Thursday November 02, 2017

Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White on being deceived by a Russian troll farm

Micah White says he did an interview last year with someone he thought was a black rights activist, but who was really a Russian troll.

Micah White says he did an interview last year with someone he thought was a black rights activist, but who was really a Russian troll. (CBC News)

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Micah White says activism is being put at risk by Russian propagandists on social media.

The Occupy Wall Street movement co-founder said he was duped last year into doing an interview with an organization calling itself "Black Matters," which turned out to be a Facebook front group for a Russian troll farm.

Black Matters was one of a handful of fake Facebook groups named this week by U.S. lawmakers during Congressional hearings into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Others include "Heart of Texas," a separatist group that is not run by Texans, and "United Muslims of America," which is neither Muslim nor American.

In fact, Facebook told Congress it turned over more than 3,000 ads linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency reaching as many as 126 million people.

USA-TRUMP/RUSSIA-SOCIALMEDIA

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, left, and Sen. Pat Leahy show a fake social media post for a non-existent 'Miners for Trump' rally as representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Google testify before a Senate judiciary crime and terrorism subcommittee hearing on how Russia allegedly used their services to try to sway the 2016 U.S. elections. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

White spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about his own brush with Russian propagandists and why he fears foreign government entities are trying to co-opt activist movements. 

How did you first encounter this fake organization?

A person named Yam Big Davis wrote to me through my website basically asking to do an interview about protests and activism.

And then what did you discover about this group ... called Black Matters?

After I did the interview I just thought it was kind of weird. I never really thought much of it and I kind of ignored him.

But then just a couple of weeks ago, an investigative journalist from Russia got in touch with me and was like, "Did you know that this organization you did an interview with is actually a front group of the notorious troll farm in Russia?" And, of course, I did not know that.

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Examples of fake Facebook pages are on display as tech executives appear before the House Intelligence Committee to answer questions related to Russian use of social media to influence U.S. elections. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

This troll farm is the same sort of centre that has been putting out the other fake activism/fake sites, is that right?

Yeah, they seem to be the ones behind a whole range of activities.

It seemed like the other fake online groups were aimed at the right or the ultra-right of the spectrum. It seemed to be stirring up Trump support or Trump views. So why would they target the left?

I think that what is happening is superpowers are realizing they can use social activism to affect social change in adversary countries much more cost- effectively, without having to go through traditional military channels.

Activism is becoming a pawn for the grand geopolitical games that make up our world and I think that's a really dangerous kind of situation that we're moving into.

If you fell for it, if you thought that Black Matters was a legitimate group, what does that say for the rest of us who are trying to sort this through?

On the one hand, it's kind of a wake-up call for contemporary activism, you knowm to realize our tactics have become so predicable that it's easy to be mimicked by foreign governments.

One of the groups that this troll farm created had more likes than the actual Black Lives Matter Facebook page.

So you have to start thinking, "Well, doesn't that mean we should abandon these old ways of doing activism?" That's kind of the direction I'm thinking as an activist now.

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Facebook says Russia-linked ads have reached as many as 126 million people. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Do you worry, though, that it might also just make people cynical? They feel like, "Oh well, you can't trust anything." It's like fake news. People can't tell the difference between fake news and real news, so it's all fake.

It so fundamentally delegitimizes contemporary activism. I think that people can now justifiably say, "Hey, is that group real or is that a Russian front group?"

From this point forward, I think that we will start to suspect that activism isn't real. And I think that could have been one of the strategic objectives that Russia wants, because I think that by delegitimizing protests in Western democracies you actually hurt Western democracies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Micah White.