Opinion

Renée Graham

Putin and Russian trolls aren’t the biggest threat to American democracy

Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process were released by members of the US House Intelligence committee in 2017.
Jon Elswick/Associated Press
Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process were released by members of the US House Intelligence committee in 2017.

LOGIC DICTATES that the most effective strategy for inflicting maximum damage on an opponent is to identify and target their vulnerabilities. That’s why Russia knows it can always foment turmoil by exploiting our American-made tragedy: racism.

Again, Facebook recently purged from its main platform and Instagram (owned by Facebook) more than 30 bogus accounts and pages it said were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” And again, many of those suspect pages concerned race — in particular, this weekend’s upcoming white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C.

At last year’s violent hate fest in Charlottesville, Va., Heather Heyer was killed when a neo-Nazi sympathizer reportedly rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. He has been charged with murder.

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Now Facebook officials say they don’t yet know “who may be behind this” latest round of racist pot-stirring on social media. Still, you don’t have to be Dan Coats to assume that the Russians, who attacked the 2016 presidential election and have November’s midterm elections in their sights, are probably behind this as well. What’s different is that there’s a greater effort to cover their tracks through Internet calling services and virtual private networks.

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What’s not different is the pointed focus on race and racism.

In 2016, most of the 3,500 Russia-linked ads on Facebook mentioned race or racial issues. Some, like the bogus “Blacktivist,” supported groups like Black Lives Matter, while others painted civil rights activists as threats to police and social order. One of the recently expunged pages endorsed a “No Unite the Right 2” countermarch in Washington. That garnered interest from real activists, who helped spread information about the demonstration.

Nicholas J. Cull, a University of Southern California professor and author of “The Cold War and the United States Information Agency,” told USA Today that, even in the 1950s, Soviet news media “always played up US racism.” During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the KGB even faked propaganda, supposedly produced by the Ku Klux Klan, threatening African and Asian athletes. Clearly, President Vladimir Putin of Russia continues to find uses for his background as a KGB agent.

Yet the fault here lies not only with a hostile foreign government, but within this nation as well.

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For centuries, American racism has metastasized. It’s been legalized, codified, embraced, and sustained by citizens and elected officials. Now it sits comfortably in the White House. Yes, Russians attacked our election. Yet that egregious intrusion pales when compared to the fact that more than 60 million people voted into office a man who fired racial tensions throughout his campaign. And there has been no letup during his revolting presidency.

Racism is America’s kryptonite.

Both Putin and President Trump, for whom the Russian dictator had a stated preference in the election, have this in common. They abused wounds, already flayed to the bone, with infections that still fester. They found their perfect host for what mushroomed into a full-scale virus: social media. And then they let users, on both sides of the political aisle, do the rest.

Trump has rubbed this nation’s nerves raw, and we’ve internalized one of his worse tendencies — reacting before thinking. Of course, that’s social media’s lifeblood. Whether it was the pro-police “Back the Badge” or the anti-police-brutality stance, we know those troll-farm-generated Facebook ads manipulated millions. It’s still happening, because this nation’s tolerance of racists allows it to happen.

With no foreseeable end, this wretched episode proves what generations of people of color have long recognized. Our nation’s greatest menace always exists within our own borders. Putin and his Russian trolls aren’t the most pervasive threat to American democracy. It’s white supremacy and racism.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham