Why Putin Targets Minorities

The two recently released Senate-commissioned reports, prepared by New Knowledge (NK) and the Computational Propaganda Research Project (CPRP), describe in detail how Russia targeted specific groups with disinformation campaigns. In addition to a commentary on the potential political impact this might have had on the 2016 and 2018 elections, there was a troubling finding highlighted by both reports: the Russians disproportionately targeted African Americans and other minority groups. Now, as researchers, journalists, and the public dive into the numbers, it is important to understand the why. What larger strategic purpose was Russia pursuing by targeting individuals in these groups?

For the past year and a half, the Defending Democratic Institutions Project has studied Russia’s information operations targeting the public’s faith in the judiciary and our justice system as a pillar of democracy. We believe that Russia targets, fosters, and weaponizes specific groups to serve the larger purpose of undermining the appeal of liberal democracies. Russian propaganda on social media cultivates and reinforces group identity. It then begins to emphasize a shared sense of grievance among the group, while simultaneously working to erode the group’s attachment to a shared national identity. As individuals begin to identify with these online groups more strongly, Russian disinformation then encourages them to disengage—” #WalkAway ”—or take to the streets in protest against corrupt and broken institutions.

Protest can be a powerful way of holding a democracy accountable and bringing about change. That’s not the Kremlin’s goal. Putin wants Americans to give up on our institutions; to give up on holding them accountable because we have been convinced it is hopeless and democracy is a failure. Russian propaganda is not about stirring protests to make us better but about stoking anger and fear to provoke chaos and undermine faith in the ability of our institutions to change. If he can get a growing number of Americans to feel stronger ties to these polarized groups than to a shared commitment to democracy, our democracy begins to crumble.

Russia Grand Strategy

The authors of the Senate reports make clear that Russian disinformation tactics are part of a long-term campaign to “manipulate the U.S. public and undermine democracy.” However, the discussions in both reports are still largely confined to topics of election integrity, and by extension, the resultant political outcomes. Despite the widespread assumption that Russians target minority groups with the exclusive intent of manipulating the outcomes of U.S. elections, it is important to keep in mind that electoral interference is only one aspect of Moscow’s lager desire to attack democracies.

The tactics described in the reports actually confirm that Russia has a strong interest in systematically eroding public confidence in democratic institutions more broadly. The exploitation of minority groups makes sense in the context of Russia’s “New Generation Warfare” military doctrine, which is designed to “break the internal coherence of the enemy system.” In an era of hybrid warfare, where the lines between war and peace are increasingly blurred, high-ranking Russian military officials like Valery Gerasimov have expressed an understanding that the “content of methods of confrontation is shifting in the direction of extensive employment of political, economic, diplomatic, information, and other non-military measuresimplemented with the involvement of the protest potential of a population.”

Essentially, Russia thoroughly understands and looks to exploit the power of minority grievance. It is a tactic that has yielded successful outcomes for the nation in the past. In Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, Russia waged political warfare by cultivating group identities among Russian-speaking minorities and Orthodox Christians . Russia is confident that dividing groups and capitalizing on the “protest potential of the population” best position it to break apart emerging democracies. Now it is trying to use the same tactics to undermine American democracy.

Identity Infusion

While the two recent reports clearly demonstrate Russian proclivity for targeting the African American community, many groups were prey to Russian disinformation. Moscow fostered group identities along racial lines to include Latinos and Native Americans because race remains a potent and visible social adhesive and a legitimate source of grievance. However, Russia was also able to target and infiltrate other historically and institutionally oppressed minority groups, including but not limited to the LGBTQ community and the feminist movement. More recently, the Kremlin has also targeted white people who feel marginalized in what they see as a society dominated by “elites” and liberals.

The disinformation campaign that Russia waged against the Muslim American community is particularly interesting, both because it has been well documented, and it clearly demonstrates that the Russian tactic of targeting minority groups serves a purpose beyond electoral outcome. According to the CPRP, the campaigns targeting Muslim Americans were likely initiated to “create a following…laying the foundation to later push content.”

Our analysis shows that Russian efforts to develop an Islamic identity among Muslim Americans preceded the 2016 election. It started rather innocuously—Russian operatives created Facebook and Instagram accounts under names like “United Muslims of America” and “muslim.voice.” Initially, a significant amount of sponsored content was designed just to attract and convene fellow Muslim Americans by way of promoting themes of anti-violence and positivity about Islam.

Posts published from the IRA-sponsored social media account “United Muslims of America” on Instagram. Content was archived by @UsHadrons on October 12, 2017. The source accounts have since been suspended and are no longer accessible. Source: @UsHadrons, Medium, October 12, 2017.

In time, once a particular audience was created around these accounts, CPRP found that the messaging towards Muslim Americans started incorporating strong “themes of suspicion towards the U.S. government.” Russia started promoting rallies in the United States. Often times, the protests were limited to mobilizing a particular group, as was the case with a protest that was held outside of the White House in September 2016. However, the Russians would sometimes simultaneously instigate multiple groups with the intent of organizing confrontational rallies. In May 2016, a group of white-nationalists following the IRA-run Facebook pages “Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims against America” sponsored a large rally outside an Islamic Da’Wah center in Houston.

The protestors did not resort to violence—but some brought rifles.

In the case of historically oppressed minority groups, the Russians build on legitimate grievances to create group cohesion. It is likely because the grievances of oppressed minorities are so real that these groups are the most vulnerable targets of Russian exploitation.

The Russians manufacture or reproduce jokes and anecdotes that resonate with and create a sympathetic following. Over time, they start propagating messages intended to stir feelings of paranoia and anger. While the most actively engaged and enraged followers are the ones that can be prompted towards some sort of action, the silent affiliates might be affected as well. Even if they do not take action, they are in danger of becoming apathetic and disengaging from participating in the democracy altogether.

Co-opting Ideological Movements

Historically, oppressed minorities may be more likely to gravitate towards a certain group identity. It is unsurprising that Russia identifies these individuals as targets of disinformation. What is also concerning, however, is that Russia has been using social media platforms to track the progress of emerging cultural movements and has worked to infiltrate and fortify an identity-consciousness among members of these groups.

The Kremlin exploits social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, and Instagram by turning them into dual-use tools. First, they use these platforms to capture the “pulse” of political discourse and gauge the content spectrum of conversations surrounding certain topics or groups. The Russians then use social media as a joiner tool, bringing together like-minded individuals under the banner of a shared interest or idea.

This is precisely how Russian operatives imbedded within the “Red Pill” movement—an internet culture rooted in male supremacy and white nationalism. Southern Poverty Law Center recently classified the Red Pill movement as an extremist ideology. A number of online communities affiliated with the Red Pill movement have a history of encouraging hatred and violence towards women. A 2016 study on online extremism found overlap between online Nazi networks and Red Pill networks. While Russia did not start the movement, it helped amplify the extreme messaging of this group, which helped it develop a sizeable audience. According to the New Knowledge report, the IRA-run Instagram account, “the.red.pill,” had approximately 3.5 million total interactions. Additionally, our analysis shows that thousands of IRA tweets attempted to attract people to the Red Pill movement by co-opting hashtags like #RedPill, #FollowTheWhiteRabbit, and #BlackPill.

It should not go unrecognized that a few young men exposed to Red Pill ideology have committed atrocious domestic acts of terror. For instance, in Santa Barbara, a young man associated with the movement murdered six individuals. Just two months ago, another follower of the Red Pill movement shot and killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The shooter was also an active participant on Gab, a nascent social networking platform and, according to New Knowledge, a known hotbed of Russian disinformation.

The Russian accounts promoting the Red Pill movement did not directly instruct the men to commit violent crimes, but the account moderators are guilty of investing time and resources into fostering communities of people bound together by shared hate. By actively promoting movements like Red Pill, the Russians are making clear their intent to fan the flames of fear and hate in society.

Moving Forward

Russian state-sponsored propaganda sites have been quick to dismiss and discredit the reports’ findings. Additionally, they have insinuated that by alleging a strong connection between African Americans and these targeted campaigns, the West is guilty of undermining the real grievances held by the population.

The hurt and vulnerability associated with Monday’s findings are likely immeasurable. Group identities are not negligible, nor should they ever under any circumstance be leveraged as pawns of a disinformation campaign.

Putin’s hyper-focus on stirring up protest is an example of mirroring: in Russia and in many of the countries Russia has targeted, protests and societal unrest brought down entire governments and, in the case of the Soviet Union, entire forms of government. In authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, which lack orderly succession mechanisms, protest is an existential threat. In a robust democracy, protest and dissent can be a healthy way of expressing our determination to hold our institutions and leaders accountable for living up to our aspirations.

However, if the public loses faith in the ability of democracy to produce change—whether through a fair political process, impartial courts, or other mechanisms—protests can be seen as the only means for change—often through violence.

This is why the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine trust in democracy is so dangerous—and why we must continue working to understand how this war is being waged and how to push back. An essential element of our response is shoring up our shared sense of democracy as a project in which we all must be engaged; one that is imperfect and slow but whose aspirations are worth pursuing. Don’t #WalkAway.

Suzanne Spaulding is a senior adviser for homeland security with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Devi Nair is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS International Security Program. Arthur Nelson is an intern with the CSIS International Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Suzanne Spaulding
Senior Adviser, Homeland Security, International Security Program

Devi Nair

Former Associate Director and Associate Fellow, International Security Program

Arthur Nelson