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Russian Operatives Secretly Ran Websites To Emphasize Divisive Issues In U.S.


In his reporting, Russian journalist Andrey Zakharov reached out to Americans who had been contacted by the group BlackMattersUS. He let them know that the group was actually created by Russians. One of the Americans is Conrad James. He's a 24-year-old civil rights organizer. And in September of last year, he went to Charlotte, N.C. to demonstrate against the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man killed by police there. I asked James to explain what happened soon after.

CONRAD JAMES: I had a message come in from a Facebook page, BlackMattersUS. They just asked me to speak at an event that they're having.

SHAPIRO: What kind of an event?

JAMES: It was an event - a national day of protests or peaceful protests for Keith Lamont Scott.

SHAPIRO: And did they say, we're based in North Carolina, we're a national group? They obviously didn't say, we're Russians.

JAMES: No, they did not say that they were Russian. They said that we are an organization that stands for black culture and to end police brutality. I looked them up. I said, OK, I'll get back to you. I mean, checked out their Facebook page, their Instagram, their, you know, Twitter page, looked at their website and everything.

SHAPIRO: You did your due diligence.

JAMES: Yeah. They had followers. They had an online presence.

SHAPIRO: So they checked out. And you said, OK, I'll do this. You had organized rallies before, and this one doesn't sound all that different from a typical rally.

JAMES: Right.

SHAPIRO: Peaceful speakers, a few hundred people showed up.

JAMES: Yeah, about 300, 400 people showed up. It didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary. To me, it was just being presented as a speaking engagement. And I already run a nonprofit organization myself, so I thought that, you know, this would be a great opportunity to have a different conversation to an underserved community. I mean, I can use this moment to really tell and maybe inspire people in Charlotte about systemic oppression basically.

SHAPIRO: So you organize this rally on short notice. You go from Raleigh to Charlotte. You pull it off. It seems like a success. You go back home. When do you learn that everything was not as it appeared?

JAMES: I didn't learn that until about four weeks ago. I was at my apartment and get a Facebook message from Andrey, one of the investigative reporters. I didn't really look at the message because it came in my message requests on Facebook. It's a Russian guy, you know, with a Russian name. I have no idea who he is. And the first thing - actually, I have my phone with me. Hold on. The message said that, hey, my name is Andrey. I work with rbc.ru. We're a Russian news group. And we're doing a story. And your name was on an event for BlackMattersUS. And who contacted you? And what did they ask you to do?

SHAPIRO: Well, how did you feel when you read that, when you found out that this rally you had organized was actually orchestrated by Russians?

JAMES: I honestly started - like, I was pretty amused. Like, what? What are you talking about? But I called him and, you know, he told me - he basically broke down the entire investigation in - over a period of three days. And, I mean, it was like, wow. That was mind-blowing, really.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel used?

JAMES: Used would be a pretty strong word. I mean, I would definitely feel slighted. Yes, we did our duty as, like, civil justice warriors and human rights activists. But it was instigated by Russian hackers, to say the least. I mean, they basically hacked social media algorithms to be able to produce a real-world result of real-world value.

SHAPIRO: And that doesn't freak you out a little bit?

JAMES: Oh, that definitely is the freakiest part, is that that's now possible. I mean, it's like social media plus news plus event equals, you know, whatever the outcome may be.

SHAPIRO: Is this experience going to change your approach to social justice, organizing, protesting, social media?

JAMES: I mean, yeah. I mean, I guess I'm going to have to look up the articles of incorporation now and the EIN numbers and stuff like that or, like, whatever I can find on an organization. It's like, hey, I need to know when they're founded, everything like that.

SHAPIRO: Conrad James, thanks so much for talking with us.

JAMES: Yeah, no problem. I really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: That's 24-year-old activist Conrad James describing his interaction with BlackMattersUS, a group now revealed as a front for Russians impersonating Americans on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOMESHAKE'S "GIVE IT TO ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.