It was a cold rainy day back in February 2016 outside NFL headquarters in New York. Media crews were fluttering about in anticipation of a protest much buzzed about on social media. It would be a demonstration against Houston-born Beyoncé‘s halftime performance at the Super Bowl, which was memorable for costumes echoing those used in the 1960s by the Black Panthers and dance moves which included raised fists.
The online organizers of the protest characterized that performance as “a race-baiting stunt.” Of course, there was also a contingent of Beyoncé backers to counter the protesters.
Ultimately, the event didn’t draw more than small crowds on either side, but now there’s new information about how the protests originated in the first place. As it turns out, they were drummed up by the same people.
Tony Romm, a technology policy reporter at The Washington Post, says documents were released on Thursday by Democrats on the House Intelligence committee, which has been studying Russian interference into the 2016 election.
“The documents were ads purchased by trolls aligned with the Russian government throughout the 2016 election,” Romm says. “We’ve known for some time now that the Kremlin aligned forces with an organization called the Internet Research Agency, sought to sow social, political, and cultural unrest in the United States, particularly through social media.”
The ads were circulated on social media, indistinguishable from content generated by friends and family.
“One of them was an ad for an anti-Beyoncé protest that appeared on Instagram for February 2016,” he says. “And that same day there was another ad on Instagram from a different organization that was a pro-Beyoncé rally.”
In this case, the ads didn’t get a lot of traction, but the incident shows the extent to which Russian agents worked to generate social unrest.
“It was about creating social and political discord,” Romm says. “If you fuel the protest on both sides of the debate, you get people fighting. And when you link contentious issues to candidates like a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump, you only create even more fighting in the political space.”
It’s unclear how much impact the ads had on the final outcome of the 2016 race, but many observers looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections say the United States is not prepared to deal with more online disinformation and propaganda.
Written by Jen Rice.