On Nov. 11, 2015, after “#PrayforMizzou” started to trend on Twitter in the wake of student protests over racial issues at the University of Missouri, a Twitter user with the handle @Fanfan1911 dispatched a warning.
The Twitter user’s name was listed as Jermaine. And the message was sinister: “The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!”
Attached, was a photo of a black child with a bruised face.
The report was false, and the photo was of a child beaten by Ohio police a year before. But within minutes, the tweet had been shared and retweeted, by at least 70 bots who “chastised” the media for not covering racists on campus and real people, including scared students.
Russian Twitter trolls masterminded a tweet that fueled erroneous reports that the Ku Klux Klan was patrolling Mizzou’s campus during the 2015 student protests at the University of Missouri, a U.S. Air Force officer wrote in an article on “information-age warfare” published in Strategic Studies Quarterly late last year.
The hoax was part of a calculated and government-supported effort by Russia to disrupt democracies, and a warm-up to subsequent efforts to use social media to manipulate public opinion during the 2016 presidential election.
The article, published by Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, direction of operations for the 20th Bomb Squadron, delves into how “social media is a tool for modern information-age warfare.”
The article is taken from a thesis he completed as a master’s degree candidate at the Air University for the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
According to his article, Missouri Students Association president Payton Head was also influenced by the tweet. On Nov. 11, 2015, Head warned students to stay off the streets because KKK members had been confirmed on campus. He later apologized after police stated the reports were unconfirmed, and said he did not intend to “incite more fear in the hearts of our community.”
Thousands of others interacted with the tweet.
“The plot was smoothly executed and evaded algorithms Twitter designed to catch bot tweeting, mainly because the Mizzou hashtag was being used outside of the attack,” Prier wrote. “The narrative was set as the trend was hijacked, and the hoax was underway.”
Prier wrote that the dezinformatsiya (disinformation) techniques used at Mizzou are similar to measures used during the Cold War — except they are made easier because of social media.
“The most common subcategory of active measures is dezinformatsiya or disinformation: feverish, if believable lies cooked up by Moscow Centre and planted in friendly media outlets to make democratic nations look sinister,” says Russian Federation analyst Michael Weiss in Prier’s article.
According to Prier, @Fanfan1911 changed his display name from Jermaine to “FanFan,” after fears at Mizzou subsided. The profile picture of a black man changed to the image of a German iron cross.
“The next few months, FanFan’s tweets were all in German and consisted of spreading rumors about Syrian refugees,” Prier wrote.
By the spring of 2016, the same account began tweeting in English, supporting messages from right-wing news organizations such as Breitbart.
In Sept. 2016, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to some of Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” @FanFan once again underwent a transformation.
The account became “Deplorable Lucy,” and its picture became a “white middle-aged female with a Trump logo” at the bottom.
Followers of the account increased by more than 10,000 people.
After the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, Prier said, the account joined other bots, Russian trolls and real American accounts in efforts to “drown out negative attention to Trump on Twitter.”