Russian Propaganda Veterans Push Candace Owens’ ‘Blexit’ Campaign
It claims to be an online movement of African-Americans. But tens of thousands of the tweets were sent from accounts that previously pushed Russian disinformation.
We’re not saying that Russia helped make #Blexit trend, but Twitter accounts with a history of pushing Kremlin fake news are playing a disproportionate role in amplifying the call for African-American voters to hop on the Trump Train.
Blexit, the brainchild of right-wing personality Candace Owens, is a nascent movement meant to urge black voters to leave the Democratic Party.
Owens, the communications director for campus conservative group Turning Point USA, announced the campaign last Saturday at a Turning Point conference in Washington. But while Blexit is less than a week old, it’s already been beset with controversies. Owens initially claimed that rapper Kanye West, who praised her politics earlier this year on Twitter, designed Blexit’s “X” logo and the 90’s-style colors of its merchandise. But West claimed in a series of tweets Tuesday that he had nothing to do with Blexit, distancing himself from Owens and her group. Owens eventually apologized to West, but insisted that Blexit will continue.
Additionally, a pre-existing organization also called Blexit is threatening to sue over Owens’ use of the name. (Owens didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story)
Despite the hiccups, the torrent of tweets pushing the Blexit hashtag on Twitter gives the impression that African-Americans are rejecting the Democratic party in droves. Over 15 hours ending Friday afternoon, the Daily Beast captured more than 250,000 tweets amplifying the Blexit movement.
There’s no easy way to tell how many of those tweets are swelling from Blexit’s target demographic rather than already-committed GOP supporters. But by cross-referencing the tweets with data The Daily Beast collected during previous tweet storms, we can tell a little about what the putative Blexiters supported in the past.
It turns out that approximately 40,000, or 16 percent, of the Blexit tweets we collected came from accounts that previously pushed Kremlin propaganda in one of two key Russian disinformation campaigns: one attempting to exonerate the Syrian government in a deadly chemical weapons attack, another targeting last year’s presidential election in France in support of a failed 11th-hour intervention by Russia’s GRU, its military intelligence agency.
The Syria-related campaign unfolded on the heels of the Syrian government’s April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which at least 80 people were killed, including 20 children. In the aftermath, Donald Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian military airfield to retaliate for the war crime, while the Russian government rushed to the defense of Syria's Kremlin-backed autocrat, Bashar al-Assad. Russian trolls in the Internet Research Agency and in the GRU are known to have aggressively pushed a fake story that the attack was a frame up targeting Assad—a “false flag.”
“We consistently see Russia-linked accounts pushing Syrian talking points,” said Ryan Fox, COO of New Knowledge.
The “false flag” meme was pushed in a week-long storm of tweets from at least 88,000 different Twitter accounts, many of them since deleted by Twitter. Thousands of the surviving accounts, 7,427 of them, are boosting Blexit today.
A second Russian social media campaign came one month after #falseflag, when Russia’s GRU intelligence agency attempted to repeat its 2016 U.S. success in the 2017 French election, dumping emails and documents it hacked from the Gmail accounts of people connected to now-French President Emmanuel Macron using the hashtag #MacronLeaks.
Unlike the DNC leaks, “Macron Leaks” contained nothing of consequence, and were promoted most heavily on social media by Pizzagaters and pseudonymous accounts. Today, 4,461 accounts that amplified Macron Leaks during the French election are throwing their weight behind the Blexit movement. And 2,678 of the accounts using the Blexit hashtag amplified both #falseflag and #macronleaks.
Our monitoring captured 78,134 accounts pushing Blexit. In total, 12 percent of those accounts championed those earlier Russian disinformation efforts.
Russia’s Internet Internet Agency heavily targeted the black community before and after the 2016 presidential race. Most of the trolls’ Facebook ad buy was aimed at African-Americans, and the Russians enjoyed a sizable following on fake activism pages they set up with names like Black Matters US and Do Not Shoot Us. The IRA even recruited two men from Nigeria to pose as Americans in their own YouTube show, called “Williams and Kalvin,” where they tried to persuade black voters to support Donald Trump, just like Blexit today.
None of this means the accounts that promoted Kremlin causes and now push Blexit are all Russian trolls—Americans are uniquely receptive to foreign disinformation, and every Russian troll operation enjoys some level of organic amplification from its target audience. As for the Blexit movement, the size and shape of its genuine participants will become clear on Tuesday, when Americans go to the polls for the midterm elections—no Russian bots allowed.