A picture of Michael Brown in his cap and gown. A gender equality sign. A housewife wielding a rifle. These images can powerfully signify the causes that countless activists spend their life fighting for, across the political spectrum.
But they are also the same images that Russian trolls, employed by the Internet Research Agency, posted on Facebook as advertisements in order to “sow discord” in America. Through advertisements featuring images and messages like these, Russian operatives co-opted some of the most contentious causes in America, in order to breed strife, rather than make progress.
“It is alarming to see LGBTQ issues being weaponized against a community that is already under attack,” GLAAD’s chief digital officer Jim Halloran told Mashable in response to the ads.
GLAAD is not the only organization disappointed by the Russian ads. But despite the dismay over the ads, NGOs say they’ll continue using Facebook for organizing — basically, because Facebook is too valuable of a tool to give up.
On the left and right, organizations say that they understand that manipulation and “subterfuge,” (as one organizer put it), is just par for the course online. So when it comes to internet organizing, non-profits have to take the good of social media (the ability to reach more potential advocates) with the bad. As with news, it is now either up to consumers, or up to the platforms themselves, to determine what is a legitimate form of protest and progress, and what is malicious.
On May 11, the Democrats of the House Judiciary Committee released a trove of over 3,500 Facebook ads posted by Russia-linked accounts between 2014 and 2017. The ads reached 11.4 million people, and 126 million Americans viewed over 80,000 organic posts created in the 470+ Russia-owned Facebook groups. The cache also contained the ads’ metadata, which show to whom the IRA targeted the ads, how much money they spent promoting them, and more.
The ads run the ideological gamut from Black Lives Matter to “blue lives matter,” “family values” to LGBT rights. In other words, they are equally inflammatory to both sides of every social issue, and they use similar messaging (though sometimes awkwardly written) to that of legitimate organizations and Facebook groups. But unlike activist groups, the ads were not in service of creating any real ideological change in America, unless you count geopolitical destabilization as such.
According to Congress, the Russian company Internet Research Agency deployed them in order to specifically heighten racial tensions, and inflame other issues that would divide America and contribute to the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Ugh.
This is nefarious to say the least. But sifting through misappropriated slogan after tokenized image, I wondered how it must feel for an activist who actually, legitimately spends their time working on these issues, to see ads that use their cause as political tinder.
Online organizing has transformed the way that non-profits fundraise and communicate with their support base. Bruce Rankin, the executive director of Westside Food Bank, (a food distributor for homeless families in Los Angeles), explained that social media helps his organization connect supporters and stakeholders, and push its legislative and activism agenda forward.
“On a daily basis, we use social media to make our stakeholders aware of the work we do and to thank those who support our hunger relief efforts in Los Angeles,” Rankin told Mashable. “From signing petitions and encouraging our network to do the same, to calling our representatives and coordinating visits up to the Capitol, the internet helps focus and facilitate the process of communicating our priorities to legislators, and also helps us include our supporters in this work.”
Beyond the day-to-day of already established organizations, social media in particular has given life to new movements. In recent years, Facebook events have helped facilitate anti-Trump protests and the women’s march. Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo popularized on social media have named and coalesced phenomena, causing seismic shifts in our society. For better or for worse, social media has played a role in how professional and amateur activists alike aim to affect change.
But given social media’s now proven ability to be manipulated, can (and should) organizers still utilize platforms like Facebook?
“I think it’s something we’re just going to have to live with as activists,” organizer Ibrahim Hooper told Mashable. “And hope that people can separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Hooper is a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. Russia-linked pages posted both “strong borders” and pro-immigration, Muslim-empowered messaging.
Hooper’s counterpart at the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), echoed the sentiment.
“Social media is a legitimate tool that everybody uses,” Ira Mehlman, FAIR spokesman, said. “The genie is out of the bottle. We can debate whether it’s good or it’s bad, but it just is.”
“We’ve almost become used to this kind of internet subterfuge, and games, the fakery that you see all across the internet,” Hooper said. “It’s a tool. It’s how you use the tool, not the tool itself that matters.”
FAIR and CAIR were more resigned to this new reality than other organizations. In response to ads that capitalized on the cause of transgender equality to stoke outrage, GLAAD called for decisive action from Facebook and other social media companies.
“Social media was supposed to be a lifeline for LGBTQ people and other minorities but, it’s clear, in this instance that failed,” Halloran said. “What’s worse, tech companies profited from this initiative which aimed to demonize marginalized communities. The tech industry needs to decide who they are actually serving and prove that remains their top priority.”
Facebook has reported that it made around $100,000 off of the Russia-linked ads.
Black Lives Matter suffered some of the most extreme “misappropriation” of its cause in the Russian ads. In the ad files, multiple ads depict the likenesses of Michael Brown, Philando Castille, and other African American men who were shot by the police. These ads drove to rallies, and also even to merchandise purchasing options — which put money back into the hands of Russian agitators, and transferred Russian subterfuge from online to the real world.
Black Lives Matter wrote of the fake profiles in a statement:
Since its inception, the Black Lives Matter Global Network has regularly dealt with the misappropriation of our name and likeness, which has compromised the integrity of our local, national, and global work.
We live in a digital world, and it’s extremely important that platforms like Facebook and Twitter do their due diligence with users so that supporters of our movement, and movements like ours, aren’t misled and that resources aren’t misappropriated.
Even while calling for Facebook to do better, Black Lives Matter, and all of the organizations, are steadfast in the belief that the usurpation of their causes by Russian agitators do not diminish the legitimacy of what they’re fighting for.
“This is the nature of the world as it is today. We have social media and there’s no gatekeeper,” Mehlman said. “It doesn’t in any way discredit the validity of people’s concerns about these issues. These are issues for a reason, because they do affect people’s lives.”
But some, like CAIR’s Hooper, are concerned that Facebook’s intervention might not be enough.
“It might make the audience that you’re trying to reach more distrustful because there’s so much misinformation out there so they don’t know what to trust anymore,” Hooper said.
Does this mean that we should approach Facebook with skepticism as an organizing tool? Probably. But it does not mean that the action of fighting for what we believe in should be undertaken any less vigorously. Russian Facebook ads exploited the things that make America messy, but also that passion, and diversity of opinion, and investment in our collective future, is what makes America wonderful. Or at least it was, before it all turned in to Facebook shouting. Seems to be a common thread here…
So, internet activists, no matter what you’re fighting for, don’t let the Russian ads deter you. Because you know no amount of fake ads will stop our activists.