Four years after Russian operatives used social media in a bid to exacerbate racial divisions in the United States and suppress Black voter turnout, such tactics have spread across a wide range of deceptive online campaigns operated from numerous nations — including from within the United States itself.
The potency and persistence of the racial playbook was highlighted this week when Twitter deleted an account featuring a profile photo of a young Black man claiming to be a former Black Lives Matter protester who switched his allegiance to the Republican Party.
The account, @WentDemtoRep, offered an online testimonial Sunday — the eve of a Republican convention featuring prominent African Americans challenging allegations of racism against President Trump — and was retweeted 22,000 times. Disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones, of Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, found the tweet had 39,000 likes just 19 hours after it was posted.
Russia appears to be intensifying its focus on police enforcement issues in the United States, using popular reactions to protests that have gripped the nation as part of a larger propaganda campaign to divide Americans ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
The death of African American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing U.S. protests have for weeks dominated media coverage from Russian state-sponsored outlets like RT and Sputnik.
Only now, it seems that Russia, through the English-language RT in particular, is reaching out to U.S. police officers and union officials, in what some U.S. officials and lawmakers say is an effort to further inflame tensions.
Law enforcement officers and organizations who spoke with VOA about their interactions with RT described being caught off guard.
“We had no idea about the ties they have,” a representative for lawofficer.com, a website catering to law enforcement officers, told VOA about being approached by the Russian television news channel. “They actually told us they were out of Britain.”
RT contacted lawofficer.com seeking permission to republish an essay by Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Major Travis Yates about the frustration he and many of his police colleagues have been feeling as a result of the protests of police practices, titled, “America, We Are Leaving.”
RT also booked Yates for an on-air interview through its London bureau.
“If I had any idea whatsoever, I obviously never would have done it,” Yates told VOA when asked if he knew about RT’s Russian connection.
Since Yates’ essay was first published, it has been shared thousands of times on social media and even helped get him an appearance on Fox News’