Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert American politics through social media just reached new levels of duplicity after it reportedly recruited two YouTubers as part of a propaganda campaign, apparently targeting African-Americans.
According to the Daily Beast (WARNING. Original article contains profanity.), two YouTubers calling themselves “Williams and Kalvin,” were allegedly hired as misinformation agents by the Kremlin. The two black men purportedly had accounts spanning the social media universe from YouTube to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The men allegedly used these social media platforms in an attempt to discredit Bill and Hillary Clinton by promoting some decidedly outrageous claims. According to the “activists,” they supported President Donald Trump and the Clintons are “serial killers and rapists.” They also said that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was funded by Muslims.
The disinformation duo’s efforts were eventually foiled when it was discovered that their social media accounts were linked to the Russian government, according to the Daily Beast. Facebook and Twitter promptly suspended those accounts back in August. The Daily Beast also reported that the Williams and Kalvin Facebook page had 48,000 fans before it was deleted.
A search of YouTube turned up results for an account with more than 100 short videos and less than 300 subscribers. YouTube has since taken down the account, and links to its videos are no longer active. The channel was a collection of commentaries on various subjects, ranging from police brutality to racial bias toward African-Americans in the criminal justice system. However, a closer review of some of the videos on the channel raises questions about the true nationality of the two men.
Although the men appeared to be fairly fluent in their heavily-accented English, they did not seem to have a working knowledge of the physical locations they talked about and were also unfamiliar with everyday American terminology. An example of this was how one of the men referred to NBA player Lebron James as “the best basket player of the year,” as cited in the Daily Beast article.
There was also nothing on the walls or in the room where the videos were made that could be linked to any geographic location. Interestingly, the men claimed that their hometown was Owerri, Nigeria, but claimed they now lived in Atlanta, Ga. Attempts to contact their Facebook followers were met with no response, according to the Daily Beast. It should also be noted that Nigerian individuals have been previously linked to email scams that proliferate on the internet.
It is now known that Russian operatives used social media to influence American voters during the 2016 presidential election, but what makes this different is the use of a video social media forum. The Williams and Kalvin incident appears to be the first known instance of Russia recruiting live people in such a fashion, although it is questionable whether the men actually live in the U.S.
This YouTube channel and its content were also crafted specifically to influence African-Americans. Previously, Russian agents posing as Americans and “bots,” — artificial intelligence software programmed to mimic a real person — were deployed in chat rooms and discussion threads targeting so-called “alt-right,” and white supremacist groups with fake stories.
This is yet another facet of Russian social media manipulation and its potential to influence large numbers of unsuspecting Americans. The Willams and Kalvin channel on YouTube had only garnered a few hundred views before being pulled on Monday, and it appears that none of the more than 200 subscribers reposted any of the videos. This brings into question whether or not they were actual accounts to begin with, since the page had been active since at least 2016.
Since the revelation that Russia infiltrated social media outlets to sow division among Americans, Facebook, Twitter, and several other websites, promised to do a better job at recognizing Russian propaganda accounts. However, this could prove as difficult as with their failure to prevent fake news stories from spreading after the Las Vegas shooting.
Another reason that could hamper efforts to police social media is the way some of the accounts are set up. Former FBI counter-terrorism agent, Clint Watts, pointed out how easily Russia can escape detection.
“Often, (the Kremlin) will contract out entities to do this so they can say, ‘You can’t prove that it’s us. It’s pretty routine for them to try to gain resources through third parties and contract cutouts.”
Lawmakers are currently exploring ways to prevent this kind of interference and warn social media users who might fall victim to such exploitation. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA.) is one lawmaker who wants to see changes in the way social media deals with propaganda accounts.
“It’s incumbent upon each social media company to dedicate the resources necessary to conducting their own robust internal investigations about how Russians may have used their platforms to sow misinformation and propaganda during the 2016 election, and to work with Congress to put in place standards and safeguards to prevent the Russians or other bad actors from doing the same thing again in the future,” Warner said.
[Featured Image by Isaac Brekken /Getty Images]