MILWAUKEE — The fires of the Sherman Park unrest in Milwaukee had barely burned out in August 2016 before Russian Twitter trolls sought political gain by stoking the flames of racial division.
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review found that Russia-linked accounts — including one named in a recent federal indictment — sent more than 30 tweets to spread racial animus, blame Democrats for the chaos and amplify the voices of conservatives like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. who were commenting on Sherman Park.
These foreign accounts started posting only hours after the unrest, getting more than 5,000 retweets at a time when residents of the neighborhood were trying to clean up and overcome fears of a renewed outbreak. This came three months before the 2016 election in which Donald Trump was elected president, thanks in part to his surprise victory in Wisconsin.
The news was an unwelcome surprise for Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, who represents Sherman Park and was present the morning after the unrest.
"To think that halfway around the world people are using this tragic series of events for partisan gain ... it's daunting. It's heartbreaking," Goyke said.
In its review, the newspaper found that Twitter accounts linked to Russia sought to boost Trump’s chances in Wisconsin and spread fake news to help a primary challenger to U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville. Their efforts ranged from amplifying a statement by Kenosha native and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to spreading a false claim that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the findings showed that Trump and Congress need to prevent further Russian meddling, saying it was "beyond belief" that America hadn't done more.
“These are enemies of the United States who are trying to sow dissension in our country and on the streets of Milwaukee," Barrett said in a statement.
Trump and allies like U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican, have retorted by saying that President Obama's administration did relatively little during the 2016 campaign and didn't seek to impose tough sanctions until December 2016.
In January, Twitter identified 3,814 accounts linked to Russia after an internal investigation, generally suspending them and removing their tweets from the Internet. So to research this story the Journal Sentinel made use of an NBC news archive of 203,000 tweets made by 453 accounts linked to Russia by investigations such those conducted by Twitter and special counsel Robert Mueller.
NBC's database contained the text of the tweets along with the numbers of retweets and favorites, but not their images. The Journal Sentinel found images of some tweets using other web archives.
Nationally, these Russian-linked accounts presented themselves as grass-roots opponents or supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter, both defending police and criticizing them. The police shooting and unrest in Milwaukee was one of several incidents they hyped in the run-up to the presidential election.
“These photos are not from Iraq ... This is Obama's America! #Milwaukee,” reads one tweet from @TEN_GOP, an account named in Mueller's election interference indictment of 13 Russian nationals last month.
This Russian Twitter account billed itself as "Tennessee GOP," leading some to mistake it for that state's official Republican Party and helping the account amass more than 100,000 followers before it was shut down.
A team that included University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Chris Wells found last month that at least 116 articles from U.S. media outlets included tweets from @TEN_GOP and other Russian-linked accounts, with the tweets usually cited as examples of supposedly ordinary Americans voicing their views. Wells said that the tweets found by the Journal Sentinel seemed similar.
"It looks very consistent with what we've seen in our research so far," Wells said.
Mueller's indictment alleges that @TEN_GOP was one of hundreds of fake accounts created by a shadowy Russian group known as the Internet Research Agency and based in a St. Petersburg office building. Officials there — some of whom were sanctioned Thursday by the Trump administration — appear to have monitored social media and American outlets like Fox News for opportunities like the Sherman Park incidents.
Unrest broke out in parts of the Milwaukee neighborhood following the Aug. 13, 2016, shooting of Sylville Smith, 23, by former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown. In the chaos, at least four officers were injured and two teenagers were wounded by gunfire. Eight buildings were set on fire and six police squad cars were damaged, with total costs estimated at $5.8 million.
By the morning of the next day on Aug. 14, tweets from Tennessee GOP and other Russian-affiliated accounts were comparing Black Lives Matter to "radical Islamic terrorists" and blaming Milwaukee's Democratic leaders for its crime rates. One of the posts got more than 1,000 retweets and several got hundreds of retweets, according to the NBC data.
"Will Obama speak out on #Milwaukee?," the account @jenn_abrams tweeted that Sunday morning. About an hour later, another troll account tweeted, "#BlacklivesMatter rioters target white people for beat down."
"#BlackLivesMatter terrorists continue to post about killing National Guard!
#Milwaukee," another @TEN_GOP post reads. Gov. Scott Walker activated the National Guard but troops weren't deployed to Sherman Park so no such confrontation could have occurred.
In total that Sunday, a handful of troll accounts tweeted using "#Milwaukee" 32 times, garnering 5,274 retweets and 4,310 favorites.
Accounts like @rightnpr also quoted then-Sheriff Clarke, who frequently criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and campaigned on behalf of Trump. In all, Russian trolls retweeted Sheriff Clarke's tweets or referenced him hundreds of times on a variety of subjects.
"Sheriff Clarke: 'Obama's Set This Whole Country on Fire With His Race Politics'
#Milwaukee," reads one post from @TEN_GOP that received more than 700 retweets.
Tennessee GOP tweeted this same phrase with different hashtags four other times in the late summer and fall of 2016, getting hundreds of retweets each time. The trolls used it in reference to three separate September 2016 police shootings in Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.
The tweet's text appears to have been taken from a post by Fox News on July 10, 2016, that quoted Clarke.
There's no indication that Clarke, who didn't respond to requests for comment, was aware of what the Russians were doing.
On Aug. 16, 2016, Trump gave a speech in West Bend in which he spoke of the Sherman Park unrest and sought to turn black voters away from Democrats. That same evening, a Russian account imitating an American news outlet, @kansasdailynews, tweeted a quote from Trump's speech: "Trump says Clinton, Democrats have 'failed and betrayed' African-Americans after Milwaukee riots."
Three days later, @TEN_GOP praised Trump's Wisconsin visit.
"Trump went to #Milwaukee. He went to #Louisiana. He is where it hurts! He is doing Obama's job! This is leadership!" Tennessee GOP tweeted.
For community organizer Camille Mays, the Russian tweets about her Milwaukee neighborhood were just one more source of commentary she sees as inaccurate and unfair. Mays, who works with the Sherman Park Community Association, pointed to efforts since the unrest to promote economic development and add community gardens and murals to make the neighborhood more beautiful.
"I wish anybody who looked at that could see what we've done since," Mays said of the Russian tweets.
The Russian accounts tweeted dozens of times in support of Paul Ryan's GOP primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, who has been called a racist by some fellow Republicans. The trolls regularly disparaged Ryan and spread some fake news about the speaker.
The Russian-linked account @LeroyLovesUSA retweeted a post from "Rep. Steven Smith," a supposed GOP congressman from Georgia who called on voters to back Nehlen and "#DumpRyan." In fact, there is no Congressman Smith — the account is a parody.
The campaigns for Ryan and Nehlen had no comment.
Another @LeroyLovesUSA retweet from November 2015 shared a statement about Lindsey Graham, who was then still a GOP presidential candidate. Bizarrely, the tweet falsely claimed that Graham was "an adjunct professor at University Wisconsin-Milwaukee." A year later on Oct. 25, 2016, @LeroyLovesUSA urged voters in Wisconsin to "#GoVote #Trump."
The Russian trolls also amplified some statements by Wisconsin politicos such as Priebus, who was then the Republican National Committee chairman.
Quoting Priebus, @TEN_GOP tweeted, "Don’t believe the garbage you read, we’re gonna put Trump in the White House & save this country!"
As it turned out, voters in Wisconsin — and the rest of the country — would have been well-served by being skeptical of what they were reading on the Internet and social media.
Wells, the UW-Madison professor, said that even without international meddling, Americans are already vulnerable in an age of hyper-partisanship to believing and sharing misinformation.
"The problem is not isolated to Russian interference," Wells said. "It highlights problems in our own house."
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