NEW YORK ― On a Saturday evening in the fall of 2017, local activist Amy Bettys schlepped to Union Square in Manhattan, alongside members of the women’s reproductive rights group she works with, to protest a proposed federal restriction on abortion.
She and her group, Women’s Health & Reproductive Rights (WHARR), were attending an event they’d seen posted online, co-sponsored by the local Women’s March Alliance and an organization called the Resisters, which touted itself as being dedicated to “feminist activism against fascism.” It seemed like a good opportunity for WHARR at the time: Here was an event to promote women’s reproductive rights, held on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and co-sponsored by a legitimate feminist enterprise in the WMA.
Oddly, nobody from the WMA or the Resisters showed up. Instead, Bettys and other activists arrived only to be surrounded by a handful of counterprotesters wearing red “Make America great again” caps and holding a pro-Donald Trump flag.
“They showed up within the first 10 minutes and had this very professional Trump banner and a camera crew in tow,” Bettys told HuffPost. “They were shouting at us and trying to antagonize us. We tried to chant over them without engaging them. We were there to protest a piece of legislation, and they were there for us.”
It was weird that Trump supporters with no clear agenda had shown up to agitate a relatively small event, and weirder still that the Resisters, who had organized the protest, didn’t show up at all.
“Turns out, the whole thing was a setup,” Bettys said. “The Resisters were Russians.”
How We Found Out
Initially, it wasn’t clear what was going on behind the scenes of that event. It would be nearly a year later, in 2018, when news broke that Russian operatives had been using Facebook and Twitter to target hundreds of thousands of people using ads and staged events on social media to sow discord among the politically active in America.
Facebook admitted in July that it had discovered a sophisticated and coordinated disinformation campaign on the platform, with “inauthentic administrators” working to divide Americans in the lead-up to the midterm elections, according to a Washington Post report at the time. Those operators had been meddling in stateside politics prior to the election of President Donald Trump, a fact that has been reiterated by special counsel Robert Mueller in February, when he indicted 13 Russian nationals in the social media meddling campaign, and again earlier this month, when he released his full report on Russian interference on the 2016 election.
In both documents, Mueller homed in on interference efforts by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-backed organization of Russians who operated online. For years, the IRA used the shotgun approach in its meddling: It created dozens of event pages and fake profiles on social media, designed to attract activists on both sides of the political aisle to square off in American streets.
The goal, according to Mueller, was to build as many seemingly legitimate activist brands as possible and use them to reach “significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system.”
The plan worked: Russia’s messaging, propagated by fake accounts, reached sweeping audiences. On Facebook alone, 32 fake pages created between March 2017 and May 2018, operated by the IRA and others, attracted 290,000 people to ads, events and posts, according to The Washington Post.
Suddenly, Russian interference in American affairs was no longer a bogeyman or a plot point on an over-the-top spy thriller. Activists attending very real political events began to realize that some of the rallies they were invited to ― even those on the local level ― had been organized in bad faith by Russian actors.
One IRA group that enjoyed success was the Resisters (or, as it was spelled on some social media accounts, the “reSisters”), which branded itself as a feminist collective that wanted to help “targeted communities.” It organized protests large and small by creating events on Facebook and reaching out to legitimate activists to invite them to join up and assist in planning. It especially targeted and created events surrounding race, feminism and fascism.
One of its biggest events, titled “No Unite the Right 2 - DC” and scheduled for August 10-12 last year, called on “all anti-fascists and people of good conscience” to counterprotest an anniversary rally of the deadly “Unite the Right” neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. A description of the event ― which is still live on some sites and claims other activist groups as co-sponsors ― taps just about every leftist talking point under the sun:
“This is for Heather Heyer, ICE abolition, open borders, dismantling the Pr*son industrial complex, and ending the settler colonial system,” the invite stated. “We will confront fascism, antisemitism, islamophobia, white supremacy, and state violence on August 10-12.”
Meanwhile, a handful of the Resisters’ fake administrators were reaching out to legitimate activists to co-host the event, HuffPost reported. By that time on Facebook, about 2,600 people said they were interested in the event and hundreds had vowed to attend, according to The Washington Post.
In the end, counterprotesters in Washington outnumbered white nationalists by hundreds, and news reports after the rally characterized the day as a “pathetic” showing for the bigoted organizers. The IRA, on the other hand, got what it wanted: Americans, in the streets, butting heads.
How Russia Duped All Of Us
The Resisters event that WHARR attended in 2017 is a veritable blueprint of Russian interference efforts, showing just how easy it was for the IRA to organize a rally that pitted feminist activists against MAGA-hat-wearing counterprotesters on the street. All it took was a few Facebook messages and invitations, without so much as a face-to-face conversation.
WHARR members attended the rally in Manhattan because the event’s stated purpose ― protesting a resolution that would restrict women’s access to reproductive health care ― fell in line with their own. Adding to its legitimacy was the event’s co-sponsor, the Women’s March Alliance, a New York City-based activist group that organized the city’s tangent to the Women’s March in Washington in January 2017.
But when neither the WMA nor the Resisters showed up to their own event, WHARR members grew suspicious. In an email exchange obtained by HuffPost, WHARR co-chair Karen Wang asked WMA founder Katherine Siemionko what happened, to which Siemionko responded:
“I cannot express my disappointment with resisters and what happened over the weekend. We worked with resisters on past events so accepted their co-sponsor request assuming they would have it under control. Sadly, that did not turn out to be the case.”
Siemionko declined to provide clarity about her relationship with the Resisters and wouldn’t say how the group reached out to WMA or what convinced Siemionko to co-sponsor the event in the first place. In fact, in an email to HuffPost last week, she denied ever working with WHARR or the Resisters in any capacity, despite emails between her and Wang that clearly showed her involvement.
During the exchange, Siemionko said she’d been contacted about the event by a woman named “Mary Smith” on Facebook, who said she was with the Resisters. Siemionko also provided a screenshot of Smith’s profile, showing a relatively nondescript Facebook page with little information or imagery:
The conversation fizzled out at that point, and WHARR members said they chalked the whole thing up to poor planning ― that is, until July, when the Resisters were outed by news organizations as a devious creation of the IRA. Then in August, a Washington Post report revealed that “a woman named Mary” from the Resisters had reached out to another activist, Brendan Orsinger, to help promote various events. HuffPost confirmed with Orsinger that “a woman named Mary” is the same Mary Smith account that reached out to the WMA.
The missing pieces were falling into place. The WMA appeared to have been duped into working with the Resisters by way of co-sponsoring their events. That voucher was all the IRA needed for its Facebook profiles ― and the rallies it organized ― to seem legitimate.
“We are dismayed to have unknowingly associated our group with the rally, since in hindsight it was a setup intended to sow confusion and political tensions,” wrote WHARR in a prepared statement. “We heard about the rally from a credible and recognized group which had signed on as a co-sponsor. This group had been contacted about the rally by Resisters, a group we subsequently learned is allegedly part of a Russian troll organization.”
The Facebook pages tied to the Resisters have since been deleted, but the events they helped coordinate are still live on some event sites. On allevents.in, for example, there are 18 events that list the Resisters as the creator ― the “No Unite the Right 2 - D.C.” and Union Square events included.
How This Will Happen Again
American politicians are worried about the implications of such Russian efforts on social media, alongside the country’s history of hacking American intelligence and leaking it.
“The bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord and undermine America, just like they do in many other countries,” Rosenstein said, according to an NPR report.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week that Russian interference isn’t only a reality for the 2020 election, it’s “pretty much a 365-days-a-year threat” since 2016.
“On the one hand, I think enormous strides have been made since 2016 by all the different federal agencies, state and local election officials, the social media companies, et cetera,” he said, according to NPR. “But I think we recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game. And so we’re very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”