersUS. “Join us in the Streets to stop Donald Trump and his bigoted hateful agenda!”
The event didn’t go as planned: 176 people were supposed to attend the event, but posts on another events page linked to the deleted event show protesters asking where everyone was.
One protester told BuzzFeed News that around 15 people had shown up to the protest at Union Square, and they’d eventually joined an unrelated protest at Columbus Circle.