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Facebook ad purchased by Russian entity targeted Baltimore, likely aiming to deepen racial tension

A social media advertisement that targeted Baltimore users in the months following the 2015 riots was likely part of a broader effort by Russia to sow discontent and deepen racial tension, cyber security analysts said Thursday.

The Facebook ad, which referenced the Black Lives Matter movement, came to light this week as the social media giant prepares to turn 3,000 ads purchased by a Russian entity over to congressional investigators.

Social media companies are under increased pressure on Capitol Hill to explain their role in spreading fake news stories and propaganda. Twitter executives met with lawmakers Thursday and announced that they had shut down at least 22 accounts — and possibly many more — linked to Facebook users with ties to Russia.

Though little is known publicly about the content of the Baltimore ad, it was placed at a time when the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray had thrust the city into the national spotlight.

Months earlier, a local cyber security firm had warned of increased social media traffic about Baltimore from accounts in Russia and China.

“Having social unrest in a country is absolutely a goal of an adversary or an intelligence agency,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush. “Ads like that could cause a disruption.”

The Baltimore Sun has confirmed the existence of the Baltimore ad — purchased by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency — but has not seen it. Several political operatives in Maryland who monitor social media advertising said they do not remember seeing an unusual advertisement referencing Black Lives Matter at the time.

Members of Maryland’s congressional delegation said they were troubled by the revelations.

“I am deeply concerned about reports that voters in Baltimore may have been targeted by Russia’s underhanded attempts to contaminate our country’s democratic process and turn Americans against one another,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement. “Facebook must now work vigorously to strengthen its advertising policies and renew users’ trust in the integrity of its systems.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said it was “deeply troubling” that “Russia used Facebook ads to try to influence our elections — and reportedly went so far as to exploit the tragic death of Freddie Gray.”

CNN, which first reported the ad, cited unnamed sources who described it as appearing to support Black Lives Matter. The sources also said the ad could be read as portraying the group as threatening to some residents.

That description is consistent with how Facebook has described the other ads it is providing, and also what cyber analysts say about how the Internet Research Agency has approached the effort to influence the political debate in the United States.

“You don’t need to take a position on the issue, you can just put it out there,” Jennifer Golbeck said. Golbeck, who directs the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland, researches ways to identify malicious behavior on social media.

“You could imagine having a white voter, maybe an independent, maybe a Democrat not entirely convinced to vote for Hillary Clinton, and they’ve already previously used [slogans], ‘All Lives Matter,’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter,” Golbeck said.

Showing those users a Black Lives Matter ad could serve to remind them of an issue on which they may not agree with Clinton, Golbeck said.

“The important thing to remember about any social media but especially Facebook: They have this very deep profile of you,” she said. “You have to keep in mind people are paying money to target you.”

CNN reported Thursday that a social media campaign called "Blacktivist" and linked to the Russian government used Facebook and Twitter to stoke racial tensions and promote rallies around the country last year, including at least one in Baltimore.

Facebook has said the majority of the ads it is providing to investigators did not focus on a specific candidate in last year’s election but rather “on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

According to a person familiar with the ad, it was also aimed at users in Ferguson, Mo., where riots broke out in 2014 after a police officer shot Michael Brown to death. Baltimore’s Gray died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Both incidents helped fuel a national conversation about police work in predominately black neighborhoods.

Facebook has not responded to The Baltimore Sun’s multiple requests for comment.

The ad was placed months after unusual social media activity in Baltimore caught the attention of a local cyber security firm and city officials. Days after the 2015 riots, the Federal Hill-based ZeroFox documented a flurry of accounts posing as Baltimoreans that had in fact been created in Russia, China and India.

Postings from those accounts appeared designed to deepen the divides exposed during the riots.

“I just killed a pig,” one Twitter user wrote alongside a photograph of a bloodied police officer who, it turns out, was from South America, not Baltimore. Another tweet, from an account impersonating Baltimore police, used a racial slur.

ZeroFox identified nearly 100 accounts impersonating police and city and state officials.

“It seems increasingly likely that their pattern of operation is to find things that were going on that were organic and legitimately divisive” and exploit them, said Dave Troy, the CEO of Baltimore-based 410 Labs. “This wasn’t only about the election. This was an effort to sort of destabilize and sow discord within American society more broadly.”

Black Lives Matters leaders said they were disappointed by the revelation, but not particularly surprised.

Samuel Sinyangwe, a Black Lives Matter activist based in New York, said he sees the ad as part of a larger disinformation campaign to cast the movement in a negative light. He said conservative media, the alt-right and other groups have used online platforms to turn the public against activists.

“It’s important to note they are all playing the same playbook,” Sinyangwe said. “The question is why are these actors trying to sow these divisions and purposely portray activists in a negative light?”

The Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, said the ad was part of a long string of surreptitious activities against African-American activists over the years.

Bryant was one of the clergy leaders who tried to bring calm to the streets of Baltimore during the unrest.

“Historically, the civil rights community has always had outsiders trying to stir the pot,” he said. “It’s usually our own government, putting undercover agents with the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Bryant said he doesn’t know what the ad was trying to accomplish, or if it was effective. There was already plenty of aggravation fueling the protests without input from a Facebook ad, he said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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