‘Black­tivist’ ac­count linked to Rus­sia raised sus­pi­cions

Baltimore ac­tivists were wary of out­siders horn­ing in on lo­cal is­sues

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Kneze­vich and Justin Fen­ton

When a Face­book page called Black­tivist pro­moted a rally to mark the one-year an­niver­sary of the death of Fred­die Gray last year, some Baltimore ac­tivists were im­me­di­ately sus­pi­cious.

A Twit­ter ac­count with the name @Fred­dieGrayAnn linked to the post about the march and at­tempted to en­gage lo­cal res­i­dents, in­clud­ing com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers and re­porters at The Baltimore Sun and other news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The ac­count at some point changed its name to @Black­tivistDave.

“No one had ever heard of Black­tivist be­fore,” re­called Brit­tany Oliver, a com­mu­nity ad­vo­cate. “The way they were re­spond­ing to us was re­ally off.”

Now, the so­cial me­dia cam­paign has been linked to Rus­sia. Cit­ing un­named sources, CNN re­ported this week that the Black­tivist ef­fort had ties to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and used both Twit­ter and Face­book in an at­tempt to heighten racial ten­sions dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns.

Though the so­cial me­dia ac­counts have been sus­pended, cached ver­sions of some pages were still ac­ces­si­ble Fri­day, as well as replies lo­cal res­i­dents

sent back.

Replies to the tweets made clear that some in Baltimore were skep­ti­cal.

“You can’t come to Baltimore and try to lead s ——. You don’t know the peo­ple here,” one user replied to the Twit­ter ac­count.

“We don’t need peo­ple not from Baltimore us­ing Fred­die name. Are you work­ing here to fix the is­sues?” the Baltimore BLOC group wrote.

The Rev. Heber Brown III, pas­tor of Pleas­ant Hope Bap­tist Church in North Baltimore, said many peo­ple were wary of out­siders com­ing to the city to use Gray’s death as a plat­form for their own pur­poses.

When the Twit­ter ac­count pro­moted the an­niver­sary march, Brown reached out in a pri­vate mes­sage, ask­ing if the or­ga­niz­ers were from Baltimore. “They were us­ing Fred­die Gray’s face [as a pro­file pic­ture] and I was per­turbed by that,” Brown said. “Like many oth­ers, I feel very pro­tec­tive of Baltimore.”

He mes­saged back and forth with the ac­count, which at one point sent him the mes­sage, “I got you. This must be re­ally wrong. I feel ashamed.”

A Twit­ter spokesper­son told The Sun it does not com­ment on in­di­vid­ual ac­counts “for pri­vacy and safety rea­sons.”

The Twit­ter ac­count reached out to jour­nal­ists, ask­ing for con­tact in­for­ma­tion, and got re­sponses from re­porters at The Sun, City Pa­per and New York Times.

And a Sun re­porter re­ceived an email from BeaBlack­tivist@gmail.com with an at­tached press re­lease about the “Fred­die Gray An­niver­sary March” planned for April 16, 2016. The con­tact per­son was listed as David John­son, who de­scribed him­self as “a vol­un­teer co­or­di­na­tor at Black­tivist.” He did not pro­vide any phone num­ber.

The press re­lease con­tained links to the Black­tivist Face­book page and the @Fred­dieGrayAnn Twit­ter ac­count.

The Sun re­ported Thurs­day that a so­cial 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, ac­cord­ing to cy­ber se­cu­rity an­a­lysts. Face­book is pre­par­ing to hand over to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors 3,000 ads pur­chased by a Rus­sian en­tity.

“Some peo­ple have been re­ally dis­mis­sive of the Rus­sian in­flu­ence for the past cou­ple months,” ac­tivist DeRay Mckes­son said in an in­ter­view Fri­day. “This is a re­minder that this goes deeper than some peo­ple want to be­lieve.”

On its Face­book page, the Black­tivist ac­count posted po­lice bru­tal­ity videos, in­ter­spersed with short mes­sages such as, “Our race is un­der at­tack, but re­mem­ber, we are strong in num­bers.”

The page also posted about Allen Bul­lock, a Baltimore teen who pleaded guilty to a riot charge af­ter smash­ing a traf­fic cone through the wind­shield of a car dur­ing the 2015 un­rest. “Well, a teen who did not kill any­one, who did not steal any­thing but dam­aged a city po­lice car will spend12 years in prison,” Black­tivist posted on its Face­book page. It con­trasted that with the out­come for “po­lice of­fi­cers who are re­spon­si­ble in the death of an un­armed black male in po­lice cus­tody.” The post had 368 shares. Adam Jack­son, CEO of the Baltimore or­ga­ni­za­tion Lead­ers of a Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle, said ac­tivists are wor­ried about hav­ing their mes­sage co-opted. When the Black­tivist page started reach­ing out, “all of us saw through that,” he said. “Who­ever was run­ning this, even if it was Rus­sian of­fi­cials, it’s peo­ple us­ing black bodies and con­ver­sa­tions around black peo­ple as a con­ve­nient touch­point as op­posed to stand­ing in sol­i­dar­ity,” Jack­son said.

State Del. Nick Mosby, then a city coun­cil­man, was among those who replied on Twit­ter to a mes­sage from the ac­count, say­ing, “Call my of­fice.” He said Fri­day it’s a stan­dard re­sponse to weed out those who are sin­cere about get­ting in­volved.

The Black­tivist page ap­peared to have copied and pasted a real an­niver­sary event hosted by the Peo­ple’s Power As­sem­bly, a lo­cal group that has been in­volved in ac­tivism for years. Lamont Lilly, who lives in North Carolina, came to Baltimore to at­tend that event and oth­ers. He said Fri­day he wasn’t aware of the Black­tivist page. “It sounds like they may have been bor­row­ing some of the en­ergy around the or­ga­niz­ing tak­ing place,” Lilly said.

But Lilly also said he thought the re­ports link­ing Rus­sia to at­tempts to stoke ten­sions were “ridicu­lous.”

“What that does is cre­ate a whole other sen­sa­tional story rather than ac­tu­ally ad­dress­ing the is­sues of po­lice bru­tal­ity, the is­sues of poverty or the school-to-prison pipe­line,” he said.

Po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns and ad­vo­cacy groups rely on so­cial me­dia be­cause the plat­forms al­low them to tar­get spe­cific vot­ers and con­sumers — ev­ery voter earn­ing more than $100,000 a year in a given ZIP code, for in­stance. Tar­get­ing mes­sages is also cheaper than tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing.

While the Black­tivist posts raised sus­pi­cions among some, so­cial me­dia cam­paigns can also cre­ate a sense of in­ti­macy, said Steve Raabe, pres­i­dent of the An­napolis­based polling firm Opin­ionWorks. A post is far more likely to hold sway if it is shared by a friend or fam­ily mem­ber. “The thing that so­cial me­dia does which did not ex­ist a few years ago is that it adds the val­i­da­tion of the per­son you know who’s in your net­work and who is for­ward­ing the story to you,” Raabe said. “You layer on top of what­ever the news item is a per­sonal val­i­da­tion from some­one in your own net­work.”

Raabe said he has re­peat­edly had fo­cus group par­tic­i­pants point to the in­flu­ence of so­cial me­dia. “We are see­ing huge pen­e­tra­tion by Face­book, par­tic­u­larly,” he said.

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