During and after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, you may have run across social media accounts with the handle “Blacktivist.” The Blacktivist accounts spoke passionately for social justice and against police violence. They promoted Black Lives Matter rallies. They condemned mass incarceration. They even sold merchandise with Black pride slogans. The Facebook page amassed 360,000 likes. And it was all run by the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) as part of a broader influence operation against the United States.
Congressional and U.S. intelligence investigations in 2017 revealed that IRA-backed Facebook pages such as Blacktivist created 80,000 pieces of organic content that reached 126 million Americans during the 2016 election. These pages identified controversial issues in American society and built clever disinformation campaigns purposefully meant to anger, divide and undermine trust in American institutions. That included Black history, a fraught subject in American life that Russian intelligence agents were eager to exploit.
The campaigns worked, essentially, like this: Russian agents identified a target demographic and the news sources the demographic engaged with passionately. The agents would then lift imagery and text from those sources and remix them to closely resemble the originals. They would run paid ads targeting users based on keywords, location, and interests, and entice users to like or subscribe to the pages. Once the pages grew in audience, new content would anger, inflame, and discredit American institutions such as government, police, media and the justice system.
One case study was outlined by researcher Mitch Chaiet at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2017, Buzzfeed published a post titled “These Stunning Women Are Shutting Down A Ridiculous Beauty Double Standard” about Black women proudly displaying their grey hair. Chaiet explains how the IRA created a meme from images in the article and ran the meme as a sponsored ad on a Russian-owned Facebook Page called “Black Matters (BM).” The ad targeted users with interests in the following subjects: “Martin Luther King,” “African-American culture,” “African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968),” “African-American history,” and “Malcolm X.” The “Black Matters” Facebook page grew to hundreds of thousands of followers using such ads and targeting techniques. Among its sponsored ads were proclamations such as “Our mission is to tell the bold truth about racism,” targeted at Facebook users living in the United States with interests in Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), African-American history and Malcolm X. That ad generated 223,343 impressions and 18,796 clicks.
Black history has not solely been used as a targeting device behind the scenes. It has also been exploited on screen. Russian accounts frequently grabbed historical imagery featuring Black Americans from across the Web and turned them into memes that would seek to incriminate American institutions. One Blacktivist post juxtaposed the Black Panthers with the KKK, asking why the former was dissolved while the other allowed to persist. The same framing technique was used by the IRA-run Pan-African Roots MOVE page, asking why a Black beauty pageant in 1972 was shut down when a white pageant was allowed to continue. This rhetorical device may feel familiar; it has been used repeatedly on social media by activists and journalists in incidents ranging from the George Floyd protests to the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol. That’s part of what makes these disinformation campaigns so effective—foreign adversaries imitate the language used by partisans in the U.S., lending them credibility and making it challenging to decipher the true agendas at work, especially during fast-moving news stories.
In my book, History, Disrupted, I detail how this dynamic played out in the aftermath of the encounter at the Lincoln Memorial between Covington Catholic High School and Indigenous protestors in 2019. Hostile foreign actors on Instagram, Reddit, YouTube and Twitter used that incident to bombard social media with incendiary and highly-emotional content about African American history, including memes of lynched bodies, images from the Civil Rights movement, and posing as commenters on Instagram arguing about past injustices. These posts were intended to stoke anger and division during a tense moment in American politics (you may recall the incident occurred on MLK Day while the federal government was shut down in a dispute over President Trump’s border wall). Content from disinformation agents was circulated and retweeted by Progressive journalists and activists eager to make broader claims about racism in the United States. In the process, they collaborated in a foreign influence operation. (The full analysis of this incident is in the chapter of my book called “The Visual Past.”)
This tactic is not solely confined to exploiting Progressive causes. As uncovered by Red Pill Strategies during the protests of summer 2020, avowed White Nationalist and White Supremacist groups operating within the United States, in part, distorted Black history in order to spread misinformation and disinformation among Conservatives. In these instances, memes and images were created and manipulated, then screen-shotted and distributed through messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, allowing them to spread quickly without attribution. Without an original social media account to trace them back to, it became even more challenging for Web users to decipher the true origins and intentions of the content they engaged with.
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This pattern has been repeated over and over. As I discuss in my book, Russian accounts on Twitter tweeted with the hashtag #history more than 8,000 times in the U.S. between 2015 and 2018, and more than 1,400 times with the hashtag #blackhistorymonth. Russian trolls even used the hashtag #twitterstorians in some of their tweets, posing as professional historians on Twitter to feign credibility and incite us against each other by exploiting our ignominious past. These accounts existed on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for years until Congressional and public pressure spurred the platforms to remove them. As a result, and as Red Pill Strategies noted, the tactics are evolving. Such campaigns are now highly decentralized, leveraging platforms such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Reddit, Snapchat and even the popular blogging site Medium. But they use the same tactics: identify divisive issues, repurpose content so that it mirrors verifiable sources, introduce it into multiple conversations online, and stoke it so that it spreads.
Why have these campaigns been so effective? In a research paper published last year, scholars Melody Crowder-Meyer and Mónica Ferrín found that Web users accept information as factual when it is consistent with their ethno-racial group’s interests, especially when that information affirms in-group identity. Respondents in the research study were more likely to classify as facts the statements that favored their own racial group’s interests, and more likely to classify as opinion the statements that were unfavorable to their racial group’s interests. This phenomenon did not exist in isolation; it was closely correlated with political ideology. In layman’s terms, then, political partisans on both the Left and Right will believe the information about Black history they encounter online if it reinforces favorable views of their own racial and political identities—even if that information is from a Russian troll account. Those seeking to uplift African Americans through Black history will believe and circulate historical memes from disinformation agents regardless of their accuracy or source, and those who feel under threat from Black history will resist accurate historical information, or even double-down on inaccuracies or conspiracies about it. The more divided we are along political and racial lines, the more effective these campaigns seem to be.
Does this mean we shouldn’t study Black history? Of course not. It does mean, however, that you should not rely on the social Web—and particularly historical memes that circulate online—for your understandings of it. These memes are often unattributed, meaning their origins could be legitimate or they could be part of a disinformation campaign by a hostile actor. Ask yourself who created this meme or social media hashtag? Why am I seeing this now? Can I trace the origin of this piece of information? If the answer is ‘no,’ consider disengaging from it.
This is also why I don’t share links to political news stories on social media. Journalists and activists are as prone to disinformation as the broader public. In fact, a report from The Atlantic Council detailed how information from one Russian disinformation campaign eventually wound up in a Buzzfeed article. (It should be noted that the campaign itself seems to have been largely ineffective, but its contents appearing on one of the most visited and shared sites in the world raised many questions). The mass sharing of political news stories not only gives billion-dollar social media companies more information on how to refine their algorithms to make us more addicted to their platforms—it also tells foreign disinformation agents what types of articles and headlines they should imitate in order to wage their next campaign against us.
The best places to learn about Black history, then, are in books and museums, where scholars have spent years researching, collecting, and interpreting the complex and diffuse narratives of the Black past and thoughtfully assembled experiences that can enlighten and educate. Museum visitation may not be possible this winter due to covid-19, so if you are stuck at home my advice for Black History Month would be to log off the computer, stop scrolling Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, resist the memes, and crack open a book published by a university press. It turns out that Russian disinformation agents can’t track you as well when you read offline—and trolls don’t make for very good peer-reviewed authors.
Have a well-read Black History Month.
P.S. – If you’re searching for Black history book ideas, check out the catalogs of the University of North Carolina Press, the University of South Carolina Press, and the University of Georgia Press for a wide array of titles.