Linda Sarsour awoke Jan. 23, 2017, logged onto the internet and felt sick.
The weekend before, she had stood in Washington at the head of the Women’s March, a mobilization against President Donald Trump that surpassed all expectations. Crowds had begun forming before dawn, and by the time she climbed up onto the stage, they extended farther than the eye could see.
More than 4 million people around the United States had taken part, experts later estimated, placing it among the largest single-day protests in the nation’s history.
But then something shifted, seemingly overnight. What she saw on Twitter that Monday was a torrent of focused grievance that targeted her. In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude.
That morning, there were things going on that Sarsour could not imagine.
More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.
One message performed better with audiences than any other.
It singled out an element of the Women’s March that might, at first, have seemed like a detail: Among its four co-chairs was Sarsour, a Palestinian American activist whose hijab marked her as an observant Muslim.
Over the 18 months that followed, Russia’s troll factories and its military intelligence service put a sustained effort into discrediting the movement by circulating damning, often fabricated narratives around Sarsour.
One hundred and fifty-two different Russian accounts produced material about her. Public archives of Twitter accounts known to be Russian contain 2,642 tweets about Sarsour, many of which found large audiences, according to an analysis by Advance Democracy Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts public-interest research and investigations.
Many people know the story about how the Women’s March movement fractured, leaving lasting scars on the American left.
A fragile coalition to begin with, it headed into crisis over its co-chairs’ association with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, who is widely condemned for his antisemitic statements. When this surfaced, progressive groups distanced themselves from Sarsour and her fellow march co-chairs, Carmen Perez, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland.
But there is also a story that has not been told, one that only emerged years later in academic research, of how Russia inserted itself into this moment.
What effect these intrusions had on American democracy is a question that will be with us for years. Already, social media was amplifying Americans’ political impulses, leaving behind a trail of damaged communities. Already, trust in institutions was declining, and rage was flaring up in public life. These things would have been true without Russian interference.
But to trace the Russian intrusions over the months that followed that first Women’s March is to witness a persistent effort to make all of them worse.
‘Refrigerators and Nails’
In early 2017, the trolling operation was in its imperial phase, swelling with confidence.
Accounts at the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg and controlled by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had boasted of propelling Trump to victory. That year, the group’s budget nearly doubled, according to internal communications made public by American prosecutors.
Under these auspicious conditions, their goals shifted from electoral politics to something more general — the goal of deepening rifts in American society, said Alex Iftimie, a former federal prosecutor who worked on a 2018 case against an administrator at Project Lakhta, which oversaw the Internet Research Agency and other Russian trolling operations.
Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money.
The job was not to put forward arguments but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.
In January 2017, as the Women’s March drew nearer, they tested different approaches on different audiences, as they had during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. They posed as resentful trans women, poor women and anti-abortion women. They dismissed the marchers as pawns of Jewish billionaire George Soros.
In the meantime, another, far more effective line of messaging was developing.
‘It Was Like an Avalanche’
The daughter of a Palestinian American shopkeeper in New York City, Sarsour had risen to prominence as a voice for the rights of Muslims after 9/11. In 2015, when she was 35, a New York Times profile anointed her as something rare, a potential Arab American candidate for elected office.
In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., featured her at a campaign event. That troubled pro-Israel politicians in New York, who pointed to her support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which seeks to secure Palestinian rights by isolating Israel. Critics of the movement contend that it threatens Israel’s existence.
Rory Lancman, then a city councilman from the borough of Queens, recalls his growing alarm as she began to appear regularly at events for left-wing causes unrelated to Israel.
The news that Sarsour was among the leaders of the Women’s March, said Lancman, a Democrat, struck him as “heartbreaking — that’s the word — that antisemitism is tolerated and rationalized in progressive spaces.”
But forty-eight hours after the march, a shift of tone occurred online, with a surge of posts describing Sarsour as a radical jihadi who had infiltrated American feminism.
Not all of this backlash was organic. That week, Russian amplifier accounts began circulating posts that focused on Sarsour, many of them inflammatory and based on falsehoods, claiming she was a radical Islamist, “a pro-ISIS Anti USA Jew Hating Muslim” who “was seen flashing the ISIS sign.”
Some of these posts found a large audience. At 7 p.m. Jan. 21, an Internet Research Agency account posing as @TEN_GOP, a fictional right-wing American from the South, tweeted that Sarsour favored imposing Shariah in the United States, playing into a popular anti-Muslim conspiracy theory.
This message took hold, racking up 1,686 replies, 8,046 retweets and 6,256 likes. The following day, nearly simultaneously, a small army of 1,157 right-wing accounts picked up the narrative, publishing 1,659 posts on the subject, according to a reconstruction by Graphika, a social media monitoring company.
At the Arab American Association of New York, the nonprofit immigrant advocacy organizationSarsour ran in Brooklyn, hate mail began to pour in.
Sarsour, worried that she had become “a liability,” stepped down from her position there that February.
Every time she thought the attacks were quieting, they surged back. “It was like an avalanche,” she said.
When she was invited to appear as a graduation speaker at the City University of New York’s graduate school of public health, the furor began weeks in advance. It caught the attention of far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, who traveled to New York for a protest.
Her graduation speech passed without incident. Then the trolls waited, it seems, for her to say or do something divisive. And that happened in early July, when, emboldened after her CUNY appearance, she urged a Muslim audience outside Chicago to push back against unjust government policies, calling it “the best form of jihad.”
In Islam, the word “jihad” can denote any virtuous struggle, but in the American political context it is inextricable from the concept of holy war. A more pragmatic politician might have avoided using it, but Sarsour was feeling like her old self.
The following week, Russian accounts dramatically increased their volume of messaging about Sarsour, producing 184 posts on a single day, according to Advance Democracy Inc.
“I mean, just imagine,” Sarsour said, “every day that you woke up, you were a monster.”
The divisions within the Women’s March existed already.
Internal disputes about identity and antisemitism had strained the group from its early days, when one of its organizers, Vanessa Wruble, who is Jewish, was pushed out after what she described as tense conversations with Perez and Mallory about the role of Jews in structural racism. Perez and Mallory have disputed that account.
In 2018, a new internal crisis was triggered by Mallory’s attendance at Saviours’ Day, an annual gathering of the Nation of Islam led by Farrakhan.
Pressured to disavow Farrakhan, she refused, though she said she did not share his antisemitic views. After her son’s father was killed, she explained, “it was the women of the Nation of Islam who supported me.”
After that, the fabric of the coalition tore, slowly and painfully. Sarsour and Perez stuck by Mallory, and before long, progressive groups began distancing themselves from all three. Under intense pressure to step down as the leaders, Sarsour, Perez, and a third co-chair, Bland, did so in 2019, a move they say was long planned.
Russian accounts boosted their output around Farrakhan and the Women’s March leaders that spring, posting 10 or 20 times a day, but there is no evidence that they were a primary driver of the conversation.
Around this time, we largely lose our view into Russian messaging. In the summer of 2018, Twitter suspended 3,841 accounts traced to the Internet Research Agency, preserving 10 million of their tweets so they could be studied by researchers. A few months later, the platform suspended and preserved the work of 414 accounts produced by the GRU, the military intelligence agency.
Russia’s exploitation of Sarsour as a wedge figure should be understood as part of the history of the Women’s March, said Shireen Mitchell, a technology analyst who has studied Russian interference in Black online discourse.
Russian campaigns, she said, were adept at seeding ideas that flowed into mainstream discourse, after which, as she put it, they could “just sit and wait.”
Others saw Russia’s role as marginal, tinkering around the edges of a necessary American discussion.
“It’s a shame that Linda Sarsour damaged that movement by trying to inject into it noxious ideas that had no reason to be part of the Women’s March,” said Lancman, the former city councilman. “Unfortunately,” he added, Russians “seem very adept at exploiting these fissures.”
Sarsour, 42, was back in her old office in Bay Ridge this past spring, five years after the first Women’s March, when she learned, from a reporter, that the Russian government had targeted her.
She is seldom invited to national platforms these days, and when she is, protests often follow. Whatever buzz there was around her as a future political candidate has quieted.
“I’m never going to get a real job” at a major nonprofit or a corporation, she said. “That’s the kind of impact that these things have on our lives.”
Data on Russian messaging around the Women’s March first appeared late last year in an academic journal, where Samantha R. Bradshaw, a disinformation expert at American University, reviewed state interference in feminist movements.
She and her co-author, Amélie Henle, found a pattern of messaging by influential amplifier accounts that sought to demobilize civil society activism, by pumping up intersectional critiques of feminism and attacking organizers.
Sarsour tried to get her head around it: All that time, the Russian government had been thinking about her. She had long had a sense of where her critics came from: the American right wing and supporters of Israel. A foreign government — that was something that had never occurred to her.
“To think that Russia is going to use me, it’s much more dangerous and sinister,” she said. “What does Russia get out of leveraging my identity, you know, to undermine movements that were anti-Trump in America — I guess —” she paused. “It’s just, wow.”
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