Congress is doing its dithering best to muddle a trio of investigations into purported Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and frankly we doubt they will come to any sort of authoritative bipartisan conclusion.
Lack of staffing, bickering over scheduling and the scope of the investigations and delays have all impeded the progress of Congress’ investigations. The special investigation headed up by special counsel Robert S. Mueller might have slightly better odds of success.
But one of the sidebar issues to the political probe has been the revelation that Russian Internet trolls with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have tried — and in some cases succeeded — in co-opting unwitting civil rights activists to stoke racial tensions and fuel political unrest.
A recent ABC news report chronicled how two online groups — BlackMattersUS and BlackFist — run by Russian operators contacted American activists to “encourage them to help organize rallies, train in self-defense and create music videos.”
In one instance, the Russian web sites convinced a St. Louis hip hop artist, Ronnie Houston, to record a song for them for a music video featuring clips from marches and graphics touting the BlackMattersUS website describing police as “assassins.”
Houston said had he known of the Russian roots of the website, “No man, I wouldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have done it at all.”
In another instance, according to the ABC report, Conrad James, an activist from Raleigh, N.C., said he was approached to speak at a rally last September by a woman who claimed to be representing BlackMattersUS and asked to speak at a rally that drew 600 people in Charlotte, N.C.
“They definitely were trying to stir up trouble,” James said of BlackMattersUS. “Their intent was obviously to have some type of emotionally filled rally where people are adding fuel to the fire that was already happening around Charlotte.”
The website BlackFist reportedly paid a group of five trainers to offer free self-defense classes around the country, the network reported.
There is evidence to suggest that the Russians worked other sides of the political spectrum to foment dissent and cause unrest in our country. Other Russian websites that have been identified included ones with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Heart of Texas,” “Secured Borders” that promulgated pages and they contend were“shared” 340 million times through Facebook and other social media, according to news reports.
From the traces so far, it is clear that Russian operatives are engaging in a concerted, coordinated campaign to foment unrest and dupe social and political activists into spreading that unrest.
On Nov. 1, Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, is slated to appear before one of the congressional committees, and will hopefully shed more light on the extent of the Russian meddling in our domestic affairs.
Facebook needs to give a full accounting of that meddling and it needs to develop tools — yes, they can do that — to make Facebook and other social media more transparent so that Americans are not duped by foreign propaganda aimed at dividing the country and fueling the rage of zealots of all political stripe.
And social and political activists — be they left, right or center — need to step up their vigilance and do a better job of vetting the websites that come to them offering a helping hand when they are in fact co-opting their causes for a foreign purpose of their own.