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Russian trolls pushed rally in Buffalo - then urged blacks not to vote

WASHINGTON — As a real black activist, Kattrina Martin-Bordeaux never thought much of "Blacktivist," a mysterious group that popped up online and commandeered the promotion of an April 2016 protest at the Erie County Holding Center.

"What made me suspicious was that they came from nowhere and had no identity," Martin-Bordeaux recalled.

She was right to be suspicious.

The people behind "Blacktivist" weren't black activists. According to an indictment filed in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the "Blacktivists" were really Russian trolls, out to sow discord and help Republican Donald Trump amid one of America's most contentious presidential elections.

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That's just what they did in Buffalo.

Blacktivist's nameless operatives promoted that rally and later tried to get local African-American voters to sit out the 2016 presidential election, Martin-Bordeaux said in an interview this week.

It all started when Blacktivist appeared online about two years ago, showing an intense interest in the mysterious death of India Cummings, a 27-year-old woman who died after being confined in the Erie County Holding Center in February 2016.

Cause of death of Holding Center inmate still a mystery

Local activists organized several rallies aimed at shedding light on Cummings' death. And as they did so, people allied with Blacktivist — using fake Facebook names — contacted Martin-Bordeaux and others allied with the local branch of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"All of a sudden, this group started to reach out to us," Martin-Bordeaux recalled. "Then they began to, like, take over."

Blacktivist took to Facebook to advertise that April 4 rally, and even went so far as to pay for the literature promoting it, Martin-Bordeaux said.

Yet everything about the group seemed odd, she said. Out of the blue, the Blacktivist Facebook page had more followers than the official Black Lives Matter page, which seemed impossible to Martin-Bordeaux.

Then there was the matter of how the Blacktivists interacted with the Buffalonians.

"They began to engage me," Martin-Bordeaux said. "I would ask them who they were, and they were like: 'We can't tell you that.' "

In March of 2016, activists protested the death of inmate India Cummings outside of the Erie County Holding Center. When a similar demonstration was held a month later, federal authorities said Russian trolls had gotten involved. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A Daily Beast story last week, based on leaked documents from the now-indicted Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, offered other details of the Russian trolls' work in Buffalo.

For example, the trolls used Facebook to reach out to Dierra Jenkins, a Buffalo woman active in the local civil rights movement.

"Whoever was running that page, I thought, was from Buffalo, because they were posting stuff that was happening in Buffalo," Jenkins told the Daily Beast.

Those who went to the Blacktivist Facebook page and showed interest in the April 4 rally heard from the trolls, too. For example, when Noah Westfall, of Buffalo, messaged Blacktivist and volunteered his services for the rally, he received a stilted reply.

"Thanks for response!" the Blacktivist Russian troll said. "We need a volunteer to help us with signing the petition/printing posters."

Westfall told The Buffalo News that he exchanged several Facebook messages with the figure from Blacktivist. Westfall ended up not being able to attend the rally, only to find nearly two years later that his named appeared in the leaked documents obtained by the Daily Beast.

"At first I was like: 'Wow. No way!' " said Westfall, 26, a local musician who has a full-time job helping the handicapped.

Craig Carson, a Rochester lawyer and activist who was also named in the documents obtained by the Daily Beast, also interacted with Blacktivist before that April 2016 rally.

Carson was working with a Rochester group, Martin-Bordeaux's group and the Western New York Peace Center to organize the rally, only to find that some mysterious, nameless Blacktivists wanted to help.

They contacted him via Facebook Messenger, saying: "We'll help you promote this. We'll help you make fliers."

But Carson quickly noticed that Blacktivist's replies weren't casual and friendly. Instead, they were stilted and awkward.

"It was like talking to a robot," Carson said.

So Carson toyed with the troll he was texting with, asking him to name his favorite Prince album.

The troll passed the test, naming "Purple Rain." And the trolls were actually helpful in promoting the rally, Carson said.

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A news account of the April rally, aired on WKBW-TV, showed several dozen protesters who briefly blocked Franklin Street.

The fact that Russian trolls promoted the event didn't affect it at all, said Victoria Ross, executive director of the WNY Peace Center.

"There were a lot of people there who care about India Cummings," Ross said. "I wouldn't say they (the trolls) took it over."

Martin-Bordeaux noted, though, that the Blacktivists weren't quite done when the rally was done. They also promoted a rally in support of India Cummings in May.

And as time passed, Martin-Bordeaux — then the local head of Young Black Democrats of Western New York, now called Young Black Citizens — increasingly saw comments from Blacktivists on the Buffalo group's Facebook page.

"They would say things like: 'What have the Democrats done for you the last four years, the last 60 years', whatever," she said. "They would say: 'Show them your power by not showing up to vote.' "

Martin-Bordeaux said she sparred with some of the Blacktivists online and removed some of their comments from the Facebook page — but they still managed to have some effect.

Some activists, particularly from the Rochester area, started echoing the Blacktivist comments attacking the Democratic Party.

And when CNN first tied Blacktivist to a Russian troll farm last fall, some of those local activists insisted it could not be true, Martin-Bordeaux added.

"Here we are, little people just trying to make a little difference in our little corner of the world," she said. "And to think that Russian propagandists would have found us on social media — it's extremely hard for some people to believe."

It may seem odd that the Russian trolls decided to try to stir up trouble in Buffalo, part of a reliably Democratic state that was always sure to vote for Clinton in the 2016 election.

But the indictment Mueller filed makes it seem all of a piece. The indictment never directly mentions Blacktivist's activity in Buffalo, but it notes that Russian trolls also sponsored pro-Trump rallies in New York City both before and after the election.

In addtion, Blacktivist interfered with the November election by trying to suppress the vote for Clinton to boost Trump's fortunes. The trolls did that, the indictment said, by promoting Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

"On or about November 3, 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators purchased an advertisement to promote a post on the organization-controlled Instagram account 'Blacktivist' that read in part: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”

Looking back on it all, Martin-Bordeaux sounded especially outraged over what the trolls did in Buffalo.

"They exploited India Cummings for their own purposes," she said.

For his part, Carson said that while the Blacktivists seemed weird to him, he never figured they were Russian trolls.

"I thought it was extremely bizarre," he said. "I perceive it as otherworldly — manipulative, cunning and creative."

Westfall, the Buffalo musician who corresponded with Blacktivist, termed the trolls' involvement in Buffalo "crazy."

But he said one thing is crazier: The fact that Congress has overwhelmingly approved sanctions against the Russian government as punishment for its meddling in the U.S. presidential election — but President Trump has refused to enact them.

 

 

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