According to one fake social media account, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was plotting with antifa, and busloads of paid protesters were coming to destroy Minneapolis. Another bogus tweet claimed George Floyd’s death was staged to promote the breakdown of society.
Meanwhile, readers of state-run media in Russia, China and Iran were fed a steady stream of news stories that carried histrionic headlines such as, “AMERICA IN CHAOS.”
The May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked a torrent of disinformation at home and intense coverage by state-sponsored media abroad seeking to undermine U.S. credibility. Federal law enforcement officials and researchers across the country found no evidence of foreign meddling in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death. But last week, several U.S. senators warned that foreign actors were using the ensuing unrest to sow discord.
Russian operatives have deployed such tactics in recent years, but much of the early disinformation surrounding Floyd’s killing seems to have originated in America. Foreign actors have seemed content to simply highlight existing unrest in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Taken together, the fake domestic reports and increased scrutiny by foreign sources add to a tinderbox of instability during an election year that intelligence officials had already warned would be rife with attempts both inside and out to sow division.
“The more unrest there is and the more potential for violence there is — that’s in the interest for actors who want the U.S. to be as unstable as possible,” said David Malet, an American University professor.
According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security bulletin obtained last month by publicintelligence.net, federal law enforcement and intelligence authorities were aware of “covert proxies and social media accounts” working in lockstep with foreign adversaries’ state-controlled media to paint the U.S. in a negative light. Law enforcement monitoring the unrest feared that the campaign could spill over into violence.
“Russian influence actors, in particular, have a history of using online tools to covertly amplify content concerning protest activity in the United States, including rhetoric that may seek to incite violence at such events,” the bulletin read.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded last year that Russian actors waged a “sweeping and systematic” campaign to amplify sociopolitical discord in the United States in the run-up to the 2016 election. Race issues were a weapon of choice for Russians seeking to disrupt American society: A U.S. Senate intelligence committee found that black Americans were targeted by Russian troll campaigns more than any other group. The troll groups reportedly created scores of Facebook events between 2015 and 2017, at times drawing followers of opposing movements to the same locations in hopes of stoking violent clashes.
During the first protests over Floyd’s death last month, what the U.S. government calls “malign actors” focused on amplifying criticism of the U.S. and calling out its hypocritical approach to cracking down on protesters here while promoting protest movements like the Arab Spring abroad.
According to reports from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan national security advocacy group, Russian emphasis on incidents related to racism and police brutality in the U.S. date back to the Soviet era.
Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” said it is still too early to tell whether foreign agents interfered during the Floyd protests, though, he added, “it is pretty clear that they didn’t play a pivotal role” at the beginning.
“The fact is, it’s not the Russians or the Chinese that killed George Floyd,” Brooking said. “This was a spontaneous mass movement.”
But Brooking said the protests that started in Minneapolis were still “rife with disinformation and misinformation,” with many reports assigning blame for violence and property damage to “antifa” protesters. “Antifa” is short for anti-fascist, a largely unstructured movement of far-left groups that confront white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The reports caused President Donald Trump to announce that he would declare antifa a designated terrorist organization — a legal designation that does not apply to the movement.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr on June 4 said federal authorities had “evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activities.”
Barr also acknowledged that foreign actors were “playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
FBI agents in Minneapolis, however, have not linked any of the destruction from the protests to antifa or organized extremist groups. None of the dozen federal arson and rioting cases charged so far in Minnesota describe links to antifa or other groups. Neither have any of the dozens of other federal cases documented nationwide at this point.
Bret Schafer, a media and disinformation fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which closely tracks state-backed foreign media online, mused that foreign actors may not necessarily need to do much to undermine faith in American democracy this year. Trump has already cast doubts on the validity of the 2020 election results, and American society remains fraught with division.
“We could get to a point where they see us right on the brink and just needing a two-finger push to go over the cliff,” Schafer said.
On Friday, Minnesota U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith joined 13 other Democratic senators in a letter urging federal intelligence and law enforcement leaders to do more to safeguard the 2020 election from an expected rise in foreign interference.
The senators disclosed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had warned June 9 that it was seeing disinformation campaigns beginning to take advantage of unrest over racism and inequality. Foreign adversaries, the senators wrote, were “using it to further sow discord among the American people.” Though they provided no examples, the letter included a footnote to an ABC News report on a recent federal bulletin to law enforcement.
A tweet last month falsely alleging that Ellison was “coordinating” with antifa protesters revealed how disinformation, regardless of source, can seep into real-world discourse.
The tweet included a two-year-old image of Ellison holding a book about anti-fascists. It was posted by a since-deleted account that used the name of a CBS News reporter who died nearly 20 years ago. A Facebook page belonging to a woman who often amplifies QAnon conspiracy theories to thousands of followers also shared a screenshot of the tweet moments after it went live. That post now carries a disclaimer from the social media giant that the post contained false information assessed by “independent fact-checkers.”
Two days after the original tweet, Ellison stood before reporters to announce that he would now be leading the prosecution of the fired officers involved in Floyd’s death. As Ellison and other state officials prepared to leave the news conference, one reporter flagged Ellison for a question.
“Attorney General, is it possible for you to please address a picture that has gone somewhat viral on social media with you holding a book that some consider somewhat controversial as you’re taking a lead role in this case…?”
“It means nothing,” Ellison said. “It’s just a complete diversion.”