Adam Rawnsley and Casey Michel, The Daily Beast, December 16, 2019
American racists are reusing some of the ugliest elements of Russia’s election interference operation.
Memes published by some of the worst Kremlin-backed trolls of the 2016 campaign are being echoed online by American neo-Confederates. The Russian accounts, overseen by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), have since been taken down. But American parrot accounts running some of the same racist crap—and worse—are still live on Instagram, an investigation by The Daily Beast and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found. At least one of these live accounts claims to belong to a Russian network persona.
The accounts—which hail the Confederate flag as “Protecting Us From Tyranny Since 1861” and claim that “The Civil War was not about slavery”—highlight the blurry and politically charged boundaries between domestic and foreign trolling. The American racists didn’t need Russia’s help to hate, of course. But the Kremlin supplied a well of ready-made memes for lazy neo-Confederates to post online.
When Russian trolls went hunting for targets and content during the 2016 election, race was their “preferred target,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee study.
South United, a Russian Facebook and Instagram persona that featured in the IRA’s 2016 meddling campaign, took this theme and ran with it, plastering followers with all kinds of racist, bigoted appeals to the Confederacy.
Some of the images published by South United included racist memes of former President Obama dressed as a Nazi with the caption “Don’t support illegals, support own people.” One meme published by the IRA’s account showed a picture of Black Lives Matter protesters next to the question “Black lives or black thugs?” These memes can still be found on active Instagram accounts that pose as state chapters of the original South United page.
The accounts also published the same racist and neo-Confederate images originally published by Russian trolls, such as one with a Confederate flag middle finger bidding viewers to “Say hi to the Yanks” and another wondering, “How many likes can this battle flag get?” The IRA’s South United watermark can still be viewed on these posts.
The parrot accounts used not just IRA memes but other inflammatory content from outside the South United network. The accounts reposted a variety of memes along the same lines of Southern political and cultural resentments, including pro-Confederacy, pro-gun, anti-Islam, and anti-Hillary Clinton content.
The Daily Beast made repeated attempts to contact the owners of the Instagram accounts still up but received no reply.
Nathan Gleicher—head of security policy at Facebook, which owns Instagram—said the accounts, for now, haven’t violated company policies aimed at helping users distinguish between “inauthentic behavior and authentic speech.” So they’re staying online.
“When we take down influence operations, we take action based on the behavior we see on our platforms, not the content they post,” Gleicher told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen these manipulation campaigns reuse content created by innocent people. Most of the content shared by coordinated manipulation campaigns isn’t provably false, and would in fact be acceptable political discourse if shared by real people. That’s why content alone is not a strong signal for identifying these operations.” To disinformation researchers at the DFRLab, the Instagram accounts that are still live show signs of being dedicated to amplifying IRA material.
Facebook told The Daily Beast that the parrot network accounts appeared to be authentically American. “It appears that these accounts belong to real people in the United States whose content was likely mimicked by these operations we removed in the past,” Gleicher told The Daily Beast.
And sadly, material aimed squarely at Confederate sympathizers apparently remains a popular topic for Russian trolls: Facebook announced just two months ago that it had removed dozens of Instagram accounts that originated in Russia, some of which published pro-Confederate material targeted at American audiences.