The Russian troll farm indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 election also used its Twitter bots to boost the message of a handful of prominent anti-Muslim extremists, including right-wing Jewish activist Pamela Geller.
The Russian-operated bots promoted tweets and articles by Geller, Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney, all of whom are identified as anti-Muslim extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The number of bot tweets dedicated to the extremists was apparently small, no more than a few dozen out of hundreds of thousands. But they point to a Russian effort to boost anti-Muslim sentiment as part of a broader campaign to sow divisions in American society.
In September 2016, Geller, a Long Island-based Jewish activist who came to prominence a decade ago as a flamboyant anti-Muslim ideologue, tweeted a link to a story on her personal blog headlined “Christian Teen Raped and Hung: Muslim Cops Say ‘Natural Causes.’”
More than 100 people retweeted Geller’s tweet. According to a database posted online by NBC News of Twitter handles operated by Russian Internet trolls, at least two of the accounts that retweeted the Geller tweet were Russian bots.
Twenty of the Russian troll bots in all retweeted or mentioned Geller, according to the NBC database. Eighteen retweeted or mentioned Spencer, who co-founded the group Stop Islamization of America with Geller. Nineteen retweeted or mentioned Gaffney, the anti-Muslim founder of the Center for Security Policy. The Russian bots used the hashtag “#islamkills” 477 times and the hashtag “#stopislam” another 232 times.
Last week, Mueller’s office indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies, including St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, known for its trolling on social media.
The court document said those accused “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The indictment said Russians adopted false online personas to push divisive messages; traveled to the United States to collect intelligence, visiting 10 states; and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
There is no sign so far that Geller or any of the other anti-Islam activists collaborated with the Russian effort.
Neither Geller nor the Center for Security Policy responded to a request for comment. Geller is among the most polarizing figures in the American Jewish community, a far-right activist whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has drawn condemnation from some in the Jewish community, and an open ear from others. Leftist Jews protested in 2013 when a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Long Island invited her to speak. And a major mainstream Jewish donor-advised fund sent money to Geller’s nonprofit in 2012 and 2013.
In 2015, police killed two men who attempted to attack an event Geller organized in Texas. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Geller “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.” It is, perhaps, no wonder that people looking to exacerbate divisions in American society would seek to boost her profile.
The Russian bots, whose tweets have been deleted by Twitter and whose accounts have been suspended, were controlled by a shadowy company called the Internet Research Association, a Russia-based firm that the special prosecutor’s office charged last week with fraud, among other crimes. Mueller’s indictment described a vast, well-funded effort to interfere in American elections. But beyond election meddling, the troll farm seems to have been working to heighten tensions within America. One aspect of that effort appears to have been an attempt to boost anti-Muslim sentiment online.
In addition to the retweets and mentions of anti-Muslim activists, the bots promoted conspiracy theories connected to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s aide, who is Muslim. In October 2016, a bot account with the handle @prettylaraplace retweeted Gaffney asking, “Has Hillary Clinton’s aide, #HumaAbedin ever denounced Islamist Supremacism?”
“If you support Hillary Clinton you support Huma Abedin who has ties with radical islamists #Hillary4prison,” tweeted another bot account, @southlonestar, in September 2016. The tweet was retweeted 264 times.
The efforts by the troll farm to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment didn’t stop with Twitter. According to The New York Times, a Facebook group created by the same Russian trolls actually organized a real-life rally it called “Stop the Islamization of Texas” in May 2016. Twelve people attended the rally, which took place in Houston, according to the Times. Some of the protesters were armed.
It’s impossible to say how much of an impact the Russian efforts had on the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment that swept American discourse in 2016 and 2017. Trump himself retweeted videos produced by an anti-Muslim British group last November. During the 2016 election, his attacks on Khizr Khan, whose son was a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, were widely seen as anti-Muslim. And early last year, Trump tried to impose a travel ban that he had referred to during his campaign as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
“The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the indictment. “We must not allow them to succeed.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.