I Unknowingly Went to a Trump Protest Organized by Russian Agents
My understanding of protests changed after recently discovering the origins of a “Not My President” march I attended a few days after Trump’s election.
Image: Caroline Haskins
It had been four days since Donald Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 US presidential election when I found myself at a protest called, simply, “Not My President.” Without discussion, dozens of people had naturally broken out in call-and-response chants.
“Show me what dem-o-cracy looks like!”
“This is what dem-o-cracy looks like!”
The energy naturally faded and swelled. Strangers in New York City had found a palpable rhythm. I’d end up marching 40 blocks alongside thousands of people that afternoon, from Union Square to Trump Tower.
I hadn’t thought about the protest in months, until a series of releases from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence brought it back to my attention on November 1, 2017, nearly a year later. According to one release, the original Facebook event for this “Not My President” protest I’d attended had been created by BlackMattersUS, an account believed to be run by people connected to the Russian government hoping to interfere with American politics.
Thousands of people had been duped by Russian ads. And I was one of them.
The ad for the “Not My President” event was one of 14 ads released online by the Intelligence Committee, joining 15 other ads exhibited during the Committee’s open hearings. Together, the 29 releases represent just a slice of over 3,000 ads that Russian trolls purchased on Facebook and Instagram in the lead-up to last year’s elections.
The “Not My President” Facebook event page no longer exists, and it’s unclear when exactly it was deleted. Earlier this month, after the Intelligence Committee's release, I asked my Facebook friends if any of them had attended this particular protest last year. While a few friends had gone to protests earlier that week, no one told me that they were at the one I attended.
The Facebook event description was a rallying cry to hit the streets, unite in the face of hate, and resist the election of Trump. The BlackMattersUS website describes itself as a news outlet with a social activism angle for the “African-American community in America.” At the time of publication, clicking on the website’s Facebook link shows a security warning and links to information about phishing.
“We have shared the relevant information with investigators, and we are not commenting on individual Pages,” a Facebook representative told me over email.
“Not My President” isn’t an isolated case of Russian-backed Facebook events inciting real offline protest. In May 2016, Russian operatives created a Facebook event called "Stop The Islamization of Texas,” which drew protesters and counter-protesters to the streets of Houston.
Yet it wasn’t until I unknowingly attended a Russian-backed protest that Moscow’s influence on American life become real to me. Since the release of ads by the Intelligence Committee earlier this month, I’ve been scrutinizing my memories and questioning my perspective on protests in general. If this is what democracy looks like, I think it’s a troubling image.
After all, people attended the protest to demonstrate political agency and exercise their right to assembly. Personally, I was searching for a way to respond to the election that felt tangible and emotionally genuine. But if the event was organized by foreign operatives who believed they were directing protesters, does that then weaken the agency that protesters were trying to find?
The previous four days had gone by like most any others. I did my homework and went to class, where we’d discussed the significance of the election. But the conversations felt abstract. I was upset and unsatisfied.
Toward the end of the week, I believe a day or two before the event, the protest caught my eye when I looked in Facebook’s “Events” tab. I decided to attend the event alone, without RSVPing, because I didn’t want to compare my reaction to my surroundings against someone else. It also wasn’t unusual for me to fill my weekends with random Facebook events. As someone who had recently transferred to New York University, I did this to experience the city.
I wasn’t sure going to a protest would feel satisfying or productive, but at the very least, I wanted to bear witness to the election response. Protests were popping off around the country in the immediate wake of the election. It felt almost negligent to be a student journalist in New York City who hadn’t witnessed one.
The event was scheduled to begin Saturday, November 12, at noon. I arrived about an hour late, unaware that people were intending to march to Trump Tower; having only skimmed the Facebook description, I didn’t think the rally was time-sensitive.
Just outside the entrance to the subway, a couple hundred people had formed a compact knot around speakers representing at least four distinct groups, including a socialist and an Indigenous coalition representative. At about 1:30 PM, I noticed people leaking from the periphery of the crowd and walking to the northern part of Union Square. I followed them west to 5th Avenue. Only then did it dawn on me a march was on.
I wasn’t shocked. The day before, then President-elect Trump announced on Twitter that he would be visiting New York City. It's unclear whether the “Not My President” Facebook event was made before or after Trump made this announcement, but the crowd knew the former reality television personality would be staying in Trump Tower the entire day.
So I started walking quickly in hopes of joining a more congested part of the crowd, which I did in about 15 minutes. A sea of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, clogged the streets as far as I could see. Eventually, I turned and glanced in the direction I’d come from. In just half an hour, sparsely populated streets became just as tightly-packed as the streets in front of me.
The march slowed to a stop as it neared 725 5th Avenue, Trump Tower. Secret Service members had already posted up inside, and police had surrounded the entire block with barricades and stood guard outside the building’s entrance. People crushed up against one another along the barricades, amid a sustained roar from the crowd. It was a climactic end to a 40-block march.
It didn’t take long to notice my emotions didn’t match those around me. The anger of the crowd had reached fever pitch. But watching thousands of people scream, seemingly unheard, across an impassable physical barrier only made me feel deflated. It was an apt metaphor. After taking a picture, I turned down a side street and caught the subway back to my apartment.
Thousands of other people attended the “Not My President” march, so what are they making of the fact that they, too, had unknowingly been deceived by Russian trolls?
I reached out to strangers who favorited my tweet about the march to see if any of them had actually attended. Most of them hadn’t. But user @stupidamerica, who identified herself as Erin Knitis over direct message, told me she had.
Knitis said she’d heard about the event from friends, not social media. She expressed shock when I told her that the Facebook event for the “Not My President” protest was most likely created by people associated with the Russian government.
“On the one hand, I feel like I've been duped by the great Russian chaos monster,” Knitis said. “On the other, I relish every opportunity to express my first amendment rights to free speech and public protest. But finding out that we were unwitting pawns in Russia's global political chess game is disturbing.”
The “Not My President” event was also one of a wave of protests that week—both in New York City and around the country. Erin remembered that on November 10, two days before the march, Trump and political pundits erroneously accused protesters of being paid by the likes of philanthropist George Soros, who funds MoveOn.org and supports democratic causes.
It’s worth noting that you wouldn't be able to tell the Russian government was involved in the “Not My President” march just from attending. But if you can’t distinguish the experience of “Not My President” from protests not backed by Russia, then what does that say about other protests?
“People are far more worried about killer cops, deportations, and Trump’s white supremacist agenda than they are about the Russian government.”
To answer this, I reached out to Vanessa Wruble, the Head of Strategic Operations for the Women’s March on Washington and the Executive Director of March On, a group which keeps organizers of the “sister” Women’s Marches around the country connected. After I told Wrublethat people tied to the Russian government most likely created the “Not My President” Facebook event, she said that this news shouldn’t discredit protesters’ experiences.
“Protests that were sparked by Russian agents may still be valid in the sense that if Americans show up, their voices are heard,” she told me over email. “Now, is it wrong? Yes. Were Americans manipulated? Yes. Were divisions stoked? Yes. But anytime Americans exercise their right of free assembly, that indicates a strong democracy—even though, in this case, it also shows that democracy is under attack.”
I also spoke with NYU junior Sydney Miller, who created a Facebook event on the night of the 2016 election called “Love Rally in the Park.” The event description invited those in mourning over Trump’s win to stand by one another in Washington Square Park the next day.
“I didn’t think it would pick up a following outside of NYU,” Miller told me over Facebook messenger. “It ended up with more than 20,000 ‘interested’ on Facebook.”
Hundreds of people turned up. It was a known and talked-about event within NYU and the surrounding neighborhoods. When I told Miller about the Russian origin of the “Not My President” Facebook event, she said that the news may prompt organizers to be more accountable for their events.
“I certainly interacted with a lot of people on Facebook in the build-up to the [Love Trumps Hate] rally,” she said. “I was present at the rally itself. People definitely knew who had planned it and why.”
Organizers aiming to lead “grassroots” movements, however, aren’t necessarily thinking about being visible and accountable as organizers.
I spoke on the phone with Melissa Irwin, an organizer from Indivisible Brooklyn Do or Die and Pussy Power NYC who helped organize a recent protest at Trump Tower marking the one-year anniversary of the election. She said that the organizers of the anniversary event opted to not have speakers, which would be a direct way of connecting attendees with organizers, because they would’ve had to apply for a Sound Device Permit through the city in order to use a noise amplifier. But more importantly, it would’ve contradicted their goal of being a “grassroots” event.
“We’re just rolling with the whole grassroots movement that’s already happening,” Irwin said. “It’s really about self expression. Everyone has issues important to themselves, so it’s a good outlet for everyone to open up that lens of communication and express themselves.”
I also corresponded via email with Taryn Fivek, an organizer of the Workers World Party, a socialist organization that aims to combat white supremacy, war, and capitalism. Fivek said that the massive response to Trump’s election can’t possibly be reduced to a single Facebook event by Russian agents.
“There were hundreds of groups calling for actions and thousands pouring into the streets—in New York, it was one single sustained and collective effort coming from every direction to converge on Trump Tower,” she said. “I think that people get in the streets when they’re angry or looking to defend their communities. People are far more worried about killer cops, deportations, and Trump’s white supremacist agenda than they are about the Russian government.”
Now that I now know the Facebook event was organized by people almost definitely associated with the Russian government, how has my perspective of the march changed? Honestly, I'm not sure.
I never heard anyone so much as mention BlackMattersUS at the event. After all, it had been advertised as a “Not My President” protest, not a “BlackMattersUS Not My President” protest. As far as marchers could tell, myself included, the event was decentralized. People could be heard happily chatting with strangers about the diversity in age, race, and gender of everyone there.
I know “Not My President” was one of many protests that week. And I know people came for honest reasons. Yet the protest was likely spearheaded by a foreign power, according to the House Intelligence Committee. It wasn’t organized out of sympathy for the American people. It wasn’t organized out of concern for political justice or social rights. It was organized as part of a larger agenda to manipulate public opinion and incite anxiety in America.
I keep thinking of a conservative Russian Facebook ad that said, “The establishment thinks they can treat us like stupid sheep, but they are wrong.” Was I not herded to the barricade outside of Trump Tower? Sure, I wasn’t targeted on account of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or homophobia. But in the end, I was no more immune to Russian actors than anyone else.
Since finding out about Russia's role in the events that played out that afternoon last November, my understanding of the “Not My President” protest, and protests in general, have both been undermined. If people came to a protest to commiserate, regroup, and look ahead, but if the protest was created with the intent to undercut those efforts, what was the real outcome? If organizers don’t shape most protest experiences, how do you measure the authenticity of a protest? The one-year anniversary has come and gone, and I’m no closer to answering either.
The protest didn’t prevent Trump’s inauguration. It didn’t save DACA, deter US-Mexico border wall policy, or protect Planned Parenthood and The Affordable Care Act from an onslaught of attacks. The protest didn’t necessarily aim to do any of these things, however.
Protesters were seeking a political act once they felt normal channels of political action, like voting, weren’t representing their beliefs. Russia might’ve organized the protest, capitalizing on the American political system’s inability to represent everyone at the same time. But that doesn’t make protesters’ frustrations invalid.
Despite all of this, I still feel ashamed for how vulnerable I was to opportunistic Russian actors. Justified or not, I think this shame will deter any urges to attend a protest in the near future. If I do, I would carefully research the event and its organizers. “Not My President” highlights the importance of knowing exactly who you associate with when you attend this sort of public action, even if it’s not Russia.
Knitis told me that while she plans on being more careful moving forward, she isn’t turned off by the idea of them or attending protests in the future.
“I'll definitely be more cautious of the provenance of protests in the future,” she said. “I won't, however, apologize for my reasons for wanting to protest things I believe in.”
Still, it’s unclear whether we can expect widespread changes in the way people protest and organize both online and in real life. None of the protestors, organizers, or personal Facebook friends who I spoke with knew that Russian individuals created the “Not My President” Facebook event before I told them. Attendees of “NotMyPresident” (and four events like it, per the House Committee releases) may be just as vulnerable to attending an event with foreign origin as they were last year.
Then again, Fivek said that millions of protestors don’t know or care that Russians created the “Not My President” Facebook event, so organizers shouldn’t necessarily care either.
“Activists not being aware of ['Not My President’s'] origin should be an indication of how irrelevant it is,” she said. “They’re out there because they’re angry, not because they’re Russian marionettes.”
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