By Mawa Iqbal, 23News reporter

A network of Russian Twitter trolls masterminded a disinformation campaign meant to incite chaos and fear during the MU protests in November 2015, according to a report published by the U.S. Air Force strategic journal Strategic Studies Quarterly in winter of 2017.

Air Force Lt. Col. Jarred Prier highlights in his report, Commanding the Trend, that the Internet Research Agency was behind the dissemination of tweets that warned of the KKK being on campus. This series of tweets was posted using the #PrayforMizzou, causing the hashtag to trend number one worldwide on the night of Nov. 11, 2015.

“I found it really odd that something is trending worldwide and it’s about Mizzou,” Prier said in a phone interview. “The more I dug into it, the more I started realizing that this trend was being hijacked by outside forces. They were injecting this false narrative that was then being spread by people who actually believed it.”

In his report, Prier identifies one account in particular as pushing the KKK rumor.

@FanFan1911, who used “Jermaine” as his display name, tweeted “The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother!” The tweet was posted on Nov. 10, 2015, and included a picture of a young African American child with a severely bruised face.

After seeing that picture, Prier did a Google search of ”bruised black child” and found that same picture was originally taken after Ohio police beat the child more than a year earlier.

Prier then tweeted at the account to stop spreading misinformation. However, the tweet ended up being retweeted hundreds of times, according to the report.

 

Prier reports that Jermaine and several other users were repeatedly tweeting and retweeting similar posts about the KKK and neo-Nazis in Columbia. Prier identified approximately 70 bot accounts who were automatically retweeting those tweets, pushing the narrative up on the trending list.

Mike Kearney, MU assistant professor at the School of Journalism wrote his doctoral dissertation on Twitter behavior during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He recently revisited those tweets and sees that tweets containing this information were being spread like wildfire, Kearney said.

The same day Jermaine posted that the KKK was marching with the police, then President of the Missouri Students Association Payton Head wrote in a Facebook post that the KKK was “confirmed to be sighted on campus.” Head advised students to take precaution and assured them that he was working with MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard.

Soon after Head posted on Facebook, MU Alert released a tweet that night saying there was no “immediate threat” to campus. According to a CNN article, Maj. Brian Weimer said they hadn’t found any evidence of the KKK being on campus, nor was the National Guard called to assist.

Head then posted an apology on Facebook that night for spreading rumors. The original Facebook has since been taken down.

The MU campus community had already been struck by fear after 19-year-old Missouri S&T student Hunter Park threatened MU protesters on Yik-Yak, saying, “Don’t come to campus tomorrow.” He also said he planned to “shoot every black person I see.” However, no violence occurred, and Park was arrested by Missouri S&T police in Rolla on Nov. 12, two days after the threat was seen.

According to Prier, The KKK hoax came at the height of the protests, when racial tensions and alarm on campus were reaching a peak. He argues in his report that if it weren’t for the existing narratives surrounding these sentiments, the Kremlin propaganda wouldn’t have been effective.

“The Russians saw an opportunity to exploit America’s overall division on race more than exploiting the university itself,” Prier said. “They capitalize on both sides of the issue because the point is to divide us.”

Kearney isn’t surprised that foreign bots were used to manipulate information and thus influence public opinion. Kearney said that media attention made MU an easy target.

“It could’ve been any place, but once [the protests] became a national talking point, they saw it as something of value to try to stoke controversy,” Kearney said.

Kearney and Prier both agree that creating divisions on issues that make national headlines is a Russian tactic that was not only used in MU, but also during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“It was one little piece of the bigger, overall strategy: using American’s opinions against ourselves,” Prier said. “If we’re focused on things like that, then we’re not focused on what Russia is doing in Syria or Ukraine.”

On Feb. 16, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations, one of which is the Internet Research Agency, for meddling with the 2016 presidential election. According to the indictment, the IRA sought to “conduct what it called ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious U.S. personas on social media platforms and other Internet-based media.”

The idea of using social media as a tool to wage information warfare is central to Prier’s report. Prier argues that this modern-age warfare allows adversaries of the U.S. to weaken the population by targeting vulnerable communication platforms, like Twitter, rather than actual civilians.

“If you can control the will of the population, then you can control their government,” Prier said. “That I think is really frightening if you think about how effective the social media campaign was.”

The effects of the disinformation campaign spawned an issue that MU continues to battle today, according to MU News Bureau spokesperson Christian Basi.

“We’ve always been very proud of the fact that we have a very safe campus,” Basi said. “But [the campaign] is continuing to create a negative perception of the campus and the safety of the campus.”

Kearney advises users of social media, especially Twitter, to be cautious of what they are consuming and where the information is coming from.

“People should recognize that social media allows us to access information really fast, but it also means that it’s vulnerable to misinformation,” Kearney said. “Don’t assume that just because something is trending that it’s true.”

Edited by Isabel Lohman and Aviva Okeson-Haberman | iplp54@missouri.edu

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