In a superb piece of reporting, Jason Stein and Kevin Crowe of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel give a chilling account of how Russian trolls fanned the flames of racial discord in 2016 in Milwaukee in an apparent attempt to boost Donald Trump’s chances of winning Wisconsin. Trump would become the first Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984 to carry the Badger state. Whether or not you believe the Russian trolling effort played a role in Trump’s win here, the effort should frighten you nonetheless. Stein and Crowe chronicle how Russian Twitter trolls capitalized on the Sherman Park unrest in Milwaukee in August 2016:
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review found that Russia-linked accounts — including one named in a recent federal indictment — sent more than 30 tweets to spread racial animus, blame Democrats for the chaos and amplify the voices of conservatives like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. who were commenting on Sherman Park.
These foreign accounts started posting only hours after the unrest, getting more than 5,000 retweets at a time when residents of the neighborhood were trying to clean up and overcome fears of a renewed outbreak. This came three months before the 2016 election in which President Donald Trump was elected, thanks in part to his surprise victory in Wisconsin.
The effort, at times, reads like a script from a bad 1950’s “Red Scare” movie. For example, Stein and Crowe point out how the effort worked both sides of the racial conflict in America:
Nationally, these Russian-linked accounts presented themselves as grass-roots opponents or supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter, both defending police and criticizing them. The police shooting and unrest in Milwaukee was one of several incidents they hyped in the run-up to the presidential election.
You can argue that Clarke was one of the biggest stars of the effort:
Accounts like @rightnpr also quoted then-Sheriff Clarke, who frequently criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and campaigned on behalf of Trump. In all, Russian trolls retweeted Sheriff Clarke’s tweets or referenced him hundreds of times on a variety of subjects.
“Sheriff Clarke: ‘Obama’s Set This Whole Country on Fire With His Race Politics’
#Milwaukee,” reads one post from @TEN_GOP(a bogus account) that received more than 700 retweets
Stein and Crowe also report that:
The Russian accounts tweeted dozens of times in support of Paul Ryan’s GOP primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, who has been called a racist by some fellow Republicans. The trolls regularly disparaged Ryan and spread some fake news about the speaker.
The default conservative response to this story is to blame President Obama for not doing more at the time. A perfectly valid yet pointless criticism. The pressing issue now is what is Russia doing to meddle in 2018? What else have they done that we don’t know about? Did they deploy human as well as digital assets to sow discord in an already deeply divided America? It is incredibly dangerous for conservatives to resist taking the Russian threat to democracy seriously out of fear that it will delegitimize the Trump presidency. There is no metric by which we can measure whether the Russian trolling efforts impacted the Wisconsin presidential election. What Stein and Crowe uncover here is the lengths to which Russia will go to do so; successful or not. That’s what makes this reporting so important. And all Americans should set aside partisan politics long enough to recognize one thing: political parties are rivals. Russia is an enemy. To quote one more time from Stein and Crowe, as they quote Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett:
“These are enemies of the United States who are trying to sow dissension in our country and on the streets of Milwaukee,” Barrett said in a statement.
Who could have imagined a Democratic elected official saying those words about Russia, or Republicans expressing skepticism about them.