The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland was never in play in 2016. The Russians targeted it anyway.

A painting of Freddie Gray in the Baltimore neighborhood where he lived. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — Russia’s Twitter campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in Maryland began in June 2015, 17 months before Election Day, when the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency opened an account it called @BaltimoreOnline and began tweeting about local news events.

Its third tweet was a retweet of a WBAL-TV story about a 5-year-old boy who’d shot himself in the foot in an alley on North Mount Street, the same street where 11 blocks away Freddie Gray encountered law enforcement officials who loaded him into a police van for a ride across the city that left him fatally injured.

The tweet fit neatly into what would become a pattern for Russian activities in Maryland, a solidly Democratic state that hadn’t favored a Republican presidential candidate since 1988 and wasn’t in play in 2016.

Yet, the IRA, the Russian troll factory that U.S. prosecutors blame for the massive disinformation efforts during the 2016 campaign, devoted enormous attention and preparation to its Maryland operation, all in a likely effort, experts say, to widen racial divisions and demoralize African American voters.

Millions of words have been devoted to Russia’s 2016 disinformation campaign, but virtually nothing to that effort’s focus on Maryland. A Washington Post review of government-commissioned reports and interviews with experts revealed that the Russian campaign homed in on Maryland specifically in a way that set it apart from most other states.

In addition to creating @BaltimoreOnline, the IRA bought more Facebook ads targeting Maryland than any other state — 285, according to Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and Graphika, two of three organizations that analyzed social media data for Congress. Of those, 193 targeted Baltimore in particular.

Most of the Twitter accounts and publicly available Facebook ads targeting Marylanders, a Post analysis showed, played up racial injustice, including one ad that displayed pictures of Gray as well as Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, two African Americans killed by police elsewhere. And @BaltimoreOnline continued to tweet even after the election, remaining online until August 2017, when Twitter finally became aware of its IRA connection and removed the account.

The state remains ripe for a renewed campaign, experts note, especially in Baltimore, which this year was the subject of a highly publicized battle between President Trump and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a longtime Trump critic whose Baltimore district Trump denounced in late July as a “rodent infested mess” where “no human” would want to live.

Samuel Woolley, director of research for the Oxford project, said he believed the Russians running @BaltimoreOnline had done their homework, probably drawing up a list of locations with ties to the Gray incident. Russian operatives “optimize their social media propaganda campaigns by using key phrases or words related to highly contentious political topics or issues relating to particular social groups,” he said. “I’d hypothesize, in this circumstance, that they spread a story on North Mount because of the location’s relationship to Freddie Gray.”

“I have no doubt the Russians are doing the same kind of homework right now that they did in 2015 and 2017 to produce the most potent disinformation campaigns in 2020," Woolley said. “The propaganda research community is already seeing signs that new forms of digital manipulation are being tested in the buildup to the next U.S. election.”

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The NAACP, which is headquartered in Baltimore, is preparing to counter any new effort. Derrick Johnson, the group’s president, said the NAACP recently held talks with high-level social media corporate leaders to devise ways to counter such messaging and encourage African Americans to vote. The organization is also planning a voter registration push tied to National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 24.

Johnson calls the Russian effort to convince black voters to stay home on Election Day “a new voter suppression method.” That echoes the Oxford study’s conclusion that Russia’s Twitter and Facebook messages in Maryland were intended to divert African Americans’ “political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans.”

“These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead,” the Computational Propaganda Research Project report said.

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Using race to divide American voters is an old tactic, especially in the South. In 2016, voter turnout in Baltimore, where 63 percent of the population is African American, dipped to 62 percent, down from nearly 70 percent in 2004 and 2008. But turnout also dipped to 65 percent in 2012, even though the nation’s first black president was up for reelection.

Twitter and Facebook have both banned ads intended to suppress voter turnout with intimidating messages or incorrect voting information. Both social media companies also have created databases to allow the public to search for political ads, and Facebook has completed, for the first time, what it calls a “detailed risk assessment and threat analysis” for the upcoming elections. It declined to discuss the analysis.

Some 500 Facebook employees are working on election planning and defenses worldwide, and many more will be deployed in the United States closer to Election Day 2020, the company says.

But that may not be enough to stop any campaign determined to inflame racial tensions at a time when the president himself seems to be targeting African American and minority legislators. In 2016, Russia targeted African American voters with Facebook ads more than any other group, the experts’ report for Congress found.

Missouri was the second-most-targeted state after Maryland. The IRA targeted it 265 times, according to the Oxford report — an apparent effort to inflame sentiments that boiled over in Ferguson after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, 18, in 2014. The killing touched off nationwide protests against police.

Missouri’s version of @BaltimoreOnline was @St.LouisOnline, which tweeted even more often than Baltimore Online — 1,616 vs. 1,311 tweets, according to the report to Congress. Twitter shut it down when it discovered its IRA link.

Experts say Russia has every reason to use social media again to influence the 2020 elections. “Why shouldn’t they? It worked well,” said Donald Freese, a former FBI deputy assistant director of IT operations and cyberdefense and now an adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers’s cybersecurity team. “The question is whether we’ve gotten better in detecting their campaigns.”

“Compared to the relatively low costs of a misinformation campaign, the scope and the reach is just huge,” said Lucan Way, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who has studied the Russian 2016 election operation.

In fact, recent Russian election interference activity has been detected. In August, researchers in Estonia, which has been a bellwether for Russian disinformation since 2007, said they had discovered Russia interference in the March 2019 parliamentary election. The International Center for Defense and Security found that Russia barraged ethnic Russians who have suffered discrimination and felt disenfranchised in post-Soviet Estonia — about 30 percent of the population — with social media messages saying it was pointless to vote. Voter turnout in Russian-speaking provinces dropped by several percentage points in the election, according to official results.

In West Baltimore, meanwhile, crime, corruption and poverty are chronic issues, said the Rev. Keith Bailey, a leader in the Fulton Heights community near the North Mount alley where the 5-year-old boy shot himself. “Black people think black folks don’t have power,” he said. "People don’t believe they can change anything in Baltimore, let alone when it comes to president.”

Bailey doubts the Russians added much to some residents’ feelings about their city already. “The police are corrupt,” he said. “The system is screwed up at City Hall.”

Maryland’s legislative efforts to make such Russian disinformation harder ran afoul of the courts, which killed the state’s Online Electioneering Transparency and Accountability Act. The law sought to require news publications and social media platforms to develop public databases with details about political ad purchasers.

A group of news organizations, including The Post, challenged the portion of the law that applies to digital publishers, arguing that the First Amendment says the government can’t force anyone to publish something they don’t want to publish, in this case the databases. It also said there was a lack of evidence that Russian interference was accomplished through paid advertising on news sites. In January, a federal court agreed and blocked enforcement of those provisions. Maryland has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is expected to hear arguments in October.

Cummings said Maryland residents should prepare for more efforts to increase racial tensions. “The lengths that Russia is willing to go to in order to attack our democratic systems have become extremely clear,” he said. “Their attempts to leverage racial tensions in Baltimore to encourage people not to vote only highlight the need for immediate action to protect our elections.”

Chinonso Maduforo contributed to this report. Aljas, Gelman and Maduforo are journalism students at the University of Maryland. Priest is a Washington Post reporter and their professor.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lucan Way’s name. It has been updated.