Second Russia-linked effort promoted protests during trial of Freddie Gray officers

A second web-based effort linked to Russia attempted to promote protests in Baltimore last year — this one during a hearing for a police officer charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

CNN reported Thursday that an online campaign called “Don’t Shoot Us” — which posed as part of the Black Lives Matter movement — used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and even Pokémon Go in an effort to exploit racial tensions and sow discord among Americans.

The campaign contacted reporters in Baltimore, including those at The Baltimore Sun and Baltimore City Paper, to promote a protest in July during a court hearing for Lt. Brian W. Rice, one of six officers charged in Gray’s death.

The six officers were cleared of criminal charges in the case. Gray, 25, died in April 2015 from injuries sustained while in the back of a police van. His death sparked large protests, rioting and national attention on the issue of police abuse.

But unlike in 2015, there were no large protests during the officers’ trials in 2016. The Russia-linked account apparently tried to change that.

“This is “Don’t Shoot” — an online community against police brutality. We raise awareness of police violence against people of color,” stated an email sent to a Baltimore Sun reporter promoting a protest. “We have over 180k subscribers, and a lot of them live in Baltimore. Recently we've started receiving lots of messages where people ask us to help demand justice for Freddie Gray. As you probably know, a hearing of Lt. Brian W.Rice, one of the police officers involved in Freddie's death, is scheduled for July 5. The idea is to protest in front of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse on that day during the hearing and demand justice for Freddie Gray. We are looking for some media coverage for the event and it would be great if you could help us with that.”

The Twitter and Facebook pages the email linked to have been suspended. However, its website — http://donotshoot.us/ — is still active.

No one from the email address responded to a request for comment.

Brandon Weigel, an editor at City Paper, was among those who received the email. He said he didn’t take it seriously at the time because it looked suspicious.

“It was really strange,” he said. “I had never heard of this group before. I didn’t take it seriously at the time.”

Even so, Weigel said he was surprised to learn the account was linked to Russia.

“I never would have guessed it was linked to a Russian operation. I thought it was a national group trying to make a name for itself,” he said. “How effective it was is debatable.”

CNN reported that the campaign “appears to have been run from one source — the shadowy, Kremlin-linked troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency.”

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to CNN that the Don't Shoot Us Facebook page was one of the 470 accounts taken down after the social media company determined they were linked to the IRA.

It was the second time in 2016 that Russia-linked accounts had attempted to promote protests in Baltimore.

When a Facebook page called Blacktivist promoted a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray in April 2016, some Baltimore activists were immediately suspicious. CNN reported earlier that the Blacktivist effort had ties to the Russian government and used both Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to heighten racial tensions during the 2016 presidential campaigns.

That Twitter account also reached out to journalists, asking for contact information, and got responses from reporters at The Sun, City Paper and New York Times.

But local activists did not embrace that effort. Several told The Sun they dismissed and rejected the outside influence.

“We don’t need people not from Baltimore using Freddie name. Are you working here to fix the issues?” the Baltimore BLOC group wrote at the time.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this report.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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