Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Russian operatives used Philando Castille shooting death to breed social unrest in U.S., raising possibility they are involved in abuse directed at Legal Schnauzer

The Philando Castille shooting, which was captured on video
and spread via Facebook.

Russian trolls used the 2016 police-shooting death of Philando Castille to help sew racial unrest in the United States, according to a new CNN report. It provides perhaps the strongest evidence yet that Russian meddling efforts are not limited to politics, but attempt to disrupt American society at large.

The report also raises a question that hits close to home: Is the abuse that has been directed at my wife, Carol, and me, because of my reporting on sensitive topics at this blog, driven in part by Russian interests? At first, that question might seem a tad over the edge. But when you consider the political environments in the two states where we have lived -- Alabama and Missouri (not to mention the ongoing investigation of a Russian scandal tied to the current occupant of the White House) -- the question does not seem quite so far-fetched.

Some readers' initial reaction likely will go something like this: "Schnauzer you are a relative nobody. Why would powerful and wealthy interests in Russia have any interest in you?" My response? "Philando Castille was a nobody, too, until a Minnesota cop shot him seven times during a traffic stop, creating an opportunity for Russian trolls to take disruptive actions."

Evidence suggests that Russian interest is not driven by a person's fame or notoriety; it's more about potentially explosive issues that person represents. In the case of Philando Castille, the issue involved the intersection of police brutality, racial unrest, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In my case, perhaps, the issue involves the new world of digital, non-traditional journalism, where a reporter such as yours truly can break stories without restrictions from editors and obligations to advertisers.

If there is one hatred that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and their supporters share it is for a free press. Wikipedia keeps a list of journalists who have been killed in Russia, and it includes at least a dozen names -- while some sources believe the true number is closer to 200. Donald Trump has called freedom of the press "disgusting." The ACLU reports:

Trump the candidate also blacklisted reporters and entire news outlets from campaign events, referred to journalists as “scum” and “slime,” and mocked a reporter for having a disability. He vowed to sue women who reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault, along with the outlets that covered their accounts, and threatened a lawsuit against a Hispanic journalist group for calling out his bigoted remarks.

"I would never kill them but I do hate them,” he said of reporters. “And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”

Gee,  its comforting to know the U.S. "president" does not plan to kill any journalists -- at least not yet. One of Trump's most prominent surrogates -- Attorney General and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) -- already has established an environment of terror toward journalists in his native Alabama. I know because I was arrested and thrown in jail for five months because of content on this blog. Let's consider the abuse that has been sent our way over roughly the past 10 years:

* Carol and I were cheated out of our jobs -- her at Infinity Insurance, me at UAB;

* I became the first U.S. journalist since 2006 to be incarcerated -- and apparently the only one in U.S. history to be jailed due to a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that both have been unlawful under the First Amendment for more than 230 years;

* Our home of 25 years in Birmingham was stolen via a wrongful foreclosure;

* After being forced to move to Missouri, where I grew up, we were hit with an eviction that was unlawful on at least 10-12 grounds;

* During the eviction, Missouri deputies brutalized Carol and shattered her left arm so severely that it required trauma surgery and roughly six months of physical therapy. The violence was such that it put Carol's overall health, even her life at risk. Medical records show she was treated for blood loss, shock, nerve damage, kidney damage, elevated pressures, and more.

Mugshot of U.S. journalist Roger Shuler after cops
in Jeff Sessions' Alabama beat and arrested him
inside his own home -- for blogging. 
Were Russian interests involved in some -- or all -- of this? We will take a close look at that question in upcoming posts. My answer to the question probably would have been "no." But that was before I read that Russian trolls became deeply involved in efforts to spread unrest following the Philando Castille shooting.

A CNN investigation found at least two apparent American protest groups -- "Don't Shoot" and "Blacktivist" -- that proved to be driven by Russian trolls. Less than 10 hours after the Castille shooting, on July 6, 2016, "Don't Shoot" began to promote an event called "Justice for Philando Castille." But no one in the tight-knit Minneapolis activist community had heard of the group or the people behind it. That's because it all was a Russian creation. And the subterfuge did not stop there. Reports CNN:

In September 2017, CNN uncovered a sham organization called "Blacktivist." The group described itself as a black American activist campaign and had been active on social media for years. It even had a bigger following than the official Black Lives Matter Facebook page.

CNN confirmed Blacktivist was not a real American group, however. It was a troll operation run from 4,000 miles away in St. Petersburg, Russia, by a Kremlin-linked group known as the Internet Research Agency.

The revelations helped to show Russia's use of social media to interfere in American life extended beyond the presidential election, and into efforts to exacerbate existing divisions in the U.S.

The investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller has addressed the issue of Russian trolls:

In February, [Mueller's] team indicted 13 Russian nationals involved in the Internet Research Agency troll group, saying it had sought to exacerbate existing divisions in American society.

By the time of Castile's death in July 2016, the troll group, operating out of a St Petersburg office, was allegedly a multi-million-dollar effort, with dozens of people working night and day running a network of thousands of fake American social media accounts, posing as activists on everything from Black Lives Matter to Texas secession.

By 2016, American prosecutors allege, the Internet Research Agency was "primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton."

The Philando Castille story now shows that Russian tricksters did not just want to harm Hillary Clinton's presidential operations. Their meddling went way beyond that, possibly to include attacks on a journalist who reported uncomfortable truths about crooked conservatives in two states -- Alabama and Missouri -- where connections to Russian interests are not hard to find.

(To be continued)

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