When a Facebook page called Blacktivist promoted a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray last year, some Baltimore activists were immediately suspicious.
A Twitter account with the name @FreddieGrayAnn linked to the post about the march and attempted to engage local residents, including community organizers.and reporters at The Baltimore Sun and other news organizations. The account at some point changed its name to @BlacktivistDave.
“No one had ever heard of Blacktivist before,” recalled Brittany Oliver, founder and director of Not Without Black Women, a Baltimore organization. “The way they were responding to us was really off.”
Now, the social media campaign has been linked to Russia. Citing unnamed sources, CNN reported this week 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.
Though the social media accounts have been suspended, cached versions of some pages were still accessible Friday, as well as replies local residents sent back.
Replies to the tweets made clear that some in Baltimore were skeptical.
“You can’t come to Baltimore and try to lead s — —. You don’t know the people here,” one user replied to the Twitter account.
“We don’t need people not from Baltimore using Freddie name. Are you working here to fix the issues?” the Baltimore BLOC group wrote.
The Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore, said many people were wary of outsiders coming to the city to use Gray’s death as a platform for their own purposes.
When the Twitter account promoted the anniversary march, Brown reached out in a private message, asking if the organizers were from Baltimore.
“They were using Freddie Gray’s face [as a profile picture] and I was perturbed by that,” Brown said. “Like many others, I feel very protective of Baltimore.”
He messaged back and forth with the account, which at one point sent him the message, “I got you. This must be really wrong. I feel ashamed.”
A Twitter spokesperson told The Sun it does not comment on individual accounts “for privacy and safety reasons.”
The Twitter account reached out to journalists, asking for contact information, and got responses from reporters at The Sun, City Paper and New York Times.
And a Sun reporter received an email from BeaBlacktivist@gmail.com with an attached press release about the “Freddie Gray Anniversary March” planned for April 16, 2016. The contact person was listed as David Johnson, who described himself as “a volunteer coordinator at Blacktivist.” He did not provide any phone number.
The press release contained links to the Blacktivist Facebook page and the @FreddieGrayAnn Twitter account.
The Sun reported Thursday that 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, according to cyber security analysts. Facebook is preparing to hand over to congressional investigators 3,000 ads purchased by a Russian entity.
“Some people have been really dismissive of the Russian influence for the past couple months,” activist DeRay Mckesson said in an interview Friday. “This is a reminder that this goes deeper than some people want to believe.”
On its Facebook page, the Blacktivist account posted police brutality videos, interspersed with short messages such as, “Our race is under attack, but remember, we are strong in numbers.”
The page also posted about Allen Bullock, a Baltimore teen who pleaded guilty to a riot charge after smashing a traffic cone through the windshield of a car during the 2015 unrest.
“Well, a teen who did not kill anyone, who did not steal anything but damaged a city police car will spend 12 years in prison,” Blacktivist posted on its Facebook page. It contrasted that with the outcome for “police officers who are responsible in the death of an unarmed black male in police custody.”
The post had 368 shares.
Adam Jackson, CEO of the Baltimore organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said activists are were worried about having their message co-opted. When the Blacktivist page started reaching out, “all of us saw through that,” he said.
“Whoever was running this, even if it was Russian officials, it’s people using black bodies and conversations around black people as a convenient touchpoint as opposed to standing in solidarity,” Jackson said.
State Del. Nick Mosby, then a city councilman, was among those who replied on Twitter to a message from the account, saying, “Call my office.”
He said Friday it’s a standard response to weed out those who are sincere about getting involved.
The Blacktivist page appeared to have copied and pasted a real anniversary event hosted by the People’s Power Assembly, a local group that has been involved in activism for years. Lamont Lilly, who lives in North Carolina, came to Baltimore to attend that event and others. He said Friday he wasn’t aware of the Blacktivist page.
“It sounds like they may have been borrowing some of the energy around the organizing taking place,” Lilly said.
But Lilly also said he thought the reports linking Russia to attempts to stoke tensions were “ridiculous.”
“What that does is create a whole other sensational story rather than actually addressing the issues of police brutality, the issues of poverty or the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said.
Political campaigns and advocacy groups have relied on social media for years because the platforms allow them to target specific voters and consumers — every voter earning more than $100,000 a year in a given ZIP code, for instance. Targeting messages is also more efficient — and therefore cheaper — than traditional advertising.
While the Blacktivist posts raised suspicions among some, social media campaigns can also create a sense of intimacy, said Steve Raabe, president of the Annapolis-based polling firm OpinionWorks. A post is far more likely to hold sway if it shared by a friend or family member.
“The thing that social media does which did not exist a few years ago is that it adds the validation of the person you know who’s in your network and who is forwarding the story to you,” Raabe said. “You layer on top of whatever the news item is a personal validation from someone in your own network.”
Raabe said he has repeatedly had focus group participants point to the influence of social media. “We are seeing huge penetration by Facebook, particularly,” he said.