Did Russia peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric in wake of Mollie Tibbetts’ death?

Did Russia peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric in wake of Mollie Tibbetts’ death?

Fact check: American political division is homegrown, not imported

Sun., September 02, 2018

Students and community members gather at a vigil held in memory of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts at Hubbard Park in Iowa City on Wednesday, August 22, 2018. KC McGinnis for The Gazette

It seems everything is a Russian conspiracy these days.

One of the newest claims is that Russians are “weaponizing health communication” with posts about vaccine safety. Meanwhile, Facebook is asking many page moderators, including me, to confirm our identities and physical locations, an apparent safeguard against foreign Facebook users who attempted to influence the 2016 election. As another example, when Sen. Rand Paul visited Russian government officials last month, he was quickly labeled a traitor by critics.

And even the tragic death of Mollie Tibbetts has been swept up in Russophobia. Organizers of the online project Hamilton 68, which purports to track “pro-Kremlin” Twitter accounts, say Russian provacatuers latched on to the Tibbetts story and promoted intentionally divisive content. They say it was part of a plot was to distract attention from Trump associates Paul Manafort’s and Michael Cohen’s unseemly legal woes, with new developments coming out the same day Tibbetts’ body was found.

“Instead, the pro-Kremlin network propelled hashtags such as ‘mollietibbetts,’ ‘buildthatwall,’ and ‘buildthedamnwall’ to the top of the dashboard’s trending lists,” the Hamilton 68 team wrote on its newsletter.

A few news organizations picked up the story, including the New York Post and the Independent of London. Hamilton 68 has routinely earned media attention this year, with mainstream outlets reporting their analyses of alleged Russian internet activity as reliable facts. However, the project’s lack of transparency should draw a more skeptical eye.

Hamilton 68 is hosted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Trump-era creation with a mission to fight against efforts to undermine democracy. It is indeed bipartisan as it claims, with an advisory council composed of foreign policy hawks from the previous four presidential administrations. It includes Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and conservative commentator Bill Kristol. It’s an offshoot of the German Marshall Fund, which gives grants to promote U.S.-European cooperation.

Who exactly are these Russian agents infringing on our democracy with their tweets? Hamilton 68 publishers won’t say.

The analysts say their network includes verified Russian accounts, as well as Twitter users who are unknowing participants in Russian propaganda. That is, “people who participate without realizing they are being manipulated.” So anyone who shares the same links and hashtags as supposed Russian bots, even Americans, might be part of the Russian conspiracy.

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We don’t know how many of some 600 accounts tracked by Hamilton 68 are legitimately connected to the Russian government. Perhaps even I am an unwitting Russian asset by their standards, since I have been paid by Republican organizations, supported Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign, and sometimes approvingly share Glenn Greenwald articles on social media.

Even if actual Russian propagandists are promoting intentionally divisive content about American politics to American audiences, which appears likely, it’s impossible to say how wide their influence is — especially since Hamilton 68 managers won’t tell us who they’re tracking. We don’t know how many followers these accounts have or how much engagement they get.

Following the news last month a Mexican immigrant is thought to be responsible for Tibbetts’ death, I saw dozens of Facebook and Twitter posts arguing tougher immigration laws could have prevented the heartbreaking ordeal. They were from actual Iowans who I have met in real life, not from Russian bots.

Is it really easier to believe outsiders are chiefly responsible for popularizing offensive ideas, than to acknowledge some portion of our own neighbors hold such values? I doubt we can have a thoughtful conversation about controversial theories if we deny their source.

Connecting Tibbetts’ death to immigration policy is inappropriate and misguided for reasons already well articulated elsewhere. But have no doubt, that idea is as homegrown as Iowa sweet corn. No Russian interference needed.

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