A television crew from Russia’s largest state-backed network swooped into downtown Miami two days before New Year’s Eve, 2016, on a curious mission.
RT, the network formerly known as Russia Today, was there to provide global news coverage of one of five unremarkable rallies across Florida that day aimed at turning the public against the nearly completed, $3 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline designed to carry natural gas to the state from Alabama.
What the demonstrators didn’t know was that so-called Russian internet trolls had been busy for two weeks encouraging people to turn out for the protests with posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They used phony, American-sounding identities — names such as Steven Cook and Amalie Baldwin.
Russia’s hidden hand in the Florida pipeline protests was extensive, according to sources familiar with the operations. At least eight Russian accounts, most tied to the troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, sent at least 16 social media messages excoriating the Sabal Trail pipeline or retweeting messages from one of its most prominent opponents, a frequent guest on RT. The tweets were sent to a total of more than 40,000 followers as well as anyone else who saw them via hashtags.
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The social media propaganda was part of a broad Kremlin campaign to disrupt the booming American energy industry, which seemingly overnight has emerged as a threat to Russia’s global dominance, U.S. authorities say.
Most of the Russian social media accounts came from the same St. Petersburg troll farm used in a separate, sophisticated operation to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology said in a report last month.
Sabal Trail got only passing mention in the committee’s report. But based on an analysis of data provided by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the committee found that the Russian trolls had posted, tweeted or retweeted at least 9,097 times about U.S. energy projects or environmental issues between 2015 and 2017, about half as much as their election-related activity during that span. Other accounts originating in Russia also weighed in on pipelines, climate change and similar subjects.
One December 2016 Instagram message from an account since taken down showed a photo of a flier blaring, “STOP THE SABAL TRAIL PIPELINE.” It declared the date of the protests a “state-wide day of resistance.”
That post drew a response, written in Russian, from another account. Translated, it read: “A Perfect Shot.”
The surge in U.S. oil and gas production that has quickly transformed the United States from importer to exporter stems from the drilling technology known as fracking, which combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing of shale rock.
Anti-fracking environmental groups have fought the resulting labyrinth of pipelines, arguing that fossil fuels contribute to global warming and that leakages endanger underground drinking water. They say Sabal Trail, a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy and Duke Energy, poses huge risks to Florida’s largest aquifer.
The Russians have sought to add steam to the opposition to the Dakota Acess Pipeline carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields, Sabal Trail and other pipelines needed to distribute gas both for domestic use and for compression into exportable liquefied natural gas, the House committee said.
For example, nine days before the Florida rallies, one Russian account retweeted a message from a Dakota Access foe, saying “Controversial #SabalTrailPipeline cuts thru the heart of #Florida’s springs country.”
Twitter has deleted the retweet by a Russian troll using the pseudonym Briana Ragland of this anti-Sabal Trail message:
Thousands demand #Florida stop controversial #SabalTrailPipeline https://t.co/etFUBPAfqR
— #NoDAPL Resistance (@NoDAPL_) December 10, 2016
The trolls especially focused on the involvement of the host of the Miami protest: Tim Canova, an outspoken activist who is making a second run for Congress in Broward County and who has appeared on Russian television networks at least 18 times, including during the Dec. 29, 2016, Miami protest.
Canova, in a phone interview, said the protesters “never welcomed or tried to get foreign powers to spread the word for us” and stressed that most of his appearances on RT and Sputnik, another state-backed Russian network, came on shows hosted by “real journalists,” such as former CNN talk show host Larry King.
“Should I reject interviews on RT or on Fox News because some people don’t like the messenger?” he asked. “I will say yes to just about anyone who asks me to appear.”
RT’s parent registered with the Justice Department last year as an agent of the Russian government as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election – especially its efforts to help Donald Trump win the White House. But Russia’s campaign extended beyond the election.
Somewhat ironically, Canova, a professor at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law, is running as an independent in a second bid to unseat Florida’s 23rd District congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Schultz was chair of the Democratic National Committee when hackers pirated its internal emails in 2015 and 2016. Days before the Democratic National Convention, the emails were published by the London-based transparency site WikiLeaks.
Canova later publicly challenged the party’s assertion that it had been hacked by Russians, instead pointedly – and apparently erroneously – suggesting that the culprit may have been a DNC high-tech worker, Seth Rich, who was shot to death at 4:20 a.m. on July 10, 2016 while walking his dog in northwest Washington, D.C. Canova said he has since ceased pushing that theory at the request of Rich’s family.
U.S. intelligence agencies and foreign policy experts are watching how Russia interacts with figures such as Canova. In a Jan. 10 report for Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, committee staff reported that Russia continues to try to capitalize on the activities of what it considers “useful idiots” – far left activists and politicians in the West whose agitation aids its cause, just as the Soviet Union did.
The first mention of Russia’s foray into the politics surrounding U.S. oil and gas pipelines came in a declassified, Jan. 6, 2017 report from four U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the presidential election. It said that “RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health.”
The report attributed RT’s focus to the fact that exploding U.S. production threatened the profitability of the state-backed Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, which is a leading supplier of natural gas to Europe and the former Soviet republics.
“Russia views America’s recent reversal of fortune from an energy importer to exporter as a threat to its hold on European markets,” said Stacy Closson, a nonresident fellow at Washington’s Wilson Center. She said Russia “also views America’s production of oil as a primary cause of sustained lower prices – hurting its bottom line.”
The Russian social media messages weren’t solely anti-pipeline; some favored them, consistent with Russia’s alternate agenda of sowing confusion and dissent.
While the Russian cyber operatives allegedly tricked several U.S. political activists into hosting election-related protests favoring Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the activists said trolls didn’t instigate the Sabal Trail rallies, others of which were held in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando and St. Petersburg, Fl.
Environmental leaders from across Florida “decided that it was time to have a statewide protest,” said Dylan Hansen, 26, of Satellite Beach in Brevard County.
But the trolls were quick to pick up on those efforts. By mid December, they were retweeting Canova and other protesters with automated messages known as “bots” beckoning followers to attend the rallies on the 29th. They also promoted other Sabal Trail protests in early 2017.
Hansen said activists working to make social media messages “go viral … are open to working every avenue to push the largest audience globally.”
Tampa activist Anita Stewart, a onetime Air Force intelligence officer, said she initiated the social media networks for Sabal Trail protesters, creating a Facebook page that built a following 10,000 strong.
“People could not just post on it,” she said. “Their posts had to be approved, because we had so many crazy people posting stuff all the time. … As for Russian bot accounts, I’m not saying that didn’t happen. There were a lot of accounts that would come on the Facebook group that didn’t have a real name. You can tell the names are fake. They don’t have an address. We tried to be very careful and not allow membership of those types of accounts.”
Prior to the statewide rallies, Stewart said, an RT reporter phoned her and said she would be covering the event.
“She asked me for contacts in the Miami area,” Stewart said. “I told her of a couple of people. She had a very thick accent. I don’t think anything of that really. To me, most news is propaganda anyway.”
Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2