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Exclusive: Fake Black activist accounts linked to Russian government

Donie O'Sullivan and Dylan Byers | 9/29/2017, 8:44 a.m.
A social media campaign calling itself "Blacktivist" and linked to the Russian government used both Facebook and Twitter in an ...
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(CNN Money) -- A social media campaign calling itself "Blacktivist" and linked to the Russian government used both Facebook and Twitter in an apparent attempt to amplify racial tensions during the U.S. presidential election, two sources with knowledge of the matter told CNN. The Twitter account has been handed over to Congress; the Facebook account is expected to be handed over in the coming days.

Both Blacktivist accounts, each of which used the handle Blacktivists, regularly shared content intended to stoke outrage. "Black people should wake up as soon as possible," one post on the Twitter account read. "Black families are divided and destroyed by mass incarceration and death of black men," another read. The accounts also posted videos of police violence against African Americans.

The Blacktivist accounts provide further evidence that Russian-linked social media accounts saw racial tensions as something to be exploited in order to achieve the broader Russian goal of dividing Americans and creating chaos in U.S. politics during a campaign in which race repeatedly became an issue.

The Facebook account had 360,000 likes, more than the verified Black Lives Matter account on Facebook, which currently has just over 301,000.

The page also publicized at least seven rallies and demonstrations around the country in 2016. The events ranged from the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party to a march in Baltimore commemorating the death of Freddie Gray. In several cases, it appears that the events were real, and were organized by other groups, but that the Blacktivist account was working to increase turnout.

"We are fed up with police violence, racism, intolerance and injustice that passed down from generation to generation. We are fed up with government ignorance and the system failing black people," the page's description of the march for Freddie Gray read.

That same Freddie Gray event was covered by RT, a television network funded by the Russian government.

CNN reported Wednesday that at least one of the Facebook ads bought by Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign referenced Black Lives Matter and was specifically targeted to reach audiences in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, two cities that had gained widespread attention for the large and violent protests over police shootings of black men.

The Twitter account, @Blacktivists, provided several clues that in hindsight indicate it was not what it purported to be. In several tweets, it employed awkward phrasing that a native English speaker would be unlikely to use. It also consistently posted using an apostrophe facing the wrong way, i.e. "it`s" instead of "it's."

The Blacktivist Facebook account was among the 470 Russian-linked accounts identified by the social media network and disclosed to Congress earlier this month, the sources said. The matching Twitter account was among the roughly 200 accounts Twitter identified with links to those found by Facebook.

Facebook shared its findings about the accounts with Twitter, enabling Twitter to identify 22 matching accounts and an additional 179 accounts that linked back to those accounts, the sources said. This matching process went beyond public-facing similarities and included private information that could link the accounts.