REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON — The simple advertisement betrayed little about its intent or origin. It pictured Freddie Gray and two other African Americans who died in encounters with police alongside the words “never forget.”
Analysts say the ad — and hundreds more aimed by Russia at Facebook users in Maryland following the Baltimore riots of 2015 — might have been a dry run for the broader, national social media campaign that followed in the presidential election campaign months later.
Of the 3,000 Russian-linked ads Facebook turned over to Congress this fall, more than 250 were targeted at Maryland — a blue state with little sway in the national election that nevertheless remained in the spotlight because of the unrest.
The debate over police interactions with African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere offered an easy issue for Russians to exploit, analysts say, long before Donald Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate.
“Russians needed practice,” said James Andrew Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They had done this a lot for domestic audiences, and they had to learn how to pull the levers of an American audience.
“This was an initial attempt.”
Facebook has said accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, spent more than $100,000 on ads from 2015 to 2017, and that about 126 million people might have been served content from pages associated with the group. U.S. intelligence agencies said in January that the likely financier of the group is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin has denied meddling in the U.S. election.
Much of the discussion surrounding the Russian social media campaign in the United States has focused on the election. Congress and the Federal Election Commission are both considering new regulations that would require more transparency in online political ads.
Less attention has been given to ads placed in 2015 in states that were not election battlegrounds. Facebook has said about 25 percent of the ads the company identified as being linked to Russia were aimed at specific cities and states. More of those targeted ads ran in 2015 than last year.
The Gray ad released this month by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence included a photo of the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in April 2015 after suffering an injury in police custody. Also pictured: Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland in 2014.
“Join us because we care,” the ad read. “Black Matters!”
Data released by the committee indicate that the advertisement — purchased with rubles — was initially placed in Maryland, Missouri, Virginia and Georgia beginning in mid-2015. It popped up on computer screens more than 200,000 times and attracted 12,127 clicks.
The ad was placed nationally months later and again in 2016. It received 55,761 clicks, in all.
While there is broad consensus that one of the goals of the Russian effort was to undermine confidence in American institutions — including law enforcement — there is less agreement about why so many ads were aimed at Maryland.
Russia has a long history of using “active measures” to exploit divisions, including attempts to exacerbate racial tensions. In the 1960s, the KGB authorized a plan to discredit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by attempting to plant stories that suggested he was working for the U.S. government.
More recently, the Internet Research Agency and other Russian troll farms have targeted Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine with disinformation campaigns.
The “Black Matters” ad appears to be an early attempt at using social media in the United States. Of the small sample of ads released by the House Intelligence Committee, it was the earliest to appear.
Mark R. Jacobson is a former special assistant to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
“While the social media vectors are new, the operation to influence and persuade in support of broader political activities was refined during all these previous operations,” said Jacobson, now an associate professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.
“So in that sense I think the 2015 stuff could have very well been an intermediate step between the long history of political warfare and what we saw in 2016.”
The Gray ad clicked through to a Facebook page called “Black Matters US.” That page has been removed, but an apparently related website, blackmattersus.com, remains online.
The website, registered anonymously in late 2015, describes itself as a “nonprofit news outlet.” It features commentary about the African-American community. Items about Baltimore and Gray begin by quoting or paraphrasing coverage in The Baltimore Sun before launching into opinion.
When Baltimore prosecutors dropped criminal charges last year against officers involved in Gray’s arrest and death, the website posted an article that cited coverage in The Sun, including a quote from State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, and then opined that the decision “doesn’t come as a surprise.”
“The American criminal justice system has always been reluctant to prosecute officers, making up special circumstances surrounding the cases, in which these officers were involved,” an author identified as William Sanders wrote. “People are tired of such pretense and police being above the laws they impose on others.”
The website was also frequently and overtly critical of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. An item posted in October 2016, the month before the election, asserted that “Hillary’s deceptive plots to win the love of Black people in America just to gain power are gradually being brought to light.” Another piece was headlined “Hillary Clinton: A Candidate For the Corporate Elite.”
The most recent item posted to the site is from September. A request for information by The Sun submitted through the site’s “contact” form drew no response. An email address associated with the page did not work. Most of the social media accounts connected to the site have been taken down.
Just how much Maryland and the other states confronting racial tension were targeted by the ad campaign is unclear. Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this month that Maryland received a notable share, particularly given that the presidential vote in the state wasn’t close.
“The three most heavily targeted states in America — Maryland, Missouri and New York — were all determined by at least 18-point margin,” the North Carolina Republican said during a committee hearing.
But in a brief interview later, Burr appeared to walk back that assertion.
“I didn’t say that they were the most targeted,” Burr said. “I used those as examples of how they were targeted at a higher level than [the battleground states] Michigan and Wisconsin.”
Burr has long contended the ads were more about dividing Americans than they were about presidential politics.
“From the standpoint of what we’ve seen in the ads and how they were designed and run, it was to create societal chaos,” Burr said. “That’s it.”
Asked about their impact, Burr pointed out that two Russian Facebook pages managed to organize dueling rallies outside a Houston mosque last year.
“When you see a picture of a rally with both sides in Texas, yeah, they were successful.”
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, agreed that the ad placed in Maryland probably had more to do with highlighting racial tension than helping to elect Trump. Trump entered the Republican primary in June of 2015, about a month before the ad began showing up in feeds.
Many of the national ads released by the House and Senate intelligence committees from 2016 focused on the election. One touted Trump rallies in Florida. Another depicted Jesus and Satan arm wrestling and suggested Satan was on Clinton’s side.
“Press ‘like’ to help Jesus win!” the ad read.
“In 2015 they were doing their own fishing expedition, trying to see what would stick,” Cardin said. “So they came into Maryland and they tried a tactic. It wasn’t terribly effective.
“I think they may very well have gone on to a different tactic.”
That’s the conclusion of several analysts.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has studied the Russian campaigns, told lawmakers in testimony this year that Russian online activities “shifted aggressively” toward the United States in late 2014 and throughout 2015. By the end of 2015, the effort “began pushing themes and messages seeking to influence the outcome” of the election.
Watts did not respond to several requests for comment.
Facebook has repeatedly declined requests from The Baltimore Sun for information about the ads placed in Maryland. The Gray ad released by the House Intelligence Committee is the only Russian ad aimed at Marylanders to have been shown to the public.
Without seeing more content, several analysts said, it’s difficult to pin down the motivations. The House Intelligence Committee has promised to make more ads public, but has not said when that will happen.
Thomas Rid is professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.
“The 2015 targeting could have been a trial run, but we don't know,” he said. “Soviet active measures started exploiting racial and ethnic tensions in the mid-1950s, and ripping open racial divisions has been a standard M.O. ever since.”
Unusual social media activity in Baltimore in 2015 caught the attention of a local cybersecurity firm. Days after the 2015 riots, the Federal Hill-based firm ZeroFOX documented a flurry of accounts by users 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. (It turned out the officer was from South America, not Baltimore.)
Another tweet, from an account impersonating the Baltimore Police Department, used a racial slur.
ZeroFOX identified nearly 100 accounts impersonating police and city and state officials.The firm has not responded to requests for comment.
Another Facebook account known as Blacktivist promoted a rally in Baltimore last year to mark the one-year anniversary of Gray’s death. A Twitter account associated with the page reached out to journalists at The Sun and other outlets and sent a press release to reporters promoting the event.
Todd M. Rosenblum, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a nonresident senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
The Russian effort “was sophisticated to the point that they identified the standing social cleavages that existed in the nation,” he said.
“They were able to accurately assess what’s dividing Americans and what messages were going to cause an emotional reaction. There were a lot of pretty sophisticated creations.”