Face­book ad that tar­geted Bal­ti­more linked to Rus­sia

Pro­pa­ganda ap­pears de­signed to sow dis­cord among the pub­lic

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By John Fritze and Jean Mar­bella

WASH­ING­TON– Aso­cial me­dia ad­ver­tise­ment that tar­geted Bal­ti­more users in the months fol­low­ing the 2015 ri­ots was likely part of a broader ef­fort by Rus­sia to sow dis­con­tent and deepen racial ten­sion, cy­ber se­cu­rity an­a­lysts said Thurs­day.

The Face­book ad, which ref­er­enced the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, came to light this week as the so­cial me­dia gi­ant pre­pares to turn 3,000 ads pur­chased by a Rus­sian en­tity over to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

So­cial me­dia com­pa­nies are un­der in­creased pres­sure on Capi­tol Hill to ex­plain their role in spread­ing fake news sto­ries and pro­pa­ganda. Twit­ter ex­ec­u­tives met with law­mak­ers Thurs­day and an­nounced that they had shut down at least 22 ac­counts — and pos­si­bly many more — linked to Face­book users with ties to Rus­sia.

Though lit­tle is known pub­licly about the con­tent of the Bal­ti­more ad, it was

placed at a time when the death of 25-year-old Fred­die Gray had thrust the city into the na­tional spot­light.

Months ear­lier, a lo­cal cy­ber se­cu­rity firm had warned of in­creased so­cial me­dia traf­fic about Bal­ti­more from ac­counts in Rus­sia and China.

“Hav­ing so­cial un­rest in a coun­try is ab­so­lutely a goal of an ad­ver­sary or an in­tel­li­gence agency,” said James Nor­ton, a for­mer deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of homeland se­cu­rity un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. “Ads like that could cause a dis­rup­tion.”

The Bal­ti­more Sun has con­firmed the ex­is­tence of the Bal­ti­more ad — pur­chased by the Rus­sian-based In­ter­net Re­search Agency — but has not seen it. Sev­eral po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives in Mary­land who mon­i­tor so­cial me­dia ad­ver­tis­ing said they do not re­mem­ber see­ing an un­usual ad­ver­tise­ment ref­er­enc­ing Black Lives Mat­ter at the time.

Mem­bers of Mary­land’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion said they were trou­bled by the rev­e­la­tions. “I am deeply con­cerned about re­ports that vot­ers in Bal­ti­more may have been tar­geted by Rus­sia’s un­der­handed at­tempts to con­tam­i­nate our coun­try’s demo­cratic process and turn Amer­i­cans against one an­other,” Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings, a Bal­ti­more Demo­crat, said in a state­ment. “Face­book must now work vig­or­ously to strengthen its ad­ver­tis­ing poli­cies and re­new users’ trust in the in­tegrity of its sys­tems.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Mary­land Demo­crat, said it was “deeply trou­bling” that “Rus­sia used Face­book ads to try to in­flu­ence our elec­tions — and re­port­edly went so far as to ex­ploit the tragic death of Fred­die Gray.”

CNN, which first re­ported the ad, cited un­named sources who de­scribed it as ap­pear­ing to support Black Lives Mat­ter. The sources also said the ad could be read as por­tray­ing the group as threat­en­ing to some res­i­dents. That de­scrip­tion is con­sis­tent with how Face­book has de­scribed the other ads it is pro­vid­ing, and also what cy­ber an­a­lysts say about how the In­ter­net Re­search Agency has ap­proached the ef­fort to in­flu­ence the po­lit­i­cal de­bate in the United States.

“You don’t need to take a po­si­tion on the is­sue, you can just put it out there,” Jen­nifer Gol­beck said. Gol­beck, who di­rects the So­cial In­tel­li­gence Lab at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, re­searches ways to iden­tify ma­li­cious be­hav­ior on so­cial me­dia.

“You could imag­ine hav­ing a white voter, maybe an in­de­pen­dent, maybe a Demo­crat not en­tirely con­vinced to vote for Hil­lary Clin­ton, and they’ve al­ready pre­vi­ously used [slo­gans], ‘All Lives Mat­ter,’ or ‘Blue Lives Mat­ter,’ ” Gol­beck said.

Show­ing those users a Black Lives Mat­ter ad could serve to re­mind them of an is­sue on which they may not agree with Clin­ton, Gol­beck said. “The im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber about any so­cial me­dia but es­pe­cially Face­book: They have this very deep pro­file of you,” she said. “You have to keep in mind peo­ple are pay­ing money to tar­get you.”

CNN re­ported Thurs­day that a so­cial me­dia cam­paign called “Black­tivist” and linked to the Rus­sian govern­ment used Face­book and Twit­ter to stoke racial ten­sions and pro­mote ral­lies around the coun­try last year, in­clud­ing at least one in Bal­ti­more.

Face­book has said the ma­jor­ity of the ads it is pro­vid­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not fo­cus on a spe­cific can­di­date in last year’s elec­tion but rather “on am­pli­fy­ing di­vi­sive so­cial and po­lit­i­cal mes­sages across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum — touch­ing on top­ics from LGBT mat­ters to race is­sues to im­mi­gra­tion to gun rights.”

Ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the ad, it was also aimed at users in Fer­gu­son, Mo., where ri­ots broke out in 2014 af­ter a po­lice of­fi­cer shot Michael Brown to death. Bal­ti­more’s Gray died af­ter suf­fer­ing a se­vere spinal cord in­jury in po­lice cus­tody. Both in­ci­dents helped fuel a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about po­lice work in pre­dom­i­nately black neigh­bor­hoods.

Face­book has not re­sponded to The Bal­ti­more Sun’s mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

The ad was placed months af­ter un­usual so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity in Bal­ti­more caught the at­ten­tion of a lo­cal cy­ber se­cu­rity firm and city of­fi­cials.

Days af­ter the 2015 ri­ots, the Fed­eral Hill-based ZeroFox doc­u­mented a flurry of ac­counts pos­ing as Bal­ti­more­ans that had in fact been cre­ated in Rus­sia, China and In­dia.

Post­ings from those ac­counts ap­peared de­signed to deepen the di­vides ex­posed dur­ing the ri­ots. “I just killed a pig,” one Twit­ter user wrote along­side a pho­to­graph of a blood­ied po­lice of­fi­cer who, it turns out, was from South Amer­ica, not Bal­ti­more. An­other tweet, from an ac­count im­per­son­at­ing Bal­ti­more po­lice, used a racial slur.

ZeroFox iden­ti­fied nearly 100 ac­counts im­per­son­at­ing po­lice and city and state of­fi­cials.

“It seems in­creas­ingly likely that their pat­tern of oper­a­tion is to find things that were go­ing on that were or­ganic and le­git­i­mately di­vi­sive” and ex­ploit them, said Dave Troy, the CEO of Bal­ti­more-based 410 Labs. “This wasn’t only about the elec­tion. This was an ef­fort to sort of desta­bi­lize and sow dis­cord within Amer­i­can so­ci­ety more broadly.”

Black Lives Mat­ter lead­ers said they were dis­ap­pointed by the rev­e­la­tion, but not par­tic­u­larly sur­prised.

Sa­muel Sinyangwe, a Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivist based in New York, said he sees the ad as part of a larger dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign to cast the move­ment in a neg­a­tive light. He said con­ser­va­tive me­dia, the alt-right and other groups have used on­line plat­forms to turn the pub­lic against ac­tivists.

“It’s im­por­tant to note they are all play­ing the same play­book,” Sinyangwe said. “The ques­tion is why are these ac­tors try­ing to sow these di­vi­sions and pur­posely por­tray ac­tivists in a neg­a­tive light?”

The Rev. Ja­mal Bryant, pas­tor of the Em­pow­er­ment Tem­ple in Bal­ti­more, said the ad was part of a long string of sur­rep­ti­tious ac­tiv­i­ties against AfricanAmer­i­can ac­tivists over the years.

“His­tor­i­cally, the civil rights com­mu­nity has al­ways had out­siders try­ing to stir the pot,” he said. “It’s usu­ally our own govern­ment, putting un­der­cover agents with the Black Pan­thers, Mal­colm X, Dr. Martin Luther King.”

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