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Report: Russian Group Used Promo Apparel to Stoke Discord in U.S.

In a curious turn of events, the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election now touches the promotional apparel industry.

CNN reports that a Russia-based organization called Blacktivist, which billed itself as a Black Lives Matter support group, set out to foment political discord in the U.S. in the months leading up to the election. Blacktivist used Twitter and Facebook accounts to promote its cause. On the latter, the group added the platform’s Shop Section feature to sell statement T-shirts that purported to align with Black Lives Matter.

The shopping feature on Blacktivist’s Facebook page, which had 360,000 likes, took potential buyers to an e-commerce site called Represent, which sells DIY slogan T-shirts and hoodies that support a variety of causes. CNN found almost 85 pieces of apparel available for sale on a cached version of the Blacktivist store, including those bearing slogans such as “Young, gifted and black,” “Melanin and muscles” and “Our sons matter.”

Since CNN began its investigation into Blacktivist, the group’s social media accounts have been suspended and details on the Blacktivist accounts have been given to the U.S. government as part of its Russia investigation. The store on Represent has also been closed. Represent issued this statement to CNN: “The [Blacktivist] campaign has now ended, but if any customers would like a refund, we’d be happy to provide one... Our guidelines prohibit illegal or offensive content, but nothing in this campaign appears to have violated those guidelines.”

Meanwhile, on Twitter, @Blacktivist tweeted statements such as “Black people should wake up as soon as possible. Black families are divided and destroyed by mass incarceration and death of black men,” along with videos of police violence against African-Americans. The group also posted information on at least seven demonstrations across the country last year, including a 50th anniversary celebration of the Black Panther Party. The group also attempted to organize a rally against police brutality in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Baltimore pastor and community activist Rev. Heber Brown III contacted the group to find out more information about them, and was told that, while they were not from Baltimore, they were “fighting for the same reasons” and “open for your thoughts and offers [sic].”

Jonathon Morgan, the founder and CEO of New Knowledge, a company that tracks misinformation spread online, told CNN that Blacktivist’s activity “fits a pattern of Russian propagandists’ attempts at appearing as authentic Americans participating in politics,” by selling merchandise and promoting events.

“The Russian objective the entire time has been to pit Americans against each other and to prey on divisions that already exist and to capitalize on the hyper-partisan environment that already exists in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s one thing to get people arguing with each other on the internet. But if you can get Americans marching in the streets, that escalates conflict and further destabilizes the country.”

The reports about Blacktivist come as the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election increases its focus on possible manipulation of social media and search engine algorithms. Facebook has handed over information on some 470 Russia-linked accounts and 3,000 ads as part of the government’s ongoing investigation. All of the ads were linked to the Internet Research Agency – what U.S. military intelligence describes as “a state-funded organization that blogs and tweets on behalf of the Kremlin.”

On October 9, Facebook confirmed that about 5% of the ads that it says were bought by Russia also appeared on Instagram, and that the ads focused on “divisive social and political messages,” including immigration, gun rights and LGBT issues. Late last month, a senior spokesman from the Kremlin denied that Russia bought Facebook ads to sway the election.

The Washington Post also reported this week that Russian operatives spent about $100,000 on Google ads that appeared on Google Search, Gmail, YouTube and DoubleClick. Twitter has announced it found a total of 201 accounts with possible links to Russian operatives.

Both Facebook and Twitter will testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on November 1. Google has not yet formally agreed to the committee’s request that it send executives to Capitol Hill.

In May, the Justice Department appointed Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller to head the federal investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.