Opinion: Russia’s meddling has consequences

His name was “Jermaine,” and based on his Twitter profile picture, he was a young black male.

In early November of 2015, Jermaine was angry about racial tensions and violence on the campus of the University of Missouri. “The cops are marching with the KKK!” he claimed on Twitter. “They beat up my little brother! Watch out!” Attached was a picture of a black child with a severely bruised face.

Jermaine’s warning went viral and was retweeted hundreds of times. The student body president sent out a statement , warning that “KKK members were confirmed on campus.” Media outlets then reported the claim of KKK involvement, further inflaming a tense situation.

Yet Jermaine and his little brother did not exist; KKK members were not rampaging on campus. As outlined in an article by Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, published in the winter issue of “Strategic Studies Quarterly,” Jermaine was a Russian operative.

A few months later, the Twitter account used by Jermaine — @FanFan1911 — transformed itself. Jermaine vanished, and the profile picture of a young black man was replaced by a German iron cross. The account began to tweet in German, this time to stir up outrage against Syrian refugees and spread messages that were “anti-Islamic, anti–European Union, and anti-German Chancellor Angela Merkel.”

In early 2016, the account was repurposed yet again, “this time to ‘Deplorable Lucy’—and the profile picture became a white, middle-aged female with a Trump logo at the bottom of the picture.” “Deplorable Lucy” began to ingratiate itself into the right-wing Twitter network, “developing a symbiotic relationship with American right-wing news organizations like Breitbart and its followers on social media.”

By Prier’s account, somewhere between 16,000 and 36,000 Russian bots insinuated themselves into the pro-Trump, alt-right Twitter universe during the 2016 campaign. As one indication of the power of that network, he writes that after the first Trump-Clinton debate, “the #TrumpWon hashtag quickly became the number one trend globally. Using the TrendMap application, one quickly noticed that the worldwide hashtag seemed to originate in St. Petersburg, Russia.”

Prier is a career officer in the U.S. Air Force; the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly originated as his masters thesis in international relations. Strategic Studies Quarterly is the Air Force’s peer-reviewed academic journal in national-security studies.

So Prier is not, as President Trump might try to describe him, a Democrat trying to justify the party’s 2016 presidential campaign loss. He is not part of some “secret society” in the FBI out to get Trump. Nor are the six intelligence chiefs — all Trump appointees — who testified to Congress this week about Russian interference in our 2016 elections and their certainty that it will do so again in the upcoming mid-terms.

Under tough questioning, all six intel chiefs acknowledged reluctantly that Trump has paid the issue no attention, and that we still lack a central, comprehensive counter-strategy. Prier echoes that assessment, writing that “thus far, the United States response has been relatively weak” and that “countering Russian influence operations has taken a partisan slant.”

His most pressing recommendation? “Most importantly, politicians must commit to not using (Russian) active measures to their benefit.” He concludes:

“This saying will ring true: He who controls the trend will control the narrative— and, ultimately, the narrative controls the will of the people.”

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