In May 2016, as Donald Trump’s campaign snowballed into a force of nature, a quiet conversation at the Kensington Wine Rooms between George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the campaign, and Australian diplomat Alexander Downer took on the distinct scent of a smoking gun. Having overindulged in the establishment’s titular offering, Papadopoulos mentioned to Downer that Joseph Mifsud — a professor with connections to Russia — had indicated that the foreign government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, instigating a push to connect Trump to Russian efforts to discredit the Democratic candidate. Downer was not the confidant Papadopoulos may have expected, and provided the tip that would kick off a clandestine FBI investigation in the coming months — one that has, at long last, come to some kind of fruition, and has the potential to re-contextualize the way we think about democracy in swing states like Ohio.
Oberlin students surely remember where they were on the night of Nov. 8 that year. As The New York Times’ probability needle indicated support for Hillary Clinton dropping beneath the 90th percentile and broadcasted maps of our country gradually reddened, a collective silence fell over campus. You could hear a pin drop — and the Times’ continued to do so until a Trump victory was all but guaranteed. Thus began a period of profound confusion in which what once was considered unusual became normal — a country governed by Twitter diplomacy from an administration with more leaks than Firelands Apartments. The disenfranchised white working class surged onto the national stage — and was abruptly robbed of its moment in the limelight by a president too money-minded to cater to the interests of his own base. The familiar cries of “lock her up” and “build the wall” splintered and diffused, catching in the throats of those who had hoped beyond hope that their vote was well-placed. In the midst of Trump and his cabinet’s maelstrom of misspeech, many on the left hoped for a way out from an unlikely figure: Robert Mueller, special counsel.
The source of that hope is Mueller’s twofold charge — first, to determine whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, and second, whether that interference involved direct cooperation with the Trump campaign. Both have been vehemently denied by President Trump, whose belief in an alternate reality as a means of ego-preservation seemed to render him impermeable to the workings of Mueller’s inquiry. But recent developments in the investigation have proven that Papadopoulos’ verbal slip was just one thread in a much larger tapestry of manipulation that extends further than the public is currently capable of knowing.
Fortunately, the Feb. 16 release of a Mueller-signed indictment detailing the illegal actions of 13 Russians has provided a window into that grand deception. At its most basic, the document describes the actions of the Internet Research Agency, described as “a Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.” Employing “hundreds of individuals … ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support” with a budget equal to “millions of U.S. dollars,” the IRA sought to target key points of tension in American communities, exploiting them to sow dissent in a country poised to split. When its operations began in 2014 — following a trip by a handful of employees to the U.S. to get a sense of the weaknesses of communities nationwide — its goals were general: defame Hillary Clinton by exploiting buzzwords and hashtags in order to prevent her from becoming president. However, the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, particularly the latter, presented an irresistible opportunity for the IRA and its puppeteering government. The agency’s methods expanded to include bolstering both far left and right candidates’ campaigns in order to mold capable challengers to Clinton’s run; agents were pushed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”
As students in Ohio, a swing state, there is one allegation in the indictment that we find particularly disturbing and believe the people of Oberlin should reflect upon and consider in future protests and political actions. The allegation details sowing political discord in Florida, also a swing state, and involved a series of July 2016 efforts connected to the Facebook group “Being Patriotic” and the Twitter account @March_for_Trump. Using stolen identities acquired during their trip to the U.S., employees of the IRA successfully organized “a series of coordinated rallies” in Florida under the name “Florida Goes Trump.” By purchasing Facebook and Instagram advertisements, as well as keeping in contact with and identifying as grassroots pro-Trump groups, those Aug. 20 rallies had what appears to be a demonstrable impact on Trump’s influence in Florida.
“Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.” This is an excerpt from an Aug. 2 message — one of many like it — sent using a fake IRA-fabricated account to “Florida for Trump,” a real Facebook page indistinguishable from those crafted by the IRA. The scope of this indictment is inherently limited to those individuals for whom Mueller was able to prove wrongdoing, but it nonetheless indicates the terrifying motive fueling the IRA’s 2016 efforts to influence the election. One doesn’t have to look too closely at IRA-sponsored tweets and posts to recognize their language — “Hillary is a Satan,” “Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists,” and, more pertinently to this community, “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison.” Though it’s unlikely that these soundbites originated from Russian efforts, they were certainly propagated by them, preying on an online sphere in which users pick up buzzwords in an instant.
As the echoes of these poisonous phrases begin to fade, we must take this opportunity to strip them away from the center of American political discourse and look at the underbelly which they served to obscure: a network of anger and distrust politically weaponized in part through manipulation by a foreign government. As a community, we were and are far from immune from these efforts and others like them; for while most of the IRA’s efforts served to bolster support for Trump, their support for candidates like Sanders and Stein cannot be ignored as irrelevant simply because we could have been affected. “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote” read a post published on the IRA Instagram account “Blacktivist.” In one instance, the IRA organized two separate rallies on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York — one in support of Trump, the other titled “Trump is NOT my President” — for the sole purpose of exacerbating political tensions in a traditionally blue state. Both sides were equally viable pawns, and it will be some time before the full impact of those exploitations is revealed.
This is a call to avoid the allure of sensationalist rhetoric; if the past year has proven anything, it’s the power of a hashtag — used for good or ill — and the catastrophic impact that can be caused by a single tweet or headline. That is precisely the power that the IRA harnessed to drive a wedge through the cracks already splitting America in two, and now, with thoughtful consideration, we can work to take that power away.