The bipartisan long con: Russian clickbait, Water Protectors and the movement for black lives

In a case like this one, we have to ask an age old question. Who benefits from these poorly sourced stories that damage nascent social movements?

Mikhail Prokhorov, Russian politician. Taken at Press center of Interfax, Moscow. (Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, Black Lives Matter activists and the Water Protectors of Standing Rock have energized the left in both the United States and Canada through their revival of traditions of dissent that had been missing from the public sphere for almost half a century. One noticeable aspect of both movements is the ambivalence to outright hostility they were met with by corporate media and political parties from the center ‘left’ to the far right.

While the Water Protectors were routinely assaulted by law enforcement and private security forces, with hundreds arrested, activists from individual citizens to mainstream civil rights organizations like the NAACP, who gathered to protest systemic police violence targeting African Americans under the BLM banner, continue to face similar repression and have been demonized by right wing news outlets like Fox News in the US and the smaller Rebel Media in Canada as ‘terrorists’.

Recently, a new narrative has arrived in more liberal precincts. It accuses these groups of being unwitting tools of Russian intelligence, part of a vast conspiracy to create divisions in US society. The charges are serious not for the reasons proposed by these voices, but because they could have the effect of de-legitimizing these movements in the eyes of those who were mildly supportive or on the fence regarding their ongoing struggles.

For what it’s worth, the charges made are also remarkably similar to accusations leveled at Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American, Native and Latin American leaders during the heyday of the civil rights movement with a contemporary twist.

Activism or agitprop?

As part of the ongoing, seemingly endless speculation on the allegations of widespread Russian interference in the 2016 election, two online sources, one right wing and one liberal, published a series of stories about the Kremlin’s plans to sow division in American civic life by co-opting these movements for their own nefarious, yet increasingly  incomprehensible, ends.

The two main sites that broke this news are the Daily Beast and Buzzfeed, who linked to each others’ stories, mostly based on just one source, ensuring that the narrative spread widely. While it was nice to see mainstream networks and dailies actually addressing these movements, by drawing almost exclusively on these web-sites reporting, they uniformly ignored the actual issues that each is trying to shine a light on.

The main allegations against the Water Protectors of Standing Rock center on 86 Instagram accounts that shared memes about the ongoing struggles of Native Americans. The largest of these, @Native_Americans_United, had a total of 33,000 followers.

A week earlier the same site posted another story titled, “These Americans Were Tricked into Working for Russia. They Say They Had No Idea,” which claimed that at least four people were, to varying degrees, compromised by assumed Russian intelligence operatives who took advantage of their support for the Movement for Black Lives to aid their perceived wider goal of driving a wedge into American society.

Let’s ignore the fact that the dissent of large numbers of African Americans, who appear to be more interested in protecting their communities than working for a foreign power, is legitimate, both from a contemporary and historical perspective, and instead take our cue from Buzzfeed News, concentrating on what these Russian agents, who we are told work long hours furiously typing away at a St. Petersburg ‘troll farm’, are actually accused of.

The accusations targeting BLM mostly lead back to BlackMattersUS, a news web-site whose social media accounts have all been suspended since these initial reports. The content on the actual site seems legitimate and appears to have been composed by African-American writers, many of the stories presented are local in nature and, as such, are uncovered on mainstream political sites.

Unfortunately, the Buzzfeed piece is so caught up in its breathless narrative that it spends no time at all on what’s on the site itself, linking only to its ‘About Us’ page. Instead, the author focuses on attempts by the site to organize protests that had one main thing in common: they were uniformly poorly attended.

As Brandon Long, state party chairman of the Minnesota Green Party, explained to the online outlet The Outline, he and other activists in his state didn’t attend protests called by the web-site, saying, “We frequently support Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations and we know pretty much all the organizers in town and that page wasn’t recognized by anyone.”

The same Buzzfeed piece also accused Russian operatives of funding similarly poorly attended African American self defense classes in New York City at the immense cost of $320 a month. No doubt, , the Russian president, famous for his interest in judo, personally oversaw these efforts because, as one talking head after another has told their audiences on cable news for at least a year, “Not much happens in Russia (a country of 150 million) without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”

This wooly thinking has contributed to the large number of social media accounts and web-sites caught up in these ongoing stories, posting both pro and anti-Trump memes and including many non-political ones, showing that just about any content that comes from Russia is now deemed suspicious

As Margaret Kimberly of the Black Agenda Report, one of the most incisive writers covering these issues, put it this week, we need to remember that, “It is Democrats who demanded that Facebook and Twitter stop telling the truth about Eastern European click bait schemes and instead join that party’s witch hunt. Now we are told that Russian social media posts meant to influence American politics reached 126 million people on Facebook over a two year period. Of course the last paragraphs at the end of that story reveal that only one out of 23,000 pieces of content actually reached anyone.”

The examples offered in these stories might convince people who don’t read much beyond the headlines, but they do lead to one main question: Where did this information linking Standing Rock and BLM to Russian intelligence, blown all out of proportion as they traveled through the mainstream media, originate?

RBC information systems and the Russian oligarch

The source used in almost all of this reporting is the same, RBC Information Systems, a company owned by Russian oligarch and 2012 presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorav.

The long Russian language article, most of which can be read using Google Translate, begins by saying that the troll farm in question was “allegedly created and sponsored by the St. Petersburg businessman Evgeny Prighoazin,” and concentrated at first on purely Ruusian content, creating blog posts and comments, “in defense of the current government, with criticism of the opposition and in support of politically acceptable public events.”

It’s interesting that the RBC story links back to the Daily Beast and other larger American media organizations as a part of its investigation. Almost all of the people reportedly running the troll farm categorically deny involvement, including the alleged  head of the “American Department”at what we are told is called “The Factory”, a 27 year old from Azerbaijan named Jeyhun Aslanova. The sources that name these people are almost all anonymous. In fact, almost every source in the article is unnamed.

An exception to this is a blogger named Jenna Abrams, who, before the account was suspended, had 70,000 Twitter followers for her far right, Pro-Trump musings, which were picked up by news outlets from the BBC to Yahoo News and who we are now being told doesn’t exist and is the exclusive creation of the St. Petersburg troll farm.

Rather than blaming their over reliance on provocative tweets for creating click bait content of their own, these outlets complain that there was no way of knowing if these tweets came from a real person. This, if true, is the cost of relying on social media rather than actual investigation to inform their readers and viewers.

In all we are told that the troll farm spent around $100,000 over an almost 2 year period, with another $50,000 of suspicious spending that hasn’t yet been linked to Kremlin efforts. To put this into perspective, the Hillary Clinton campaign spent at least a billion dollars over the same period of time and still lost the election, mostly due to the undemocratic Electoral College system and widespread gerrymandering that neither major American political party seems to have made any effort to reform, though it has thrown elections to one party in Presidential contests twice so far this century.

Who is Mikhail Prokhorav?

At 6‘8“, Prokhorav, who may be familiar to some American readers as the owner of the New York Knicks, a team he recently sold half of his share in, is a larger than life figure in more ways than one, a man who turned a job at an unsuccessful bank and a profitable laundromat business into an empire in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union.

He became a billionaire at least in part by working with other oligarchs to leverage the inept, inebriated, American supported President, Boris Yeltsin, who allowed them to exchange much needed rubles to pay for salaries and pensions for state employees with, “shares in state enterprises as collateral”.

At one point Prokhorov and a partner had majority stakes in the country’s largest nickel, palladium and gold companies, bought for pennies on the dollar and soon worth billions.

Although he was long accused of being a puppet of Vladimir Putin, when he ran for President in 2012, coming in third place with just under 8% of the vote, he became increasingly critical of the Kremlin.

Regardless, it’s oligarchs like Prokhorav who made a leader with authoritarian tendencies like Vladimir Putin (or worse) inevitable, and an argument can be made that American interference in Russia during the 1990s helped lead to the rise of this corrupt, billionaire class who uniformly champion Western (neo)liberalism.

Still, even some Americans who call themselves experts are either ignorant of or refuse to bring this recent history up as the hysteria about Russian interference continues to dominate the discussion of what actually went wrong for Democrats in the 2016 election..

This isn’t to say that Russia doesn’t follow and, when its in its interest, attempt to sway American or other foreign elections and social movements. It would be naive to think otherwise, but it shouldn’t be controversial to say that there are other countries with much greater influence on the American political class who have and continue to do much more than Facebook advertising to influence the country’s politics.

It’s not a popular opinion in some quarters, but Israel, and to a lesser extent, the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, spend far more through think tanks and lobbyists to influence American politics on a day to day basis than Russia does, even when their goals are not in the interest of the country or its citizens.

It’s also somewhat rich that a country whose government pays for an ‘NGO’ called the National Endowment for Democracy, that openly tries to effect elections in other nations, spending millions every year compared to the alleged Russian troll farm’s measly $150,00, is crying foul over alleged Russian interference.

In a case like this one, we have to ask an age old question. Who benefits from these poorly sourced stories that damage nascent social movements?

In this case it appears that both the American right, the fringes of which have picked up on the stories discussed to claim that Russians are actually supporting the American left, and the centrists of the Democratic Party who can now dismiss the progressives in their own party as Russian spies at worst and dupes at best. Unwittingly, corporate media have offered a perfect example of how these political parties, while rivals on some issues, are actually a two-headed beast with a decades long interest in maintaining a status quo that hasn’t been working for ordinary American citizens but continues to enrich America’s own oligarchic interests.


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