Like a lot of people, this morning I woke up to That Email from Tumblr:
As part of our commitment to transparency, we want you to know that we uncovered and terminated 84 accounts linked to Internet Research Agency or IRA (a group closely tied to the the Russian government) posing as members of the Tumblr community.
The IRA engages in electronic disinformation and propaganda campaigns around the world using phony social media accounts. When we uncovered these accounts, we notified law enforcement, terminated the accounts, and deleted their original posts.
The email goes on to list the names of the banned accounts, and some of them were… familiar.1 So, like a lot of people, I decided to go do some digging to see what, exactly, I may have liked/reblogged from a Russian propaganda house. The original accounts are gone, of course, but Tumblr helpfully “decided to leave up any reblog chains so that you can curate your own Tumblr to reflect your own personal views and perspectives.” Meaning recovering at least some of the more popular posts was a simple Google search away.2
Here, capped for posterity, is what I found. There are quite a lot of images here, so I’ve categorized them into their broad content areas. Note that in a handful of instances, I’ve also capped the Google result, when I felt the post text was interesting in itself and where I couldn’t easily find a reblog. In these instances, it’s the bolded Tumblr name that’s the bot, not necessarily the URL.
By far the biggest collection of posts, as well as most common name theme (blacklivesmatterusa, blvckcommunity, blackprideworldwide, etc.). There were roughly three “subclasses” of posts here: Black positivity, Black Lives Matter issues, and general Black activism. Note that I’ve used the term “Black” here as a general term, but the focus and issues were very US-based.
Black Lives Matter
This category includes general anti-Black police violence, as well as other racial justice issues such as the over-incarceration of African American men.
General anti-racist activism
Posts just mentioning that, yanno. America is kinda racist. (Again, note the focus on America specifically, as opposed to racism in, say, the UK or Australia.)
Other PoC positivity
A smaller subset of posts focused on positivity posts for other minority ethnic groups in the US, including Indigenous peoples and Latinx and Muslim communities (and the Sikhs racists confuse for them).
A non-trivial subset of posts seemed to focus on attempting to promote or amplify racial tensions, particularly racial tensions between different progressive groups (e.g. Black women versus Indigenous, Indigenous women versus white feminists, etc.). Because of the fact that the bots tend to repost rather than produce original content, these posts do include the words of minority individuals with legitimate criticisms. This isn’t a comment on that. However, I do think that the fact the bots seemed to have chosen to focus on, and in at least one case amplify,3 this type of content—as opposed to positive stories of inter-group cooperation, of which I could only find one example—is notable.
That being said, these posts range from the kinda inane (the “white girl booty” one) to the more insidious (the image of Native Americans holding guns, which seems to be a dogwhistle designed to frighten the sort of racists who worry about “Native insurrection”).
General posts relating to the Evils of Capitalism™…
… but also about “fake news”, i.e. posts seemingly designed to undermine confidence in the mainstream media (or, well, the mainstream media and Fox, I guess).
This is the general category of pro-Sanders/anti-Clinton posts. Note the use of emoji like “👆🏾” to make it seem like these are coming from actual users of color, rather than a Russian psyops unit…
Feminism seems to be a less popular topic for Russian bots than antiracism, but they do give it a bit of a go.
(Note that the girlsagainst account seems to be another attempt to impersonate a legitimate group. According to Tumblr’s email, the grilsagainst account is a former alias of info-mix.)
Posts about miscellaneous progressive issues, include both US foreign policy and non-US-specific antiracism. See also the return of the brown- and black-skinned emoji…
Memes, shitposts, and pop culture
The last group, i.e. the non-overtly-political posts.
So… what, then?
- Anyone who tries to use this incident as a way of attacking, undermining, or otherwise delegitimizing, in particular, antiracist activists of color is full of shit and not to be trusted. If anything, this incident has made it more difficult for these groups to get their message out, given that everyone will now start second-guessing as to whether they’re reblogging Russian psyops bots.
- Speaking of which, I find it… interesting that these specifically are the bots Tumblr has decided to make a Big Deal™ about, given I’m sure there’s plenty of alt-right/white supremacist/etc. accounts still active.
- The bots reblog each other. A lot. Individual accounts also reblog a lot of content from their previous account names.
- Tumblr did not lie: I’ve seen (and liked) a lot of these posts. That’s not surprising; a non-zero number of these caps came from the Tumblrs of a small handful of well-known celebrity progressives (because they get good Google rankings, basically).
- The bots don’t source or credit stuff, particularly not reposted art.
- The other red flag seems to be making long, long screencap posts of Twitter threads. This is probably my biggest take-home from going through all of these, and I will now definitely think twice before liking or reblogging similarly formatted posts in future.
- The reblogging-Twitter-threads-as-images thing also has a whiff of receipt-keeping to it. Remember that progressives aren’t necessarily the (only) “intended audience” for this content; it’s also for whipping conservatives up into a froth. Reblogging screencapped threads of, in particular, women of color in this way has the potential to expose them to harassment from angry alt-right bros, and removes their ability to disseminate their words in the way they want and have control over.
- I’ve called these accounts “bots” but really they’re not; these are posts made by, and accounts run by, real people. Real people whose real-life day-to-day job it is to try and interfere in the socio-political climate of the US and its allies.
- I absolutely in no way believe these 84 accounts are the only accounts on Tumblr linked to either the IRA or similar organisations. I mean… come on.
In other words, I doubt we’ve heard the last of this…
- feelmydragonballs. I remembered the account feelmydragonballs. Because lol. Balls. ↩
site:tumblr.com -"previously known as" "[blog name]", if you’re wondering. The minus sign there is to exclude posts about the email itself. ↩
- Spoiler alert: it wasn’t just white people who “went to the Moon”. There was kinda a famous movie on it and everything. ↩