Russian Trolls Didn't Bring Down the Women's March
Russian troll accounts posted both support and criticism for the Women's March and Linda Sarsour throughout 2017. How cherry-picking data led the NYT to faulty conclusions about Russia's intentions.
You may have seen the recent New York Times piece titled, ‘How Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step’ in which the author attempts to explain the hidden hand of Russian trolls in bringing down the Women’s March in 2017. You probably remember the images of women wearing “pussy hats” and protesting Donald Trump immediately after his inauguration, but it’s equally likely you forgot what happened next. The New York Times previously chronicled the accusations of anti-Semitism and infighting which ultimately led to one of the co-founders of the Women’s March, Vanessa Wruble, forming her own splinter group called March On in October 2017 alongside founders of Women's March chapters in Chicago, Oklahoma and even Canada. In less than a year, a once unified movement had already split into competing protests and marches. Three of the Women’s March co-chairs in particular—Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory—received the brunt of the public criticism over their continued support for the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, who has an extensive history of anti-Semitism which includes recently referring to Jews as “termites”. In truth, the Women’s March under their leadership never shied away from controversy. It embraced it. After Donald Trump demanded the Cuban government under Raul Castro extradite Joanne Chesimard a/k/a Assata Shakur to the United States to face justice (Shakur is on the FBI's “Most Wanted Terrorist’s List” after being convicted of murdering a NJ state trooper and later escaping from prison) in June 2017, the official Women's March Twitter account wished a happy birthday to Shakur a month later with the line "a woman's place is in the struggle". After CNN's Jake Tapper criticized that particular tweet, Sarsour claimed that Tapper had joined "the ranks of the alt-right" in targeting her online. A measured response it was not. Now, five years later, the blame for Sarsour’s marginalization has shifted away from the Alt-Right to Russian trolls as a major factor in the collapse of the Women’s March, even if doing so undermines the NYT’s previous reporting chronicling the internal divisions that transformed a four-million-person protest into a mere footnote in history.
While it’s true that Sarsour took the brunt of much of the criticism directed at the Women’s March, it’s also true that she had a much larger national profile than any of its other controversial figures. Her history of controversial statements and activism were well documented. Sarsour already had a reputation as a divisive figure whom controversy always seemed to follow, and the attacks against her did originate from pro-Trump figures with a history of Islamophobia or anti-Feminist rhetoric (see Pamela Geller and Milo Yiannopoulos here), but when you actually go back and look at Linda Sarsour’s career up to 2017 (when she co-founded the Women’s March), what you’ll find is not Russian trolls in opposition to Sarsour’s activism. Instead, there’s a fairly well documented history of Russian trolls amplifying the same messaging that Sarsour was boosting herself.
I am not arguing that this in any way means Sarsour was intentionally doing Russia’s bidding. I’m saying the movements she supported were boosted by Russian trolls who wanted to increase coverage of controversial movements and protests within the United States. This fits the pattern of behavior consistently observed in Russia’s malign influence operations. Curiously, the NYT piece even acknowledges this practice. However, it frames the discussion in terms of pre-January 2017 and post-January 2017, as if the tactics dramatically shifted once Trump took office. In reality, the tactics may have shifted slightly, but the overall strategy did not. Recall this story from November 2017, in which we learned, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Russian actors organized both anti-Islam and pro-Islam protests in the same location at the same time on May 21, 2016, using separate Facebook pages operated from a so-called troll farm in St. Petersburg”. Russian trolls were playing both sides against one another during the 2016 election. This pattern was repeated in 2017 with Linda Sarsour and the Women’s March.
Let’s have an honest assessment of what really went on here.
Sarsour’s history of boosting the same narratives as Russian trolls
According to the New York Times piece, Linda Sarsour, as one of the co-founders of the Women’s March, oversaw a successful anti-Trump march in January 2017 in which more than four million people participated to show their opposition to the incoming administration. However, only days after their first successful event, everything suddenly changed. The author states:
But then something shifted, seemingly overnight. What [Sarsour] saw on Twitter that Monday was a torrent of focused grievance that targeted her. In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude. A question began to form in her mind: Do they really hate me that much?
That morning, there were things going on that Ms. Sarsour could not imagine.
More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.
The implication here mirrors a consistent theme throughout the article. Namely that the seeds of division, strife and infighting which occurred within the Women’s March were planted then and there by Russian trolls. The story goes on to explain Russia’s efforts online and how they “evolved” after the 2016 election so that after the election ended, “[i]t wasn’t exclusively about Trump and Clinton anymore.” The article repeatedly tries to frame Russia’s efforts through this prism. It implies the Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) activities in 2016 were essentially binary—either posting support for Donald Trump or criticism of Hillary Clinton. Then, with their preferred candidate in the White House, the IRA shifted its intentions towards other movements, causes and figures. Thus, a movement (the Women’s March) critical of Russia’s preferred candidate (Trump) led by a woman who espoused ideals in opposition to “traditional Russian values” (Sarsour) was the perfect target. In truth, the simplistic framing the NYT peddles is never how the IRA functioned. Yes, the Kremlin did influence the 2016 election with the intent of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump. Yes, this assistance took many forms—trolling, the DNC hack and the release of those hacked emails by WikiLeaks most of all—but the idea that Russia’s tactics took a dramatic turn after Trump won simply is not true. There’s a clear case in point here, and it comes in the form of Linda Sarsour’s own activity on Twitter in the years leading up to 2017.
The website russiatweets[.]com contains the activity of known Internet Research Agency (Russian troll) accounts used by the Kremlin to influence online discussions and behaviors from 2012-2018 (this is the current extent of the activity that can as of now be definitively linked by to the IRA trolls). When you start to look through Linda Sarsour’s historical tweets, you find years of evidence that Russian troll accounts and Sarsour posted about a lot of same topics online, and their opinions on the same issues were often aligned. They agreed with one another. In fact, here is a less than comprehensive list of hashtags used in tweets posted by both Linda Sarsour and Russian troll accounts on Twitter:
For all of the above shared hashtags, you can find tweets by Linda Sarsour and Russian troll accounts in which the two were ideologically aligned. This is not altogether shocking. Sarsour has herself posted links to RT[.]com on Twitter and made an appearance on RT America in 2012. Now, if I wanted to use the standard the NYT applied to their article, could I not say Sarsour was spreading pro-Kremlin talking points? But there’s the rub. In addition to the messages agreeing with Sarsour, there were separate Russian troll accounts that posted messages in opposition to these same issues using these same hashtags. As is so often the case, the Russians were playing both sides against one another. They were not posting these messages to support or demonize one movement over the other. Their goal was to increase visibility around a controversial issue. They were pouring fuel onto a fire which was already burning, not propping up or sabotaging one viewpoint over another.
Russian trolls also defended and encouraged the Women’s March and Sarsour
The first Women's March occurred on January 21, 2017. The NYT writes, " forty-eight hours after the march, a shift of tone occurred online, with a surge of posts describing Ms. Sarsour as a radical jihadi who had infiltrated American feminism." They continue, “Not all of this backlash was organic. That week, Russian amplifier accounts began circulating posts that focused on Ms. Sarsour, many of them inflammatory and patently false, claiming she was a radical Islamist, ‘a pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim’ who “’was seen flashing the ISIS sign.’” But here's where it gets interesting. Did Russian trolls tweet those statements cited in the NYT piece? Yes, they did, and you can see those tweets and more attacks from Russian trolls on those dates here. But on the exact same days different Russian troll accounts were also tweeting positive messages of support for Sarsour, and you can see those tweets here. They include statements such as, "Sending love to my sister @lsarsour. She is a badass organizer who needs our support as our opponents attack her #IMarchWithLinda," and "After helping coordinate one of the most successful marches in history, Islamophobes are viciously attacking @lsarsour #IMarchWithLinda," and " I don't know a more humble genuine freedom fighter than @lsarsour her dedication to liberation is without question. #iMarchWithLinda," and ".@lsarsour is a visionary, a phenomenal leader, and a committed activist whose courage inspires positive change worldwide. #IMarchWithLinda," and, ".@lsarsour is a visionary, a phenomenal leader, and a committed activist whose courage inspires positive change worldwide. #IMarchWithLinda".
When you search through Russian troll posts in the same time period, January 20-30, 2017, using the search terms "WomensMarch" (which includes posts tagging the official @WomensMarch Twitter account and users who posted #WomensMarch in their tweets) and any tweets containing the phrase "Women's March" what you see closely mirrors the tweets mentioning Linda Sarsour in this time period. There are positive messages such as, “"No hate! No fear! #Immigrants are welcome here!" Chants crowd at #WomensMarch #TheMarchContinues,” and “For women everywhere who deserve a voice, respect, humanity and equity. #WhyIMarch #WomensMarch #WeWomen”.
Nevertheless, there are also negative messages speaking out against the march and its organizers, such as, “#WomensMarch actually promotes fundamental Islam and misogyny #SpicerFacts” and “SHOCK: #WomensMarch Promotes Islamic Enslavement of Women Learn more … #islam #femism #ShariaLaw”. I could go on listing examples, and I welcome you to look through the links I’ve provided to see for yourself. There are, in both cases, dozens of posts both in support and in opposition of the Women’s March and Linda Sarsour in particular. There should be no doubt that Russian trolls had significant interest in those topics, particularly in late January 2017, but their interest coincided with worldwide interest in those topics as well. Look through the list of celebrities involved in the first Women’s March. This was a huge event with massive cultural significance.
What the NYT has done is cherry pick a set of data points to sell their audience a narrative in which Russian trolls unfairly maligned Linda Sarsour because she was pro-Palestine, a feminist and a Muslim. The NYT does caution their readers by saying, “[i]t is maddeningly difficult to say with any certainty what effect Russian influence operations have had on the United States,” and there is some truth to that; but there’s also quite a bit of relevant information missing from the piece. If the goal of the Russia’s operation was to simply malign Sarsour and bring down the Women’s March, why were IRA accounts still posting support for the Women’s March in 2018? Why were those tweets excluded from the NYT’s discussion?
What the NYT gets wrong about Russia’s motivations
While the NYT tries to obscure their dubious claim that Russian trolls somehow fractured the Women’s March by emphasizing the “unknowability” of how effective the Kremlin’s trolling influence operations are in practice, Sarsour’s own statement after the article was published tells you exactly what conclusions she wants people to draw. She was the “target” of "one of the most powerful governments in the world.” Adding, "[i]t was all coordinated & part of a plan." The plan being the “fracturing” of the Women’s March via a coordinated trolling campaign against Sarsour herself.
To be clear, Russian trolls posted more often in opposition of the movement than they posted in support of the Women’s March, but if we think of the atmosphere in the country in early 2017, #Resistance was at an all-time high. Opposition to Donald Trump was everywhere and media coverage of that opposition was rather non-stop. Remember the constant coverage on Sean Spicer’s every misspoken word? Remember the memes about crowd size? The right-wing media ecosystem was surely all-in for Donald Trump’s administration, but they were clearly outnumbered and fighting an uphill battle when it came to controlling the media narrative. If you’re assigning tasking to Russian trolls in early 2017 and your goal is to increase the divisions, increase the chaos, increase the infighting and strife in the United States, wouldn’t you look to level the playing field? Wouldn’t you latch onto right-wing pro-Trump narratives that were being drowned out in a sea of surging #Resistance? If the precursor to Trumpism, the Tea Party movement, taught us anything, it’s easier to be the opposition. It’s easier to criticize the ruling political party than it is to rule. It’s easier to gain popular support if you don’t have to actually do anything other than yell the loudest.
The people yelling the loudest in early 2017 were on the left, and Russian trolls who wanted to increase our domestic strife amplified the conversation around an already-controversial Muslim female activist. The Russians weren’t the drivers of this conversation. Pro-Trump media got there first. The Daily Caller claimed Sarsour harbored ties to the terrorist group Hamas. The Gateway Pundit called Sarsour “pro-Sharia law”. FrontPage Magazine, a right-wing publication owned by Stephen Miller’s mentor David Horowitz, ran with the headline 'The Anti-Semite Who Organized the 'Women's March on Washington' with this accompanying picture of Sarsour giving an interview on RT America muddying the waters even further.
The response from the left and the mainstream media to these attacks was swift. Major publications such as Time Magazine, NBC News, Middle East Eye, Haaretz and numerous prominent voice on Twitter defended Sarsour using the hashtag #IStandWithLinda on Twitter. Others, such as the independent Jewish journal Forward both criticized and defended Sarsour. What happened most of all was that people were talking about the controversy, and the more people talked about it, the more controversial the topic became. Russian trolls piggybacked a fight that was already in progress, and they poured fuel on both sides of the debate.
Why would the NYT undermine its own reporting?
Despite the NYT’s claim that Russian trolls singled out Sarsour because she was "a Palestinian American activist whose hijab marked her as an observant Muslim," there's little in Russia's behavior abroad that would indicate this would make her a more likely target of the Russian state. After all, pro-Russian figures like Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal—a person who today regularly puts out pro-Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine up to and including denial of Russian war crimes—are among the people who have both supported Palestinian causes, appeared at pro-Palestine events with Sarsour and can be seen frequently in @lsarsour’s mentions on Twitter. It’s not surprising that Russian government surrogates or their paid trolls have a history of supporting Palestine. This stance lines up well with the general Kremlin policy discussed in this piece. The pro-Israel factions gain a significantly larger stake of the mainstream media coverage in the Israel / Palestine struggle. So, what does a state like Russia which desires more chaos in the world do? They provide additional support to the Palestinian movements that historically receive less favorable media coverage. They amplify the dialogue for groups who support Palestine to even the scales and aid the Palestinian cause in the ongoing information war being played out through coverage of events in the region. Perhaps there is a greater geopolitical reason for Russia supporting Palestine or Gaza, but then again, we’ve also seen friendly gatherings between Putin and Netanyahu. So, do we really think this support only goes one way?
I’m not here to tell you that Linda Sarsour was somehow acting on behalf of Kremlin interests. There’s zero evidence of that. Linda Sarsour believes in the things she believes. She has often been caught up in corners of the information space that are by their nature controversial. You can make the cynical argument which says she does this to up her own public profile, but you can also make the argument that Sarsour simply supports these causes—in spite of their controversial nature—because she feels moved to do so. I’m not here to tell you what to believe about her personally. Plenty of others have weighed in on that topic. What I can say is in early 2017 Sarsour had a national profile and was the most logical target for Trump supporters to go after in a movement they were threatened by. Russian trolls watched as the debate over the Women’s March turned into an online frenzy which was quickly divorced from any honest or debatable critiques. It became the focus of the information war, and Russian trolls poured gas on two already intensely raging fires. The latest NYT piece illustrates the dangers of discussing Russia’s influence operations when you don’t truly understand how they work. This ignorance has not only led to faulty conclusions, it has caused the NYT to discount its own earlier reporting on how Women’s March fell apart. Why do it then? Your guess is as good as mine.
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