Russia trying to stoke US racial tensions before election, officials say

Russia's primary goal is reportedly to foster a sense of chaos in the United States. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Russian government has stepped up efforts to inflame racial tensions in the United States as part of its bid to influence November's presidential election, including trying to incite violence by white supremacist groups and to stoke anger among African Americans, according to seven US officials briefed on recent intelligence.

Russia's lead intelligence agency, the SVR, has apparently gone beyond 2016 methods of interference, when operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout.

Now, Russia is also trying to influence white supremacist groups, the officials said; they gave few details, but one official said federal investigators are examining how at least one neo-Nazi organisation with ties to Russia is funded.

Other Russian efforts, which US intelligence agencies have tracked, involve simply prodding white nationalists to more aggressively spread hate messages and amplifying their invective. Russian operatives are also trying to push black extremist groups toward violence, according to multiple officials, though they did not detail how.

Russia's more public influence operations, like state-backed news organisations, have continued to push divisive racial narratives, including stories emphasising allegations of police abuse in the United States and highlighting racism against African Americans within the military.

And as social media companies more vigilantly monitor for foreign activity than they did in 2016, Russia has also adjusted its methods to evade detection. Rather than disseminate messages as widely as possible, as in 2016, Russian operatives are using private Facebook groups, posts on the online message board 4chan and closed chat rooms that are more difficult to monitor, according to intelligence officials.

Russia's primary goal, according to several officials briefed on the intelligence who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, is to foster a sense of chaos in the United States, though its motivations are under debate and difficult to decipher in the absence of high-level intelligence sources inside Moscow.

The direct effect of its interference on presidential politics is less clear, though some US officials said that Russia believed that acts of violence could bolster President Donald Trump's re-election bid if he could argue that a response to such an episode demanded continuity and that he represented a law-and-order approach.

The FBI and other intelligence agencies declined to comment on specific Russian activities. Trump administration officials were set to brief Congress behind closed doors Tuesday (March 10) to discuss election threats from Russia and other adversarial nations.

Attempts to exacerbate racial divisions are only one strand of Russia's influence operations in 2020; Moscow's intelligence agencies promote a variety of narratives and divisive issues.

But perhaps no more difficult issue exists in the United States than racial justice and privilege, and officials expressed worry that amplifying divisions among races could do the most damage to the country's social fabric.

The Russian intelligence services took note of the divisive nature of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led to the death of a counter-protester, and concluded that promoting hate groups was the most effective method of sowing discord in the United States, according to US intelligence reports described by the officials.

Some US officials believe that Russia is trying to undermine American democracy and the nation's standing in the world by driving debate to the extremes.

"One of Russia's goals is weakening institutions and the weaponisation of race is a way they can do that," said Ms Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. "A divided America is a weaker America. When we are unable to solve our challenges together, Russia is more able to flex its power around the world."

US officials are divided about whether Russia is provoking racial division to influence the presidential election. Some officials think the effort is separate from any Kremlin effort to favour Mr Trump.

But others argue that Russian intelligence officials believe their efforts could help turn out more of Mr Trump's core voters, though their understanding of American electoral politics is unclear.

US officials are also examining ties between Russian intelligence and some white supremacist groups, according to an intelligence official.

The FBI is scrutinising any ties between Russian intelligence or its proxies and Mr Rinaldo Nazzaro, a US citizen who founded a neo-Nazi group, the Base, according to former American officials. He lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is married to a Russian national, according to former government officials. The Guardian first reported his identity.

The tactics date at least to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union tried to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States.

"The most successful efforts in these kinds of interference activities are those that exploit real division," Ms Rosenberger said. "Race is certainly one in the United States."

Independent researchers continue to identify social media accounts with Russian links. Race was among the top issues that such accounts tried to foster division over, said Professor Young Mie Kim, a University of Wisconsin academic who studies political communication online. Others included nationalism, immigration, gun control and gay rights.

Prof Kim tracked posts on Instagram last fall that used tactics similar to Russian operatives' 2016 efforts and confirmed that more than two dozen were Russia-linked. Facebook, which owns Instagram, subsequently took them offline.

"Russia's trolls pretended to be American people, including political groups and candidates," Prof Kim wrote in a post for the Brennan Centre for Justice. "They tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear and hostility. Much of their activity seemed designed to discourage certain people from voting. And they focused on swing states."

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