U.S.

There’s Less than Meets the Eye to Mueller’s Russian-Organized Rallies

(Pixabay)
Only a handful of the pre-election rallies mentioned in the special counsel’s recent indictment appear to have taken place, and those that did attracted few participants.

A few weeks ago, Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed down the first indictment in his investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 election. The indictment alleges that the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency (IRA) engaged in a “conspiracy to defraud the United States” by “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States.”

Key to this conclusion is the charge that the IRA “organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States,” which appears, strictly speaking, to be true. But a closer examination of the evidence offers no help to those who have seized upon Mueller’s charge as proof that the Russians managed to swing the presidency to Trump: Of the dozens of pre-election rallies Mueller mentions in his indictment, only a few actually appear to have successfully attracted anyone, and those that did were sparsely attended and, almost without exception, in deep-red enclaves that would have voted for Trump anyway.

The first two rallies on the list, “March For Trump” and “Down With Hillary,” were scheduled for New York City on June 25, 2016, and July 23, 2016, respectively. Neither seems to have happened. The June 25 rally was promoted by a Twitter bot with the handle @March_For_Trump, suspended following the indictment, which appeared to be regularly tweeting out invitations to it and subsequent rallies. Though the account’s tweets have been deleted, replies to invitations remain intact, and other accounts were regularly tweeting endorsements or inquiries about the time of events the account was promoting. Many of the accounts interacting with @March_For_Trump appeared to be either other Twitter bots or Trump supporters outside the tri-state area, asking if the account could arrange a rally in their area.

The first recorded mention of the rally on Twitter comes from a New Jersey-based account. The next day, March 31, 2016, an anonymous commenter mentioned the rally in response to a post on the 4chan “Trump General — Very Presidential Edition” and another, with the name “Adrian Taylor,” to the “Trump General — Burger Edition” pages. The nearly identical comments include a now-dead link to an event on Facebook:

A Trump rally in Manhattan would surely draw a crowd, yet evidence of the march itself is absent from Google searches, subsequent 4chan posts, and Twitter, and no New York media outlets posted stories. It’s possible the rally was never meant to take place, and those promoting it instead wanted to indicate to an online-only community that widespread support for Trump existed in deep-blue New York City. It seems more likely, however, that the bots were simply intending the marches to sow discord rather than orchestrate a specific result, and failed. That the march was scheduled for two days after the U.K.’s Brexit vote, which many Trump supporters viewed as a referendum on global support for populism, lends credence to this theory.

Of the dozens of pre-election rallies Mueller mentions in his indictment, only a few actually appear to have successfully attracted anyone, and those that did were sparsely attended and, almost without exception, in deep-red enclaves that would have voted for Trump anyway.

The “Down With Hillary” march was also scheduled for the date of a particularly divisive event: Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate on the eve of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. The DNC convention was already expected to be the site of anti-Hillary protests from the pro-Bernie Sanders crowd. But there appears to be no evidence that the “Down With Hillary” rally ever happened, nor that bots did anything more than float the idea of it. Again, an anti-Hillary crowd descending on the media capital of the world at a crucial moment in the campaign would presumably have generated at least some news coverage.

Internet searches for the next rally, scheduled to take place outside the White House at 1 PM on July 9, also turn up no evidence that it happened. Promoted by Russian Facebook group “United Muslims of America” and Twitter account @Muslims_In_USA, the “Support Hillary, Save American Muslims” rally was intended to be a show of “support” for Clinton. According to Mueller’s indictment, the group promoted images attributing Clinton with wanting the U.S. to adopt sharia law. A September Daily Beast report claimed the event was inspired by the one-week anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, but this seems unlikely, as the anniversary occurred weeks before the event allegedly took place.

The Mueller indictment alleges the defendants recruited “a real U.S. person to hold a sign depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her” at the White House rally, but does not specify whether there is any evidence, photographic or otherwise, that the rally took place or the “U.S. person” showed up to hold such a sign. No mentions of the rally appear on Twitter, and where replies to @March_For_Trump are populated with inquiries about planned rallies or requests for additional ones, none of the replies to the now-deleted @Muslims_In_USA account’s tweets mention any planned rally.

Given the lack of evidence that the “Support Hillary” rally took place, it seems likely to have been a false flag — not meant to generate support for Hillary Clinton’s supposed pro-sharia agenda, but to plant the idea that she and her supporters had such an agenda, thus riling up Trump supporters.

The next event on the list, “Florida Goes Trump,” was a relative success. Marketed as a series of flash mobs in 17 cities throughout Florida, it was designed to be a show of force by Trump supporters in a toss-up state. According to a cached image of the Facebook event, it was promoted by the troll group “Being Patriotic” and was much more sophisticated than the other rallies on Mueller’s list. The photo includes a participating-city manifest with the names and phone numbers of local Trump organizers contacted by the Russian troll group itself. According to the Daily Beast, two of the organizers listed on the manifest said they were contacted by the group or alerted to the event through the page’s social-media marketing.

That they worked in the real world is what makes the Florida rallies different from the rest. The Russian trolls’ efforts paid off: From the main list of 17 advertised events, many appear to have materialized. Estimation is difficult given no or limited local reporting on the events, but photos posted to Twitter indicate rallies in Pensacola, Fort Myers, and Spring Hill were relatively small. Two photos of the Miami rally on Twitter suggest that it was larger than the others.

A local publication in southeastern Florida, myPalmBeachPost, reported that area organizer Max Christiansen “responded to an online request for people to host pro-Trump events,” ultimately organizing an event in Jupiter, Fla., consistent with one listed on the manifest. Christiansen told the Post that almost nobody showed up to the event, and that “it was really a nothing.” An event in West Palm Beach also seems to have materialized, and one attendee estimated attendance at 50 to 60 people, but there was no organizer listed.

The Daily Beast reported that three additional rallies occurred, in Coral Springs, Ft. Lauderdale, and Hollywood, but the Trump-campaign chairwoman for Broward County, Dolly Rump, told the Post that Trump supporters were regularly gathering there on weekends throughout 2016, so it isn’t clear if those events were solely Russia-inspired.

Next is another relative success, the “Miners for Trump” rallies, also scheduled to take place flash-mob style on a single day, October 2, in various cities around Pennsylvania. Reporting on which cities were targeted varies, but an Evensi event apparently posted by the group identified Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Harrisburg, and Allentown as the prospective sites for the rallies. Though it has also been suspended, the troll account @TEN_GOP tweeted, “Join our rally tomorrow in Philly to support miners and Mr. Trump! DM for details!. . . #BasementDwellers,” on October 1.

According to the Evensi post, rallies were confirmed for Marconi Plaza, Philadelphia, and Steel Plaza, Pittsburgh. A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist later reported that no permit was issued for a rally on that date at Marconi Plaza. Since it was posted, the Evensi listing has been viewed just 29 times. The “Being Patriotic” trolls were also sharing information about the event from their Facebook page, including a post summarizing Trump’s ability to bring jobs back to coal country and the announcement that they’d “like to organize a rally ‘Miners for Trump’ in Pennsylvania,” according to the Inquirer report.

While the Inquirer piece concluded that the Russians’ Pennsylvania efforts had been a total failure, one in the Scranton Times-Tribune contests that claim. According to the Times-Tribune, local “Trump cultist” Bob Bolus hosted a “Miners for Trump” rally at his Holy Cross Athletic Center in October 2016. He told the Times-Tribune that he doesn’t remember who organized the gathering, but reported that 75 people attended. Internet searches for evidence that events were ever held in the other Pennsylvania cities come up empty.

Next, Mueller charges the Russian trolls with “organizing” a November 12 protest rally in New York City that definitely occurred, to the tune of 10,000 attendees. According to a cached image of the Facebook event page, created by troll group Black Matters, the rally was scheduled to begin in Union Square and conclude at Trump Tower. The cached Facebook image also indicates that a large majority of those present were alerted to the event via the Russian-backed Black Matters Facebook page, as 16,000 had RSVP’ed at the time the cache was taken.

A crime may very well have been committed here, but the evidence offers no clear support to those who claim that Russian subterfuge swung the White House to Donald Trump.

This would appear to be a resounding success for the Russians. But it’s very hard to tell how many people were attracted to Union Square by the Black Matters troll group and how many were spontaneously expressing their displeasure at Trump’s then-fresh election: Anti-Trump protests happened throughout the country on and around November 12. One took place in Lexington, Ky., for example, and another attracted 10,000 people in Los Angeles under the “Not My President” banner the same day.

The final protest is a “Charlotte Against Trump” event, which, according to the Charlotte News and Observer, attracted a crowd of 100 and took place at Marshall Park at noon on November 19. Like the majority of the Florida rallies, the Charlotte protest appears to have been organized by Russian troll groups through a U.S.-based contact. According to an article in the News and Observer, local organizer Andrew Fede said he was contacted by a woman affiliated with IRA Facebook page “BlackMattersUS”:

Fede, a political organizer who came to Charlotte in April 2016, says he gets numerous friend requests each month. When he went to the woman’s Facebook page to learn more about her, he found that she had already been befriended by dozens of his existing Facebook friends. The BlackMattersUS page on Facebook had some 400,000 followers.

In his first interview since the Russian link to his rally became public, Fede says he had no idea that BlackMattersUS was reportedly a Russian front and that at least one of the people volunteering to help him promote his event is believed to have been part of the election conspiracy.

Since the purge of Russian troll-linked Facebook pages, the only traces of the event’s marketing are a Facebook event page and a follow-up post advertising the event on the “UNC Charlotte Black Alumni” Facebook group, but both have since been deleted. A photo shared by local news reporter Tina Terry shows a woman holding a megaphone and addressing a crowd, and a video posted to Twitter shows a march in progress, complete with a common anti-Trump chant.

Mueller’s claim that the Russians a) planned, b) marketed, and c) organized unique rallies while ultimately convincing unpaid people to show up appears to be supportable enough. But the assertion of Trump opponents that the Russian efforts had a substantial influence on the election’s outcome is a stretch. Ignoring the post-election events, only the Scranton rally and the Florida rallies could have influenced the outcome of the election, and given that they were located in already pro-Trump areas (except Miami) and only attracted a few hundred people, it’s unlikely they had a significant effect.

A crime may very well have been committed here, but the evidence offers no clear support to those who claim that Russian subterfuge swung the White House to Donald Trump.

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