Over the last two years, there has been a flood of anti-immigrant messaging on social media. If you don’t have a lot of conservative friends, you may never have seen this material on the net, but I witnessed it every day.
Filled with lies tying immigrants to crime and terrorism, it was vile and hateful. I assumed that it was coming from the racist American Alt-Right, but new evidence has come to light that at least some of it was part of a Russian covert campaign to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
A shadowy group called “Secured Borders” seemed to be behind the Facebook ads urging me to “End Sanctuary Cities” and go to rallies against refugees. It turns out that “Secured Borders” is based outside our borders–in Russia.
Last week, Facebook announced it had closed the account of “Secured Borders” after it was revealed that the “group” was in fact an operation of the “Internet Research Firm,” a Russian company that promotes Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy goals through internet disinformation campaigns. Apparently, the Kremlin-linked firm spent $100,000 on Facebook ads attacking immigrants.
The ads included memes that demanded that the U.S. “End Sanctuary Cities” and “Deport Illegals.” Anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and anti-Latino messages were included in many of the ads. There were also postings urging the group’s more than 130,000 supporters to attend anti-immigrant rallies and pickets.
Certain locations in the United States were targeted. “Secured Borders” claimed that the small city of Twin Falls, Idaho, had been overrun by refugees, leading to a “huge upsurge in violence towards American citizens.” There had been no such increase in violence in Twin Falls, but reporting the facts was not the point.
Jonathon Morgan, a former State Department adviser who has studied Russian online operations at his company, New Knowledge, said the Facebook activity underscored that the broader Russian goal went beyond attacks on Mrs. Clinton or support for Mr. Trump in last year’s election. “This is more about destabilizing democracy and pitting us against each other to limit the influence of the United States on the world stage,” he said.
Clinton Watts, a former F.B.I. agent, now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who has studied the Russian influence campaign, said that beyond damaging the American image, Mr. Putin had reasons to court particular subgroups. “If he’s successful, it gives him an indigenous U.S. audience in support of his policies,” Mr. Watts said. “It also gives him leverage in talking to President Trump: ‘Why don’t you stop interfering in Ukraine, and we’ll leave your domestic audience alone.’”
The Russians apparently think that they can exercise clandestine power by building up the racist reaches of the web.
When can we expect Americans who have become the dupes of Russian intel to denounce this effort to undermine democracy? When the president that they worship does.