What exactly did Russian trolls do in Charlotte? And should we care?

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Any time your city is named in a federal indictment, it’s bad news.

That’s exactly what happened last month when Charlotte showed up in the high-profile indictment of Russian operatives accused of trying to influence U.S. politics before and after the contentious 2016 presidential election.

But Charlotte’s role in the Russian political meddling case is a baffling one — and likely pretty minor. Here’s everything we know.

What exactly did Robert Mueller say about Charlotte?

In case everything you’ve seen on CNN, FOX, BBC, NYT, NPR, ABC and NBC has blended together, here’s what happened.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into allegations that Russian operatives meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections.

In February, he released a 37-page indictment that files the first charges against Russian people and companies he determined to have been involved in illegal activity.

For the most part, these guys created fake Facebook accounts to recruit protestors and to buy ads to promote rallies for and against Donald Trump. They also used pretty basic social media and content marketing techniques like creating posts around holidays and other topical events, and buying Facebook ads to grow their audience.

The indictment has one line that references Charlotte.

“Similarly, Defendants and their co-conspirators organized a rally entitled ‘Charlotte Against Trump’ in Charlotte, North Carolina, held on or about November 19, 2016.”

Similar to what? Let’s look at the sentences before.

“After the election of Donald Trump in or around November 2016, Defendants and their co-
conspirators used false U.S. personas to organize and coordinate U.S. political rallies in support of then president-elect Trump, while simultaneously using other false U.S. personas to organize and coordinate U.S. political rallies protesting the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For example, in or around November 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators organized a rally in New York through one ORGANIZATION-controlled group designed to ‘show your support for President-Elect Donald Trump’ held on or about November 12, 2016. At the same time, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through another ORGANIZATION-controlled group, organized a rally in New York called ‘Trump is NOT my President’ held on or about November 12, 2016.”

If you don’t want to wade through all that legalese — basically they used fake accounts to help organize the rally.

All this is illegal because foreign nationals are not allowed to spend money to influence the political process in most cases, and aren’t allowed to participate in political activities without registering with the government first.

trump-charlotte-nc

Trump in Charlotte. Photo via Facebook.

So if they helped organize the Charlotte “March Against Trump,” what did they actually do?

This part is a little hazier. Nothing in the indictment specifically says what they did.

It appears like the Charlotte involvement pertains to a prominent Facebook page and website that the Russians allegedly operated, called BlackMattersUS. The Facebook page has been taken down, but the website still exists.

Charlotte activist Andrew Fede was already organizing a rally to protest Trump’s election in Marshall Park, according to news reports. He told the Observer that he was contacted by BlackMattersUS with an offer to help promote it.

The BlackMattersUS page then invited grassroots activists to come to the rally, according to Buzzfeed News. It’s unclear how many did.

Video and other coverage from the Charlotte Observer shows a sparsely attended protest at Marshall Park.

In other rallies, these operatives were known to have bought Facebook ads to promote rallies — getting the event pages in front of a larger audience. In some cases, the Russian companies even bought supplies like speakers for the rallies.

It’s unclear whether that happened at the “March Against Trump.” Fede did not tell the Observer specifically what the Russian-linked operatives offered or what support they lent to the protest. Fede did not respond to a request for comment from the Agenda on Tuesday.

BlackMattersUS tried to set up another rally later in November 2016, but it does not appear to have happened.

Was that the first Russian involvement in Charlotte?

Actually, no.

As part of the campaign to build authority among grassroots activists, BlackMattersUS wrote several posts about the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

One read, in part:

“Scott’s wife begged the officers not to shoot and tried to convince them her husband wasn’t carrying a weapon. But of course, the trigger happy officers just had to fire their weapons at a Black man. The cops didn’t even bother to listen to what Rakeyia Scott was saying. In that situation, nobody listened to the voice of reason, and nobody heard the voice of a Black person.”

That helped BlackMattersUS recruit a Raleigh political activist, Conrad James, to travel down to Charlotte to speak at a protest after the Scott shooting, according to ABC11. James said the group reached out on Facebook after seeing him give interviews on TV news. The protest turned out to be disorganized.

But the Russian-linked group later gave him a OneUnited Bank card to buy speakers for a protest (OneUnited is an African-American owned bank in Boston).

The Russian group also attempted to organize a protest on Saturday, September 24, 2016 — several days after the main protests Uptown. Several hundred protesters were still out there that weekend, but most of them were likely organized by legitimate groups.

keith scott protest charlotte

Keith Scott shooting protests at CMPD headquarters.

Does any of this matter?

Clearly, it’s not a good thing that Russian political operatives are tricking Charlotte activists.But it doesn’t appear that they had much of an impact.

As far as I can tell, these Russian-employed trolls contacted people already protesting or inclined to protest and nudged them toward organizing additional rallies. None of them were very successful, and they appear to have attracted the same crowd they would have had the Russians not been involved.

 

If you’re Joe (or Jane) Charlottean, I wouldn’t be very concerned. There’s no real indication that the integrity of our political system in Charlotte was compromised.

If you’re a community organizer or activist, though, this is a very big deal. Protesters already have a hard time breaking through into the public consciousness.

These incidents only add another hurdle toward getting the public or the media to take them seriously.

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Andrew Dunn
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