How Russian "troll factories" have been using social media to infiltrate Western politics


Many may recall the viral photo of a Muslim woman on Westminster Bridge following the March attacks circulating twitter earlier this year. The account that shared the hijab-wearing woman, @Southlonestar, posted a picture of the woman on her phone, supposedly callous and indifferent as she passed by a victim being treated on the bridge. The caption read “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”

The attack, perpetrated by 52-year-old converted Muslim extremist Khalid Masood, had already served to shed a negative light upon Islam and provided fodder for those who conflate terrorist groups like Isis with true followers of the peaceful religion. Khalood drove a van into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge and attempted to enter Parliament while brandishing a knife. He succeeded in taking five lives – including the police officer stationed outside of Parliament who had tried to neutralise Khalood – before being shot dead at the scene by other police officers.

@Southlonestar, whose profile proclaimed “Proud TEXAN and AMERICAN patriot”, has been revealed to be one of thousands of puppet accounts manufactured by a Russian “troll factory” for the purpose of sowing discord and divisiveness in Western politics. The account is just one of 2,700 others that have been suspended by Twitter and are being examined by the US House Intelligence Committee. These accounts may aid investigations into claims that the Russian government had colluded with now-President Trump in order to secure the presidency. @Southlonestar, in particular, has tweeted messages in support of Trump on the day of the US election to an audience of nearly 20,000 followers. The Kremlin has also used these accounts to intervene in UK politics, with many tweeting pro-Leave messages on the day of the June referendum. One account, made to appear to be owned by a German man, tweeted an average of 20 times an hour on that day. According to the photographer who had taken the Muslim woman’s photo, Jaime Lorriman, the woman had been as distressed as any other witness on the bridge, and her emotional state can easily be seen in other pictures. He expressed that he hated that his work had been used without his consent to further the anti-Islam “agenda” and that “people who hate will use anything as the weapon of their opinion”. Lorriman went on to defend the Muslim woman, maintaining that her behaviour was completely appropriate and that “you’re not assuming others are callously ignoring the scenario”.

The unnamed woman, a victim of extreme backlash, released a statement in her own defence: “I would like to say not only have I been devastated by witnessing the aftermath of a shocking and numbing terror attack, I’ve also had to deal with the shock of finding my picture plastered all over social media by those who could not look beyond my attire, who draw conclusions based on hate and xenophobia.” She shared that the infamous photograph had caught her in the middle of ringing her family in order to let them know that she was safe, and that she had been assisting a woman in getting to Waterloo station on her way home.

At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that Britain would work with its allies in order to prevent the Kremlin from succeeding in its covert mission to incite division both within and between the US and the UK. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed,” May warned.

Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.”

May, wanting to prevent all possibility of another Cold War, implored Putin to align himself with Western nations and choose to cooperate peacefully.

The discovery of the true nature of these Twitter accounts comes less than a month after the Kremlin was caught using Facebook to infiltrate the left. Several American black activists were contacted through seemingly legitimate accounts, with some being paid to organise Black Lives Matter rallies, produce anti-police force content, or teach self-defence classes. Activists were under the impression that they were being recruited from well-known outlets – like Buzzfeed News – and recalled phone calls with a man who sounded African. A perceived rise in “black militancy” would agitate racist anxieties, causing further division between white and black voters come election time. Clearly, Russia has been campaigning to interfere with Western elections through infiltrating both right and left spaces.

In a similar vein, the US fell victim to Russian trolls in the form of an inflammatory account claiming to be the official voice of Tennessee Republicans. The account, @TEN_GOP, was especially active during the run-up to the presidential election. One tweet read “Obama wants our children to be converted to Islam! Hillary will continue his mission.” Another claimed that Hillary Clinton had been responsible for a fatal explosion in Washington. One declared, simply, that “Obama is the founder of ISIS.” It reached a peak of 130,000 followers – ten times more than the actual Twitter account run by the Tennessee Republican Party – and was operated by a Russian media company intent on increasing animosity between political groups in the US. More than a year after officials had complained about the fake account, @TEN_GOP, was finally shut down in August. The account had still been successful in posting 10,000 tweets by this time.

The experiences of the Muslim woman on Westminster Bridge speak to a readiness of the public to demonize anyone demonstrably Muslim. She was not allowed the benefit of the doubt, and the Kremlin took advantage of how readily UK audiences could believe that a Muslim woman could be so cold. Now that the tweet in question has been revealed to be a calculated move on Russia’s part to propagate Islamophobia, perhaps we can now be more critical of the ideas we consume uncritically and take at face value.

Ayan Goran