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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

What do you do when you get emailed by a Russian troll?

In 2016, some New York City activists were

In 2016, some New York City activists were contacted by employees of a website affiliated with the Internet Research Agency -- a Russian-backed firm that's been indicted by Robert Mueller. Photo Credit: Peter Soeller

“Do you participate in the protest movement nowadays?” the email began.

It was July of 2016. The message was sent to Peter Soeller, who photographs protests and had documented actions in NYC streets that summer after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively. Soeller, 25 and living in Brooklyn, replied to the email seeking protest photos or video that came from a man with a curious email signature:

Yan Big Davis

a freelance journalist

Black Matters

A website that wasn’t it appeared to be

It wasn’t until recently that Soeller found out more about Black Matters, a website reportedly linked to the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency that was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last week.

Last week’s indictments make the case that Russians went to great lengths to sow division in the American political process and ultimately support President Donald Trump’s campaign. The most recent indictments underscore an extensive campaign to troll on social media that also spilled out into the real world, with sometimes strange results.

That includes Soeller’s bizarre experience of an escalating series of bad-grammar contacts from Yan Big Davis, from social media messages to email to phone.

When Soeller agreed to chat, things got even stranger. “The guy’s accent sounded foreign,” he said. “Like an African national.” Or maybe like someone “trying to do an impression” of an African national.

A lengthy and much-cited October investigation by Russian magazine RBC linked Black Matters to the shadowy IRA. Attempts to contact Black Matters were not returned. The email that contacted Soeller no longer works and the website has not posted new articles since the RBC magazine story was published.

In his messages Davis also requested interviews and articles from Soeller, often with strange phrasing: “do you need some help to realize it,” Davis wrote in July regarding a story about protests in NYC.

He also repeatedly urged Soeller to help publicize causes such as the case of Jerome Smith, a longtime death-row prisoner in Alabama: “Could you pay attention and share with you friends?”

The aggressive emailing eventually “rubbed me the wrong way,” says Soeller, and he stopped responding after a few back and forths.

Other activists in NYC reported being contacted by Davis or Black Matters, too, for information about or help publicizing events in NYC, such as a February 2016 protest concerning American “genocide & human rights violations of Natives and blacks.”

Soeller shared screenshots of emails he exchanged with Davis. Other messages described to amExpress weren’t retrievable because social media accounts for Black Matters have been deleted.

The Mueller indictments do not reference Black Matters by name, but they mention several NYC protests with which Internet Research Agency was involved, such as a “Trump is NOT my President” rally held in New York after the election.

That event is a good example of the limited effect that social media trolls likely had on actual boots on the ground in NYC: Plenty of New Yorkers didn’t need any encouragement to go out in the streets to protest Trump in November as part of an action that was supported by many groups.

The actual Black Lives Matter movement, too, spread widely and organically without the belated support of Black Matters, particularly in NYC.

A trust problem

In decentralized movements such as BLM, some unwitting protesters may have been pulled into the orbit of sites like Black Matters, as early Occupy Wall Streeter Micah White has explained of his own experience with Davis.

But the attempts at subterfuge also have activists looking over their shoulders, never sure in a chaotic moment if people are who they say they are. That makes it harder to build a cohesive protest movement, even if the actual subterfuge was minuscule. Another casualty, then, of Russian meddling.

Soeller remembers that summer as a busy one, as he went from New York to Cleveland and Philadelphia for the political conventions, in touch via email and text with all sorts of people asking about and participating in political actions.

He says that he’s a little annoyed with himself for going with Davis as far as he did, which wasn’t much farther than an interview, but above all else it was an extremely strange experience even in a chaotic summer.

“This is just some new information warfare,” he says, an attempt “to stir the pot.”

“It’s just wild.”

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