In one of the stranger aspects of the Russian influence campaign reported to date, the Federal News Agency (FAN) troll farm funded activism and social programs in black communities as recently as May. The Russian operation set up a news site that interviewed prominent thinkers like Occupy Wall Street’s Micah White and former Black Panther Party leading member Ericka Huggins. It also sponsored self-defense programs around the country, including one in Queens that specializes in de-escalating conflict between black people and police officers. None of those American activists who had contact with the operatives knew they were in contact with Russian agents at the time.
White (pictured above) has a theory for why those operatives were supporting black activism in the U.S. He has written on the tactical use of social movements to wage war—he wrote on the topic more than a year before the 2016 election—and he says that while Russia “can be pursuing multiple objectives simultaneously,” he thinks subverting the American status quo may be a mutual objective for a hostile Russian operation and the U.S. protest movements striving for more equality and justice—the challenge is to use that signal boost for noble ends.
“I think there aren’t many examples of social change that isn’t created by outside forces,” White told TPM. “Lenin was allowed back into Russia on German railroads while Russia and Germany were at war.”
As White observes in one essay, Russian state news couldn’t get enough of Occupy Wall Street: he claims RT flew Occupy organizers to London to be interviewed by Julian Assange for his TV show on the Kremlin-backed network.
One thing White said discourages him about the Russian propaganda efforts is how successful they were in terms of pure reach. As a rule, activists operate on a shoestring. The funds from the Russian trolls helped do things activists normally may be hard-pressed to pull off, like those classes in de-escalation.
“I do think it’s a watershed moment for American activism where American activists have to say, ‘Why is Russia able to create fake Facebook pages that get more likes than we do?’ I think it’s another sign that protest is broken,” he told TPM.
Another person contacted by the troll farm said he was surprised when the person who reached out wanting to facilitate political action wasn’t especially interested in talking politics.
“Their idea was they wanted to address police brutality, maybe do know-your-rights training,” said Omowale Adewale, a trainer in New York City who was asked to lead self-defense classes in Brooklyn and Queens by a troll-run group called BlackFist. “I was doing street harassment self-defense classes for women, so they caught me really at a time when I was already kind of engaged in a lot of this work.”
Adewale told TPM that while he was skeptical of the person who contacted him, he never thought a foreign government was recruiting him. He just thought the whole thing was probably a setup for a scam that would end up stealing from him.
“There never was any politics, which was just nuts,” he said.
But then the people Adewale thought might be scammers sent money to him. The prospect of offering something good to his community, especially bankrolled from the outside, thrilled him—but he was still curious about where the money was coming from. His thoughts, though, were primarily with a black community living in fear.
“I don’t know if you can fathom in the community the way people feel really targeted by police brutality,” Adewale told TPM. “I’m a fighter myself. Sometimes I jog and I’m running and cops are around. You can’t just run past them! White folks can just keep jogging, but if I’m in jogging gear, my jogging gear might include a hoodie! That’s problematic on a huge level, that somebody might be nervous and I might get shot, or at least get stopped and harassed. That’s the kind of thing that happens to me. A lot of things have to take place before you physically get somebody’s hands off of you. [It’s about] de-escalation ad knowing your rights. You really don’t want to die.”
That fear was a good litmus test for Adewale when it came to the intentions of “Taylor,” as well. “Taylor” didn’t seem to feel it, for himself or for anyone else.
“The lack of any kind of caring,” Adewale told TPM, “gave me insight.”
This post has been updated.