EXCLUSIVE: Website targeting black Americans appears to be elaborate Russian propaganda effort

The mystery of Black Matters US.

The "Black Matters US" site claims to be for African-Americans, but who actually runs it? Illustration by Diana Ofosu
The "Black Matters US" site claims to be for African-Americans, but who actually runs it? Illustration by Diana Ofosu

In mid-September, shortly after Facebook and Twitter had removed hundreds of accounts attributed to Russian operatives, a statement appeared on the White House’s petition site. Created by “F.B.,” the petition called to “[p]rotect the rights of minorities in Social Media,” complaining that “Facebook, Twitter and Instagram suppress the rights of African American minority by systematically censoring the black free speech [sic].” As evidence, the petition pointed to a handful of “African American pages” recently taken down, including the “Blacktivist” and “WilliamsandKalvin” accounts outed by CNN and The Daily Beast, respectively, for their ties to Russia.

The petition, however, listed one other Facebook page taken down: “blackmattersus.mvmnt,” which the petition described as one “of the most popular public pages among the young African Americans.” An Internet archive search reveals that the page, which hasn’t been covered elsewhere, was known as “Black Matters US.”

Like the other accounts revealed thus far, the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for “Black Matters US” have all been removed. Unlike other accounts unveiled as Russian, though, “Black Matters US” took its operations beyond social media and attempts to organize on-the-ground protests.

“Black Matters US” maintains its own news site, describing itself as a “nonprofit news outlet” that came into existence because “we are witnessing the changes in American society that equal to ‘Civil Rights Movement’ resulted in Long hot summer of 1967 [sic].”

Moreover, the “Black Matters US” site links to a podcast the site put together, known as “SKWAD 55.” The podcast – which, according to “Black Matters US,” provides “strong Black voices” and “[d]elightful music from the streets strait to your hearts! [sic]” – further maintained its own Facebook and Instagram accounts, which have also since been removed, as well as a Tumblr account that posted, among other things, descriptions of Hillary Clinton as “Satan’s daughter,” “The root of all evil,” and “Himmlery aka (‘Death for Dollars’) – ‘The Benghazi Bullshitter.’”

“Black Matters US” also maintains a Google+ account – which included a post calling Bernie Sanders “the only [candidate] who really cares about people” – and a YouTube account that featured, among other things, a clip calling for viewers to join a #HillaryClintonForPrison2016 flashmob, with the video’s subject torching a piece of paper that says “Hillary Clinton fuck u!!!”

The images posted on the “Black Matters US” Facebook page maintained the same style as the other Russia-linked accounts discovered thus far, including stilted English and identifiable watermarks. And themes pushed by “Black Matters US” parallel other accounts revealed as run by Russian operatives.

Facebook did not respond to repeated questions from ThinkProgress, and a Twitter spokesperson told ThinkProgress they are “unable to comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons.” Given the evidence, though, it appears that “Black Matters US” may present the first instance of an attempt at growing beyond social media, or organizing on-the-ground protests, among foreign operatives running fake accounts in the U.S. – especially given that “Black Matters US” promoted, among other things, a Sept. 2016 rally in Cleveland organized by the Russia-linked “Blacktivist” account.

Anonymous writers 

None of the Russia-related accounts previously uncovered – including “Secured Borders,” “Heart of Texas,” and “LGBT United” – maintained stand-alone outlets pushing coverage of their respective topics. With its domain registered through a proxy in Nov. 2015, the “Black Matters US” site claimed that it had a roster of seven writers on its staff, including Tylissa Hide and Jake Dubois. A search didn’t turn up any writings at other publications from the authors listed. (That said, like other accounts – including one discovered by CNN – one of the “writers” working at “Black Matters US,” listed as “Yan Big Davis,” appeared to sell merchandise publicly. The website through which Davis sold his merchandise declined to pass along contact information, or information on how much merchandise was sold.)

Only one writer biography on the “Black Matters US” site contained any identifiable information. According to “Black Matters US,” a writer named Crystal Johnson interned “with the local NBC affiliate WEYI.” A spokesperson for WEYI told ThinkProgress they have no record of anyone by that name working there.

A Twitter feed for a “Crystal Johnson” registered in Dec. 2015, however, was recently suspended. According to Google Cache, the feed has posted material with #BlackLivesMatter hashtags, including at least one that generated thousands of retweets.

There were a handful of individuals identified on the “Black Matters US” YouTube page, helping promote material from the site. But only one individual, Nolan Hack, was identified outright on a video as an official member of “Black Matters US.” During the clip, Hack – who calls himself a “Black revolutionary activist” on Twitter – described the differences between “Black Matters US” and Black Lives Matter. “We’re a little more different because we’re a little more radical,” he said. “The name can get confusing. I think it’s safe to say we’re both fighting for the same thing, and we’re both fighting for a good thing.”

When contacted via email, Hack said he was “no longer with Black Matters,” and declined to provide contact information for “Black Matters US.” He didn’t respond to further questions. Another rapper who contributed a video to “Black Matters US” told ThinkProgress he only communicated with the site via email and Instagram, adding that he didn’t know why the page’s social media accounts had been removed.

Political leanings

The “Black Matters US” site, which stopped posting in September, broke its coverage into multiple sections, including “policy brutality,” “racism,” “entertainment,” and “your voices,” among others. Much of the material, including within the “meetups” section, appears user-generated, allowing the site to effectively act as something of a posting board for upcoming events. One of those events was a Cleveland rally organized by the Russia-linked “Blacktivist” account.

“Black Matters US” helped promoted material from the “Blacktivist” account – which was recently revealed to be Russian.

Promoting such events “is an interesting way for them to start to connect and get possibly inroads with local, actual organizing groups,” Melissa Ryan, founder of the Factual Democracy Project, told ThinkProgress. “I think that’s one of the things that’s been missed about this online-to-offline stuff that you see with a lot of this presumed Russian propaganda, is part of it is they seem to be trying to build trust with local groups, not just fan outrage but also get themselves established within these communities.”

The site also pushed a notable stream of anti-Clinton material, including describing Clinton as a “Candidate For the Corporate Elite” and asking if “The Clintons [are] Playing Their Usual Election Tricks On Blacks[.]”

Another post from 2016 praised the far-right activist Dinesh D’Souza for a documentary on Clinton, describing D’Souza’s film as “indeed ‘a must watch’ documentary” that will “bring the hidden truth in the USA politics to light.” Concluded the post, “we recommend our readers to make copies of this movie, which will help them and their friends make the right decision on the Election Day, especially in view of the fact that Hillary Clinton is already not in the good books of the Black community to be voted as President of the United States of America.”

Rather than pushing Donald Trump’s candidacy, however, the site highlighted and praised the campaigns of Sanders and Jill Stein. One post called Sanders “a man of true morals and values,” while another said Ajamu Baraka, Stein’s vice presidential candidate, was a “Black hero” who “has fought for Black freedom.” The post also described Baraka – who has claimed that the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine was a “false flag” operation against Russia – as “an internationally recognized … geopolitical analyst.”

Branching out

While the “Black Matters US” Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts have all been removed, its YouTube and Google+ accounts, both of which went live in February 2016, remain up. (As the Google+ header photo awkwardly reads, “I didn’t believe the media – so I became one.”) Like the other accounts, broken English runs through the text accompanying the posts. One video also illustrates the confusion about whether the site is pronounced “Black Matters us” or “Black Matters U.S.”

While many of the videos are repackaged clips of police brutality, one video shows the “Official BlackMattersUS Music Video.” The description illustrates the kind of language found through the various “Black Matters US” verticals: “Dear subscribers, we are glad to present you our new video with a great new song ‘Body Reace Mix’ which was recorded by @roughtheruler especially for @blackmattersus! Just listen to the words and watch the video, it really has sense! … Just let’s never give up!”

 

One original video also exhorts viewers to join in a flashmob to support a series of former activists currently jailed for the murder of a police officer. Notably, the narrator of this original video speaks in a clearly non-American accent – much like the actors behind the “Williams and Kalvin” account recently identified as backed by Russian operatives.

The host of the “SKWAD 55” podcast – whose posts, like those mentioned above, also contained a unique watermark and similar thematic elements – also spoke with a non-American accent, identifying himself only as “your boy, DJ Makunzie.” While the podcasts appeared to be mostly music, one episode exhorted listeners for a nationwide protest last October, while another episode called for African-Americans to form an “independent authority.”

There was one other aspect of “Black Matters US” that separated it from other accounts unearthed thus far. On the site, which didn’t feature any advertisements or offers of paid subscription, users could make donations via PayPal. Requests for comment sent to the email address associated with the account went unanswered.

While all signs point toward “Black Matters US” – including the stylistic and thematic overlap with the other sites already unveiled; the timing and the watermarks; and the fact that, like other accounts revealed, it aimed at inflaming racial tensions in the U.S. – being part of a broader operation of fraudulent accounts, the social media giants have thus far failed to confirm or deny whether “Black Matters US,” and “SKWAD 55” alongside, were part of the Russian operatives’ portfolio. “I think it’s maddening,” Ryan said about Facebook’s reticence to share its findings. “The public is owed some serious transparency.”

Thankfully, with the House Intelligence Committee saying it will reveal the Russian Facebook ads shortly, we may soon have answers. Until then, though, the petition remains on the White House site – and “Black Matters US” remains up as a website that is “working for you to know the reason and the effect of what is really going on.”