A now-unavailable Facebook page for the Nov. 12, 2016, march shows the event’s host as BM, a known alias of the BlackMattersUS used throughout the group's promotional materials for other sponsored protests, and encouraged protesters to meet at Union Square at 12 p.m. to march to Trump Tower.
The archived events page shows the event was shared with 61,000 people, 33,000 were interested in the event and 16,000 people marked themselves as going. “Divided is the reason we just fell. We must unite despite our differences to stop HATE from ruling the land,” a description of the event page reads.
On Wednesday afternoon, after BuzzFeed News published this report, the House Intelligence Committee released a sampling of Facebook ads linked to Russia. One of the ads released was a sponsored post for the Nov. 12 anti-Trump march at Union Square.
In the weeks after the election, it wasn’t hard to convince people in New York City to attend an anti-Trump protest, which might help explain the size of the protest. It appears to have been much larger than many of the disorganized protests BlackMatters put on earlier. New York voted for Hillary Clinton by a large margin and this would be the fourth day of widespread protests in the city following the contentious election. The protests around the country prior to the event were so widely covered that they even elicited tweets from the newly-elected president.
PBS reported last November that this event was organized by “BlackMatters, a nonprofit news outlet which focuses on black issues in the United States.” The description of the the group falls in line with language that was used throughout the BlackMattersUS website. And months later, that organization is believed to be part of a Russian-based scheme to further political divisions in America.
Although it’s been widely reported that a large portion of the “Russian troll” efforts largely benefited the president, planning anti-Trump protests after he was elected fit in the broader strategy of the Russia-based “troll farm”: capitalizing on the legitimate feelings of Americans to create deeper socio-political rifts in the United States through propaganda and real-life events.
RBC, a Russian outlet, identified BlackMatters as one of 180 social media accounts. BuzzFeed News has reported that the operation including luring unsuspecting American activists to protests, self-defense classes aimed at black communities, apparently aimed at exploiting existing US domestic movements, from pro-Trump memes to social justice activism.
Facebook, Twitter and Google are appearing before congressional committees for two days of marathon hearings to testify on the content of accounts and advertisements linked to the Russia-based operation that meddled in the US election. Ahead of the hearings, the three companies revealed that the number of Russian-linked accounts was higher than previously disclosed and Facebook announced that 126 million people could have been exposed to content created by the propagandist accounts.
Facebook has since 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.
The Russian campaign to influence American life has been portrayed as a virtual effort, rooted in social media. But over the past few months, evidence has emerged of Russian efforts to influence US activists to organize protests in real life. In September, The Daily Beast reported that Russian operatives attempted to organize over a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida and last week BuzzFeed News revealed anti-Trump rallies in Charlotte and New York that were organized by BlackMattersUS through Facebook. The Wall Street Journal this week reported on a rally in Minnesota after the death of Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer.
The post-election New York rally would be the largest organized event promoted by one of the Russia-linked groups reported thus far. A New York Daily News report estimated that roughly 5,000 people met at Union Square to march on Trump Tower and linked directly to the suspended Facebook events page.
A Facebook official told BuzzFeed News that they weren't able to confirm that the event was promoted by the Russian-linked group but that the company is taking issues related to any content on the platform seriously.