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
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
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
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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