It was already widely known that Russian interests sought to use information as a method of political battle. Its tools include well-known state-linked outlets like RT, the part-propaganda, part-news TV channel sponsored by the Kremlin, and Sputnik. Russia dismisses such accusations by arguing that Western media play a similar role in Russia and what it takes as its sphere of influence. Russian operatives also used social-media accounts, often using the guise of everyday people, to try to spread both pro-Putin spins on real stories as well as patently false misinformation. And according to everyone except President Trump and Russia itself, Russian agents were involved in hacking and releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
Organizing, or attempting to organize, on-the-ground events is a different matter entirely, moving from the realm of circulating information—real or not, licit or illicit—to the realm of concrete action. It’s unclear how effective the Russians were. The Beast focused on a planned protest in a town in Idaho that had become a cause célèbre for pro-Trump outlets including Breitbart and Alex Jones, the conspiracy-theorist radio host whom candidate Donald Trump praised.
“Due to the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society’s attention to this problem,” the event invitation from “SecuredBorders” read. The group had 133,000 followers, according to the Beast, but “although 48 people clicked that they were ‘interested’ in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session.”
The apparently sloppy execution echoes the amateurish trolling efforts put together by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin Russian company that purchased the tens of thousands in Facebook ads. It is difficult to imagine how much impact the organizing had, and to disaggregate it from the focus on the town by anti-immigrant American media. In fact, there is a great deal of overlap between the issues that pro-Trump American media covered and those that Kremlin-tied operators did, though whether that’s because of collaboration or simply because of canny mimicry by Russians is unclear.
The attempt to organize protests is also interesting because it echoes accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made against the United States. Russia has long bridled at American involvement in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, which it takes as threats—both because some of these countries are on Russia’s border, and instability in any neighboring area is a cause for concern, but also because Russia feels they are part of its own sphere of influence. (Russian interference in Ukraine, in addition to its annexation of Crimea, are examples of what Moscow believes are the prerogatives of this influence.)