Russia's Islamophobic fake news trolls are doing Putin's dirty work

Russia's Islamophobic fake news trolls are doing Putin's dirty work
7 min read
12 Mar, 2018
Comment: From Dagestan to the USA, to the UK, Putin is manipulating Islamophobic fake news to further his agenda, writes CJ Werleman.
'The Kremlin set up thousands of fake social media accounts' writes Werleman [Getty]
Much has been made of Russia's use of fake news to weaponise social media for the purpose of advancing its anti-democratic, anti-NATO, and pro-authoritarian agenda, described as "modern information warfare". 

Less, however, has been made of the Russian government's efforts to demonise both Islam and Muslim communities around the world, in order to advance its foreign policy objectives. Even less attention has been given to the deadly and genocidal consequences of this disinformation.

"Facebook has been bad for Myanmar," a Rakhine village leader told The New York Times, explaining how social media has been manipulated by those who seek to benefit by pushing anti-Rohingya Muslim propaganda. "Young people are using their smartphones a lot. They don't see with their eyes; they just see with their phones."

The violence that was unleashed against Rohingya Muslims by Buddhist extremist groups, operating in cahoots with Myanmar security forces, did not just spring out of nowhere in late 2016. Genocide never does. All genocides begin first with wordsl; the violence comes later.

In this case, the words came in an endless stream of Facebook and Twitter posts that are all too familiar to those who either study Islamophobia or those who are the victims of it.

The US public is being influenced with further anti-Muslim hysteria and propaganda

Thousands upon thousands of posts falsely accused the Rohingya of carrying out a secret plot to carve out a separatist Islamic emirate or province, enact Sharia and kill the Buddhist majority. Others accused claims of "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya to be the part of a western government led conspiracy.

These echo the kind of claims leveled against Muslim minority populations in China, India, Europe, United States, Australia and elsewhere by political entrepreneurs who lever ultra-nationalistic sentiments to scapegoat the 'Other' as a dangerous threat.

So it's not at all surprising that these efforts are increasingly tracing back to a dominant source: Russia.

Myanmar's military has "Internet units trained by Russia, and one theory is that the army may be behind part of the social media campaign against the Rohingya," writes  Nick Kristof in The New York Times.

Russia has worked closely with the Myanmar military since the 1990s, and continues to provide helicopter-gunships and Russian military advisors in the midst of Myanmar's effort to ethnically cleanse 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims. It is therefore somewhat likely that Russia would also share its new technological and geopolitical weapon; online troll farms.

"The budding bilateral relationship has grown beyond arms and training," observes  The Asia Times. "From a soft power perspective, the Russian language is now being taught at the Yangon University of Foreign Languages and a Russian cultural centre will soon be opened in Yangon.

The Russian geopolitical playbook here is quite simple to decipher: Create internal violence by whipping up fear of Muslim minority, and then capitalise on said violence

"From a hard one, Russia has seized on United States and European Union imposed arms embargoes still in place against Myanmar at a time its military aims to rapidly reduce its reliance on Chinese armaments."

In case you missed it, the Russian geopolitical playbook here is quite simple to decipher: Create internal violence by whipping up fear of Muslim minority, and then capitalise on said violence by selling arms and establishing closer bilateral ties at the expense of a rival great power.

Putin's Russia has levered its new hybrid form of information warfare by playing on Islamophobic tropes and capitalising on negative sentiments towards Muslims in the West, in order to further its foreign policy objectives in Syria.

When Russia began its aerial assault of Aleppo in late 2016, the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as the White Helmets, began compiling and releasing footage of civilians killed and injured in the onslaught.

As international condemnation turned on the Kremlin, it devised a strategy to distract and deflect attention away from its war crimes. Knowing many in the West are susceptible into believing any bearded Arab or Muslim man is a "terrorist", it launched an online propaganda campaign to smear first responders in rebel-held territory to be members of al-Qaeda, accusing their verified footage of being western led "regime change" propaganda.

The Kremlin set up thousands of fake social media accounts to portray its posts to be emblematic of typical Muslim American attitudes and beliefs

Last month, an investigative report produced by The Guardian pointed to research conducted by a professor at Indiana University using a tool called "Hoaxy", which tracks the spread of disinformation online.

It shows how online content about the White Helmets is generated by just a "handful of sources", akin to a "factory", and typically started in Russia. The analytics firm Graphika - which has spent years studying a range of Russian generated disinformation campaigns online - found "evidence of coordination of timing and messaging around significant events in the news cycle relating to the White Helmets".

When I interviewed Syrian author and activist Robin Yassin-Kassab, he told me that this kind of Russian coordinated propaganda "facilitates the gas attacks, hospitals bombings, sectarian cleansing, and so on, while also contributing to the general demonisation of Muslims and Arabs in our culture".

Read more: Vile 'punish a Muslim' points-scoring letter circulated across UK threatening to 'torture and butcher Muslims'

Russia also mobilised Islamophobia during the 2016 US election in order to create further ill-feeling towards Muslims for the purpose of helping Trump win the election.

The Kremlin set up thousands of fake social media accounts, including one Facebook group identified as United Muslims of America, to portray its posts to be emblematic of typical Muslim American attitudes and beliefs.

It pushed memes that claimed Hillary Clinton admitted the US "created, funded, and armed" al-Qaeda and IS, according to report published by The Daily Beast, and purchased advertisements to promote nationwide political rallies for Muslims only.

"Kremlin-backed trolls did all this while simultaneously using other accounts to hawk virulently Islamophobic messages to right-wing audiences on Facebook, such as an August 2016 Twin Falls, Idaho rally demanding, 'We must stop taking in Muslim refugees,'" note the authors of The Daily Beast investigation. 

"Taken together, the newest revelation of Russian propaganda on Facebook shows the sophistication of the Russian 'active measures' campaign to influence the US public."

Dangerously, the US public is being influenced with further anti-Muslim hysteria and propaganda, and thus helping to explain why hate crimes against Muslims in the United States were up 91 percent in 2017, the first 12 months after the election.

During the United Kingdom's Brexit vote, Kremlin funded social media trolls posted racist, anti-Muslim memes to whip up fears of Muslims, immigrants and refugees, and, in turn, encourage British voters to leave the European Union, while also setting up accounts pretending to be owned by British Muslims.

One such account, for example, operated under the Twitter handle @JihadistWife. One tweet read, "European diversity is too racist! You need Islamic one!"

A Kremlin-backed online troll identified as @SouthLoneStar also intentionally provoked outrage against British Muslims when it tweeted a doctored photo of a Muslim woman apparently 'ignoring' victims of an IS inspired attack on Westminster Bridge.

All of this is driven, of course, by the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who until 1999 was a "relatively obscure political functionary".

Putin, however, deployed Islamophobic tropes and a "war on radical Islam" discourse to seize power when a group of Chechen militants seized several towns in Dagestan.

"This 'invasion' gave Putin a territorial target and he responded with passion, vowing to 'wipe out' the 'terrorists' even in 'the out-house,'" observes Geaorid O'Tuathail. "This uncompromising performance secured Putin's election as President the following year."

Putin used Islamophobia to seize power.

He uses it to consolidate power, and it's being used to expand Russian state power abroad. By all accounts, it is a cheap strategy paying high dividends.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.