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Online trolls are using immigration as a wedge issue for 2018 midterm election

Online trolls are using immigration as a wedge issue for 2018 midterm election
Police stay between opposing groups of protesters outside the Murrieta Border Patrol Detention Center in 2014. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Clad in military jackets, with bandannas hiding their faces, Eddie Alvarez and other members of the Brown Berets clashed with other protesters in Murrieta in July 2014.

On one side, more than 200 anti-immigration activists waving American flags stopped buses carrying 140 migrant women and children to a nearby Border Patrol center in Riverside County. On the other side, Alvarez and several dozen other counter-protesters rushed out to defend the detainees.

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“We knew they might not understand English, but they understood the hate,” Alvarez recalled recently.

Photos of the heated encounters — and of the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano group formed in the 1970s — circulated widely on the internet. But Alvarez, 21, was surprised to see his image on Aztlán Warriors, one of 32 pages or accounts that Facebook shut down last month, calling them part of a covert operation to stoke racial tensions in the United States.

“They didn’t even ask our permission or anything,” Alvarez said of the Facebook page.

In a new report, the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that partnered with Facebook, concludes that the shuttered pages and accounts were run by or linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the troll farm in St. Petersburg that U.S. officials say meddled in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

One of the pages had an administrator from the Russian agency — “the most direct link between the recent accounts and earlier troll farm operations,” the report states. Two of the pages, including Aztlán Warriors, were also linked to Twitter accounts believed to have been created by their operatives.

The Russian agency and 13 of its employees were indicted in February on charges brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on allegations that they sought to interfere "with U.S. elections and political processes." U.S. officials have since said that Kremlin-backed groups have continued to spread mayhem in American politics.

The nation’s volatile immigration debate has amplified online, researchers warned, and foreign operatives and homegrown trolls are using it as a political wedge ahead of the November elections. The report said the online disinformation campaign was likely to grow more sophisticated, with bad actors tailoring their posts, videos and other content to target communities of color — and to hide who is controlling the message.

“Covert influence campaigns, some steered from abroad, are using disinformation to drive Americans further apart, and weaken the trust in the institutions on which democracy stands,” the report warns.

Audiences for the Facebook pages taken down — 290,000 people followed one of them — was highly engaged, often sharing content and participating in discussions, according to the report.

The most popular were Aztlán Warriors, Resisters and Black Elevation, which pretended to promote feminism, progressive causes and the rights of black, indigenous and Latino communities, often copying or repackaging material from other users, websites and internet platforms.

Prior Russian efforts often targeted Black Lives Matter activists opposing police brutality, seeking to sow chaos within the movement and animosity from outsiders. The recent posts used similar tactics and language to exploit tensions over illegal immigration.

The Resisters page listed 27 events from March 2017 to July 2018, including protests against President Trump’s travel bans, a march against family separations on the border, and support for “Dreamers,” young immigrants without a legal path to citizenship.

Other posts urged people to take over the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and shared activity related to #AbolishICE, a real grass-roots campaign that seeks to deny funding for the federal agency.

Some of the events lured real social activists to unknowingly organize logistics and drew hundreds of people to the streets, according to the digital lab report. Partly as a result, some of the activists slammed Facebook for shutting down pages that built on their legitimate work and only targeting posts on the political left.

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Other political and grass-roots groups said they were meeting with Facebook to fight disinformation through speech campaigns of their own, and studying covert efforts by the FBI and CIA to infiltrate their movements decades ago.

“Let’s be clear: This is not a Russian playbook, this is an American playbook,” said Malkia A. Cyril, founder of the Center for Media Justice in San Francisco.

But with voters citing immigration as a top concern ahead of the midterm election, researchers expect more extremist online efforts. An entire ecosystem of social media and internet platforms has emerged to amplify nativist fears and white supremacist ideology that have filtered into the mainstream debate.

Not surprisingly, many of the immigration posts, memes and videos cite Trump’s harsh rhetoric and hard-line policies — including the travel bans, loss of protections for Dreamers and refugees, and the forced separations of more than 3,000 migrant children from their parents at the southwest border.

“On the pages that Facebook took down, there was only one candidate named so far, and it was a candidate in 2020 — Donald Trump,” said Graham Brooke, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab. “He is a lightning rod; he is a polarizing figure.”

During the outcry over family separations, the online campaigns were in full swing as anonymous administrators on suspicious Facebook pages attempted to co-opt efforts of groups opposed to ICE. Groups on the right reacted with #pro-ICE campaigns, often sharing false or misleading stories on immigrants and crime.

“‘Abolish ICE’ became a flag to march under to change the narrative,” said Ben Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. “ICE became synonymous with the U.S. military, Blue Lives Matter, and in some of the darker spaces, the debate dovetailed into a lot of nasty xenophobic stuff.”

One of 32 pages or accounts that Facebook shut down last month, calling them part of a covert operation to stoke racial tensions in the U.S.
One of 32 pages or accounts that Facebook shut down last month, calling them part of a covert operation to stoke racial tensions in the U.S. (Digital Forensic Research Lab)

Researchers and national security experts said the suspicious Facebook pages showed that foreign operatives have become more skilled in their understanding of American pluralism and communities.

Aztlán Warriors shared illustrations of Aztec and other indigenous warriors, and calls to defend the rights of Latinos and Native Americans. It had snippets of Mexican American history and quotes from Chicano leaders. A fake event page drew a handful of users to a celebration in June.

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But the supposed group also promoted divisive content, including drawings of Aztec warriors with rifles and weapons, which researchers said evoked “armed resistance to oppression.”

The idea of Aztlán took root in Chicano political discourse in the late 1960s, when a group of Mexican American students claimed the Southwest as the mythical Aztec homeland of a marginalized Chicano community in the U.S.

The myth “shook the ground I was standing on,” recalls Enrique Lamadrid, a Spanish professor at University of New Mexico. “Before, we were invisible. Aztlán provided a sense of origins.”

But the concept came back in the 1990s, this time as a strategy to shape anti-immigrant polemic on the right as California debated Proposition 187, a ballot initiative intended to bar undocumented immigrants from using nonemergency healthcare, public education and other services. Voters passed the proposed law in 1994 but a federal court later ruled it unconstitutional.

By 2017, white supremacists and nationalists were debating the Aztlán myth in long threads on 4chan and 8chan, some of the most extreme message boards on the internet.

Francisco Lomelí, a UC Santa Barbara professor, said the operatives behind the Aztlán Warriors page on Facebook seemed to cut and paste messages to inflame tensions. He compared it to an online scam.

“It is like when you get one of those letters from someone claiming to be a prince in Nigeria, and the English is kind of broken,” Lomelí said. “You think, ‘How can anybody fall for that?’ But even those phishing scams have grown more sophisticated.”

In Southern California, where activists said online efforts by white nationalists to target Chicano groups appear on the rise, Alvarez said he first noticed the photos of himself and the Brown Berets in December. He was frustrated, he recalled, because the page did not fairly represent their group or the protest in Murrieta.

His Brown Berets chapter in San Diego is known for its community toy drives and neighborhood vigils for crime victims. The phony Facebook posts, he said, “create more work for us.”

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