By experts’ estimations, over four million people across the nation attended the 2017 Women’s March, making it one of the most sweeping single-day protests in American history. Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, the event spawned annual marches, protests and events—dozens of them helmed by Women’s March, a women-led nationwide movement—though participation proved difficult to maintain, as varying criticism and rumors of infighting and anti-semitism gave pause to potential participants. Inevitably, numbers—and enthusiasm—waned.
Now, a new report from New York Times has confirmed that a disturbing amount of said criticism, which began even before the 2017 march, wasn’t organic—it was part of a social media strategy manufactured by organizations with ties to the Russian government. As detailed by the Times, multiple teams of copywriters in St. Petersburg adopted the voices of fictional Americans and piloted a variety of repudiations of the Women’s March movement intended to sow division among feminists. Per the Times:
There was a routine: Arriving for a shift, workers would scan news outlets on the ideological fringes, far left and far right, mining for extreme content that they could publish and amplify on the platforms, feeding extreme views into mainstream conversations.
Particularly noteworthy criticisms included Black women condemning white feminism, conservative women at odds with coalition’s creeds, and most predictably, men who reduced members of the movement as “hairy-legged whiners.” Some of the more egregious examples of disavowals from accounts purporting to be Black women: “Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit,” and “A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK.” Additionally, employees of said organizations posed as transgender, poor and anti-abortion women, often likening march participants as “pawns” of Jewish billionaire George Soros.
Apparently, none of these criticism performed quite as successfully as those waged at Linda Sarsour, a Women’s March co-founder and Palestinian American activist. In the 18 months that succeeded the first march, Russia’s “troll factories” and the country’s military intelligence service curated and circulated harmful narratives about Sarsour, specifically. One hundred and fifty-two different Russian accounts stoked the online opposition of Sarsour, according to data and analysis from nonpartisan nonprofit Advance Democracy Inc. Public archives reveal that over 2,000 tweets about Sarsour came from Russian Twitter accounts.
Artyom Baranov, a trained psychoanalyst and former employee of one of the organizations, told the Times that their objective was to elicit controversy, and it certainly did. Soon after the march, Sarsour became synonymous with radical jihadism—largely, because Russian amplifier accounts flooded social media with posts accusing her of such. Many of them included phrases like, “pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim.” Naturally, right-wing accounts with substantial followings began parroting the same language—1,157 right-wing accounts, to be specific. Thousands of accounts accused Sarsour of supporting Shariah law, prompting overwhelmingly cruel hate mail, public castigation from prominent right-wing figures, and endless protests—including one that forced her brother to leave his job and later, New York City altogether.
Ultimately, the criticism—both organic and manufactured, justified and unjustified—undoubtedly compromised the movement and prompted three of the four co-founders, Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez-Jordan, to step down.
“To think that Russia is going to use me, it’s much more dangerous and sinister,” Sarsour told the Times. “What does Russia get out of leveraging my identity, you know, to undermine movements that were anti-Trump in America — I guess —” she trailed off. “It’s just, wow.”