Joseph Andrews, one of a small group with the Rock Stone Mountain rally, waves a Confederate battle flag towards a mass of counter-protesters more than 100 yards away at Stone Mountain Park on Saturday afternoon April 23, 2016. A trove of leaked documents suggests a Russian ‘troll farm’ amplified the conflict prior to the rally. BEN GRAY / AJC

Watchdog: Russian trolls meddled at Stone Mountain protests

It was in November 2015 when I first made contact with the Kremlin.

OK, that may be overstating it. But I did speak briefly with a two-person freelance camera crew shooting footage for an outfit called Ruptly at a Confederate flag rally at Stone Mountain.

Turns out, Ruptly is a subsidiary of Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed media conglomerate often known by its initials, RT. Ruptly specializes in “high impact and viral video,” and much of its American content focuses on public demonstrations showing domestic conflict and chaos.

I had largely forgotten about my brush with Ruptly until The Daily Beast published an article this month based on leaked documents detailing the workings of a Russian “troll farm” propaganda campaign that included meddling in the Stone Mountain protests.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had been covering pro-Confederate flag rallies at Stone Mountain for months. The rallies were a reaction to calls to remove the flags from public spaces following the massacre earlier that summer of black church goers in Charleston by a white supremacist.

I was following the rallies closely because I had noticed they were moving rapidly to the extreme right. By mid-November, it was clear that neo-Nazis, Klan members and other white supremacists were running the show. This was before most of us had ever heard the term alt-right and the idea of Russians interfering in American politics seemed far fetched.

In December, the AJC ran a story examining the growing influence of racist groups in the rallies. Shortly thereafter, a coalition of those groups announced plans for an explicit white power rally for April 2016 they called “Rock Stone Mountain.”

Almost immediately, a counter-protest group calling itself “All Out Atlanta” formed, itself a coalition of protest groups like Black Lives Matter, various church groups and a bunch of rabble-rousing anti-fascist activists collectively known as antifa.

As the protest date approached, conflict seemed certain. And, according to the Daily Beast, the Internet Research Agency noticed.

The last-known home of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia. Leaked documents suggest the agency was behind fake groups like Black Matters US and meddled in the Confederate flag protests at Stone Mountain in 2016. JAMES HILL / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The IRA is a Kremlin-backed propaganda outfit based in St. Petersburg, Russia. U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller included the IRA in a sweeping indictment issued last month. Using bogus social media accounts, the IRA had targeted the U.S., including Atlanta, seeking out and amplifying our most divisive political and cultural conflicts.

But the Daily Beast’s investigation suggests the IRA went deeper into the Rock Stone Mountain rally, using the fake site Black Matters US to stir up the counter-protest, even reaching out to organizers.

An All Out Atlanta spokesman told me members of the coalition became convinced of the alleged Russian interference last fall when Facebook and Twitter were purging accounts linked to the IRA. One of those accounts was Black Matters, which had reached out before the Stone Mountain rally and offered its support.

“They emailed us and said, ‘We want to be endorsers of your event,’” said Sean Wolters.

LaJuan Williams turns away from police while taking part in a counter protest at Stone Mountain Park in April 2016. Counter protest organizers said they became aware of Russian attempts to meddle in their event last fall when Twitter and Facebook began deleting Russian false accounts. BEN GRAY / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Black Matters had a large social media audience and appeared to be politically aligned, so All Out Atlanta said yes. Black Matters amplified the counter protest, even creating its own Facebook event page.

Black Matters even sent a representative to take part in the event, but local activists were immediately suspicious. The young man flew in from Los Angeles. When local organizers picked him up at the airport, he said he had been hired to come to the event. He answered an ad on Craigslist, had his expenses paid in Bitcoin and had never met his employers.

“We thought he was an unwitting accomplice to a cointelpro operation,” Wolters said, using intelligence shorthand for “counter-intelligence program,” an undercover operation the FBI used for decades to undermine civil rights and other groups.

The All Out Atlanta spokesman said the man gave his name as Nolan Hack. Hack’s been interviewed before for his apparently unwitting association with Russian troll farms. I reached out to Hack through his Twitter account, email and by phone, but did not receive a reply.

A counter-protester is arrested by police as they try to get past police and to a white power protest at Stone Mountain Park April 23, 2016. Violent protests surrounding a white power rally at Stone Mountain caused officials to shut down public attractions at the park. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A couple of dozen white supremacists showed up for Rock Stone Mountain, but hundreds of counter protesters flooded into the park, some clashing with police, lighting fireworks and causing minor damage to the park.

Ruptly was at that rally too and parent company RT embedded the video in its coverage of the rally, as well as some AJC tweets. The trolls at Black Matters pivoted, putting up a post claiming “white anarchists” — not white supremacists — had sabotaged a black-led event by causing trouble.

“At that point, we decided it was either the Russians or the FBI,” Wolters told me.

Shawn said the controversy has undermined what he said was a legitimate grassroots answer to a white supremacist rally.

“Now it seems like there’s this story that we were being manipulated by a foreign government,” he said.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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