Since 1994, Charles Stamps has organized the MLK Grande Parade, an annual march in Houston. But right now, the January event is getting an unusual signal boost: from BlackMattersUS.com, a website that largely looks like a hub of racial-justice activism but is in fact the creation of Kremlin-funded trolls who attempted to intensify heated American issues during the 2016 election and have continued to do so in the year since.
“I think it’s a load of BS. My name is Charles—it’s not comrade,” Stamps told me Monday when I called him, informing him for the first time that BlackMattersUS was promoting his event. “I don’t appreciate it, and we certainly don’t want to be affiliated with it.”
BlackMattersUS describes itself as a “nonprofit news outlet that delivers raw and original information on the most urgent issues important to the African-American community in America,” so the listing of the Houston march and other events wouldn’t strike a viewer who came across the site as strange. But according to the independent Russian news outlet RBC, the BlackMattersUS brand is one of the most influential suites of websites and social media accounts run by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government–backed group that’s been identified by social media companies as a main culprit behind a massive troll operation that intelligence officials believe was aimed at sowing confusion during the 2016 campaign. An ad bought by the BlackMatters Facebook page, which had amassed more than 223,000 users, was released by the House Intelligence Committee last week following a public hearing with Facebook, Twitter, and Google about how Russian agents used their platforms to manipulate voters and help secure the election for Donald Trump. The Facebook page has since been shut down, along with 470 other pages Facebook identified as the work of the Kremlin-supported Internet Research Agency. But while BlackMattersUS has been shut out by the largest social media companies, its website is still running. After the site was exposed as belonging to Russian trolls, it changed its home page, which now reads, “AMA Reddit session RUSSIAN TROLLS COMING SOON.” The rest of the website, however, still impersonates a Black Lives Matter–like activism effort.
The MLK Grande Parade and five other real-life events are listed on the BlackMattersUS.com “meetups” page, which purports to list upcoming happenings across the country relevant to black entrepreneurs and racial-justice advocates. Stamps’ name and contact information are listed on the site, as well as a link to the official MLK Grande Parade’s website below a painting of Houston’s skyline. “I don’t particularly like the city skyline. I think Houston is much prettier than that,” said Stamps, when he first saw the listing after asking what he needed to do to get it removed.
“It’s completely shocking to me,” said Danielle McGee, a health care professional and entrepreneur based in Nashville, Tennessee, who learned Monday that her New Year’s Eve event last year had been scraped by the Russian troll operation and repurposed on the BlackMattersUS event page. Last year, McGee organized the Nashville Black Professionals Group NYE Celebration. BlackMattersUS has relisted McGee’s event as though it is happening this December.
“It makes me question why they specially would have chosen my event. I don’t know if there was something specific to Nashville. I just don’t know,” McGee told me. “I am just shocked and appalled because I don’t want anything to do with anything that helped to get Donald Trump elected,” McGee said. McGee’s and Stamps’ events appear to have been used by the propagandists to make the faux-activist website appear more realistic: Instead of writing descriptions for fake events, the website’s creators may have simply scanned Facebook and other sites for actual events created by black organizers.
The Russian disinformation campaign that blossomed in the run-up to the 2016 election was wide-ranging and often focused on amplifying issues of interest to the far right, and it had a particular focus on U.S. racial tensions, which it apparently sought to intensify on both sides. One of the Russian-made Facebook ads shared with Congress included a black woman firing an unloaded rifle, which investigators reportedly think may have been an attempt to stoke fears with whites and encourage violence. But it also sought to put black Americans further on edge: Another ad included a photo of a 1968 Black Panther rally captioned with the words “never forget that the Black Panthers, group formed to protect black people from the KKK, was dismantled by us govt but the KKK exists today.” Blacktivist, another large Facebook and Twitter faux-activist operation controlled by the Internet Research Agency, even called for a march in Baltimore and communicated with a local reverend who questioned whether those behind the Blacktivist account were even located in Baltimore. The account’s administrators admitted they weren’t local but added, “We are looking for friendship, because we are fighting for the same reasons. Actually we are open for your thoughts and offers.”
“We had no idea,” said Natalyn Randle, the CEO and founder of Black Business Women Rock, a conference and network of black female entrepreneurs whose Nov. 17 event this year was used by Russian agents for content on the BlackMattersUS meetup page. Organizers of another event, “Black Girl Passion Chicago Experience,” a black women’s empowerment event, also told me in a Facebook message that they didn’t submit their event to the fake activist site. Still, the Chicago organizers did say that they noticed the listing and that they are “grateful for that avenue of promotion.” The organizers didn’t respond to follow-up requests to further discuss the origins of BlackMattersUS. Two other meetups on the page are for two “Black Restaurant Week” events in Washington and New Orleans. I contacted the organizer listed on those events but did not hear back.
Everyone I spoke to on the phone wanted to know how to get their information off the Russian operatives’ site but had reservations about engaging with the trolls. I emailed the domain registrar, Internet.bs, and hosting provider, Cloudflare, of BlackMattersUS.com to ask whether the outed Russian troll website was in violation of their terms of service and whether it would be removed. Internet.bs told me to contact Cloudflare and added that if it did remove the site, it would only be a “temporary resolution” and that it’s “not reflective in value of the risk associated with the act of interrupting” the domain name service. “By registering another domain with another Registrar any registrant can reinstate their content within a matter of minutes,” Internet.bs said. Cloudflare hasn’t responded yet.
But Cloudflare may have set a precedent for itself earlier in August when it removed security protection for one of its clients at the time, the Daily Stormer, after that website made headlines for helping organize the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Likewise, the Daily Stormer’s domain registrar, GoDaddy, booted the website off its service, too, after the Charlottesville rally turned violent. Stormfront, one of the oldest and largest online forums for Nazis and white supremacists, also was booted offline in August after Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a series of letters to Stormfront’s domain provider, Network Solutions, arguing the Nazi website violated the company’s usage policies prohibiting bigotry.
Internet.bs may have a point, since Stormfront is back online, but that doesn’t mean that losing its original domain services made life easy for the racists who run the site. No doubt few would lose sleep if Russian trolls had to deal with a similar hassle.