What do the Identity Evropa banner in St. Cloud, an anti-Islam protest in Texas, and a Russian Facebook account have in common? Each of them uses social media deceptively, in an attempt to increase hatred and division in American communities.
Identity Evropa is the white nationalist group that marched in Charlotte this summer, with violence that killed one counter-protester. In St. Cloud, the Identity Evropa hate-mongers hung their anti-immigrant banner over MN Highway 23 in the dark of night, on December 23. St. Cloud police saw the banner and took it down before it saw the light of day.
Undeterred, the anonymous racists sent Facebook messages to UniteCloud and other progressive groups, including a photo of the banner, attempting to get these groups to spread their message by denouncing it. The groups compared notes, determined that the Facebook account that sent them the messages was a phony, and refused to spread the message further.
Spreading that message would have fed the belief that St. Cloud endorses or tolerates racism. It would have reinforced outsiders’ negative view of St. Cloud and rural Minnesota in general. It would have deepened divisions within the community and within the state.
The racists who hung that banner are not the only ones trying to divide communities. Last year, in Texas, the San Antonio Current reported:
“On May 21, two agitated groups of protesters met in from of the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. One group, wearing ‘White Lives Matter’ shirts, came to oppose the opening of a new library in the religious center (falsely led to believe it was publicly funded). The other group, waving signs reading ‘Muslims are welcome here,’ showed up to support the center and the community it served.
“Unbeknownst to everyone involved, both rallies were organized by a group of distant internet trolls located in St. Petersburg, Russia.”
The demonstration was organized over Facebook by two “activist” groups, “Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims of America.” Both were phonies, complete and total creations of the Russian government through the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA). CNN and the Wall Street Journal reported that Russians organized many demonstrations across the country, both before and after the election, often using different Facebook pages to promote opposing sides of the same issue.
Here in Minnesota, the Russian Facebook accounts may have tried to organize one demonstration after the Philando Castile shooting. Local activists told the Star Tribune that they were suspicious of this particular call for a demonstration:
“One of the Facebook pages, hosted by a group called ‘Don’t Shoot,’ publicized a demonstration scheduled for that day outside St. Paul police headquarters, recalled Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. She and other organizers were suspicious, saying St. Paul police were not involved in the Castile shooting, and that no one had heard of the group. ‘This was pretty crazy,’ Gross said. ‘Who was calling this?’…
“Several local groups, including the Green Party, were listed on the “Don’t Shoot” page as organizers, but when calls were made, everyone disavowed knowledge of it.”
Eventually, a local group took over the demonstration, and changed the location. Later, the “Don’t Shoot” Facebook page was taken down by Facebook as a phony account, with connections traced to the Russian Internet Research Agency.
Facebook took down more than 400 pages tied to the Russian propagandists. Russian pages appeared on both the right and left of the political spectrum, including a popular Texas secessionist page. A “United Muslims of America” Facebook account “was neither united, Muslim, nor American,” according to The Daily Beast. Besides organizing one side of the Texas rally, the Russian Facebook account smeared both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. At the same time, other Russian Facebook accounts “hawk[ed] virulently Islamophobic messages to right-wing audiences on Facebook.”
At a hearing in October. Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the Russian trolls that they “were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans.” That is true of Russian trolls and just as true of Identity Evropa and the racist trolls allied with it.
In my father’s day, in my day, back in the day, however you want to measure it, racism was an evil but simple matter. Racists targeted people who were black, brown, anything-but-white.These racists were individuals or groups, and they could be identified and confronted. They almost always hated Jews, too, and often included Catholics on their list. Racists wanted their targets to live somewhere else, go to school somewhere else, stay out of their communities or at least out of sight.
Identity Evropa peddles a new racism, one that targets you and me, whatever our color, ethnicity, or religion. Their new racism cynically tries to drive wedges between us, to get Republicans to hate Democrats, to get progressives to hate Trump voters, to feed the flames of white fear of black people, to convince Muslims that everyone hates them, and so on and on and on.
Those efforts must fail. It’s up to all of us to see that they do. We must begin by refusing to hate—not only by refusing to hate people because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs, but also by refusing to hate people because of their political views and who they voted for in 2016. The best defense against hate is community-building.We need to refuse to believe the worst of one another. We need to talk to one another.
Want details? Here are some of my sources:
- Is white nationalist banner an ‘escalation move’ in St. Cloud? (St. Cloud Times, 1/1/18)
- You will not define us (UniteCloud,12/31/17)
- Russian Trolls Organized Both Sides of an Islam Protest in Texas (San Antonio Current, 11/1/17)
- Facebook Shuts Down Popular Texas Secessionist Page (San Antonio Current, 9/15/17)
- Russians Impersonated Real American Muslims to Stir Chaos on Facebook and Instagram (The Daily Beast, 9/27/17)
- The Kremlin Crafted #TakeAKnee Memes for More Than a Year (The Daily Beast, 9/30/17)
- Fake black activist accounts linked to Russian government (CNN, 9/28/17)
- How Russia Secretly Orchestrated Dozens of U.S. Protests (Vanity Fair, 10/30/17)
- Russian-backed Facebook Accounts Staged Events Around Divisive Issues (Wall Street Journal, 10/30/17)
- Thousands attended protest organized by Russians on Facebook (The Hill, 10/31/17)
- Russian internet trolls sought to co-opt unwitting American activists (ABC News, 10/18/17)
- The Agency (New York Times, 6/2/15)