One day after the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe, in the midst of protests
fueled by dissatisfaction with the response to racist incidents on the Columbia campus, rumors began to bubble on Twitter: The KKK was in town.
But those rumors were false — and encouraged by a Twitter troll whose activity indicates it was actually part of a Russian-linked troll campaign that utilized a strategy similar to the one deployed in the U.S. during the 2016 election.
That's the shocking conclusion reached by U.S. Air Force officer Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, director of operations for the 20th Bomb Squadron, who authored an analysis
titled “Commanding the Trend: Social Media as Information Warfare”
for the recently published winter edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly
On November 11, Prier himself put on blast the Twitter account @Fanfan1911. At the time, the account was using the name "Jermaine" and had recently tweeted a photo of a black child's badly bruised face with the warning, "The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!"
That photo of the "little brother," however, had been lifted from a year-old news report of a 14-year-old shoplifting suspect who had been tased in the face by police in Ohio.
The original tweet appears lost to time (so far we've been unable to locate a screenshot). But according to Prier's report, it was retweeted hundreds of times before the hoax was exposed. Prier writes, "Jermaine and a handful of other users continued tweeting and retweeting images and stories of KKK and neo-Nazis in Columbia, chastising the media for not covering the racists creating havoc on campus."
The spread was aided by 70 bots, reports Prier, as well as the tactical use of Twitter's "trending topics" feature and the hashtag #PrayforMizzou.
"These bots also used the trend-distribution technique," Prier writes, using within their tweets all the hashtags trending at that time, not just #PrayforMizzou. With retweets from real people who were watching the hashtag and duped by the false info, the tweets garnered thousands of retweets within minutes.
Writes Prier, "The plot was smoothly executed and evaded the algorithms Twitter designed to catch bot tweeting, mainly because the Mizzou hashtag was being used outside of that attack. The narrative was set as the trend was hijacked, and the hoax was underway."
Indeed, that news spread quickly on November 10, to the extent that some professors cancelled classes
. Complicating matters was the fact that real threats were
being made against black students. Two college students
, neither enrolled at Mizzou, were arrested days later
for making threats over social media.
The rumor of the KKK's presence, though, fueled students' fears that the violence wasn't constrained to the internet.
Prier's analysis notes that Payton Head, then-president of the Missouri Students Association, further amplified the rumor, going as far as claiming that the KKK "has been confirmed to be sighted on campus."
Head later deleted the Facebook post and issued an apology
, stating that he'd been misled by "multiple incorrect sources." Now it looks like one of those may well have been a Russian, bent on mayhem.
So, what's the Russia angle here? Prier's report doesn't expose a clear line between the now-suspended @Fanfan1911 account and the shirtless, Democracy-undermining menace to the east. Rather, Prier traces the account's activity, arguing that it fits the pattern of a Russian troll network, aided by bots, that attempts to hijack Twitter's "trending topics" algorithms and drag attention to issues important to Russian interests.
For instance, after the Mizzou protests subsided, the account changed its name and profile photo from a young black male to the image of a German iron cross. "Jermaine" became "FanFan" and began tweeting in German about Syrian refugees, with an angle of consisting of "anti-Islamic, anti–European Union, and anti-German Chancellor Angela Merkel." These subjects, writes Prier, corresponded to Russia's efforts to propagandize across Europe.
Now, it's worth noting that it's not clear whether @Fanfan1911 invented the rumor that the KKK was marching through Mizzou, or if the account merely capitalized on what Prier characterizes as "an underlying fear and an existing narrative that they were able to exploit."
The latter possibility wouldn't be unprecedented for Russian trolls. In 2016, Russian trolls managed to incite both a protest to "Stop The Islamization of Texas" and a counter-protest
In any case, the fact that an intentional hoax managed to successfully terrify students on Mizzou's campus while simultaneously providing ammunition
to critics of the protests' non-hoax goals just shows how dangerously effective troll tactics can be.
You can read Prier's full report here
. The Mizzou material begins on page 68.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com