Identity

Are Russian Bots Selling Weaves on Instagram? An Investigation

Even if the accounts are just spam bots, suspicions that they may be political propaganda directed specifically toward Black people are warranted.

by Donovan X. Ramsey
Jul 10 2018, 7:56pm

image by Broadly. 

Dana Carroll first noticed the strange Instagram accounts a few months back. There was just one following her at first but, as the days and weeks went on, she received notifications that she’d been followed by another and yet another. The accounts were nearly identical, says the 20-year-old college student. Their names were a seemingly random mix of numbers and letters, each had just a handful of photos and, perhaps most significant, they all advertised hair weave.

“If it was just one account like this, I’d ignore it, but because I’ve seen at least 15 so far, I know there has to be something else going on,” Carroll says.

Cashawn Thompson had a similar experience. Thompson, who coined the term “Black girl magic” in 2013, says she and a number of people in her network, mostly Black people, have had their Instagram accounts inundated in recent months with follow requests from accounts advertising wigs and “bundles” of fake hair. Thompson, who follows some legitimate weave accounts on Instagram, says there’s something off about these ones.

“They don’t interact—message, comment on photos or like them,” she says. "There’s nothing authentic about the accounts. It’s weird.”

The horde of nearly-identical, odd-behaving weave accounts is so widely recognized among Black Instagram users that the phenomenon has spurred a meme—part-joke, and part-conspiracy theory—that the accounts are Russian government plants waiting to be activated ahead of the next election cycle.

via Instagram.

“Russia done heard Black women out here swaying elections, and now they are creating Hair Bundle accounts to rig the midterms,” joked television writer Kirk Moore in March in a tweet that’s received nearly 900 retweets and more than 1600 likes.

But nothing about the accounts actually screams “Russian bot.” In fact, most of them link to websites for a hair wholesaler in China’s Shandong province. Still, Carroll, Thompson, and others are suspicious—a measure perhaps of just how much American life, social and political, has been impacted by the Russian government’s efforts to influence U.S. elections via social media.

Details of that activity have come out across a series of official reports, court documents, congressional hearings, and public statements from social media companies since the fall. And it seems that the slow trickle of information may have contributed to confusion over exactly what happened, creating fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories.

But based on what actually transpired, Black social media users do have reason to be particularly cautious.

According to an indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, The Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm based in St. Petersburg, “engaged in operations to interfere with the elections and political processes” starting as early as 2014. Its 80 employees sowed distrust in the American political system and discord in the electorate through paid ads on social media platforms and other activity—divisive comments and posts, the creation of groups and events.

A report by the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology found that “Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 4,334 IRA accounts across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.” Further, an in-depth analysis of the roughly 3,500 Facebook ads created by the IRA found that more than half expressly referenced race and racism in America. Another 25 percent or so referenced crime and policing.

via Instagram.

Some of the ads targeted users who liked pages such as “The Thin Blue” and “Police Wives Unite”—presumably mostly conservative, white users. A significant share of the ads, however, appeared to target users of color. The IRA created groups called “Brown United Front,” "Blacktivists” and "Woke Blacks” for example. And operatives promoted ads ranging from denunciations of police brutality to a video of a black hairstylist twisting locs at “supersonic speeds.”

Bret Shafer tracks internet propaganda at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan think tank devoted to strengthening transatlantic relations. He says it’s highly unlikely that the weave Instagram accounts are Kremlin-controlled, but the idea is not unreasonable. “They’re probably just for-profit spambots,” Shafer says. He does note, though, that Black Americans, the apparent targets of the weave accounts, have historically been targets of Russian propaganda.

For instance, in 1932, the Soviet Union launched a propaganda poster campaign in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. The foreign nation continued to court Black Americans throughout the 20th century with propaganda that emphasized racial injustice in America and proposed communism as a solution.

“That’s something Russia has been doing going back 70 years to the Soviet Union,” Shafer says. “They see race relations as a weak point in our society. The thinking is that if they keep us fighting among ourselves, we’re paying less attention to what they’re doing. The goal is to corrupt our democracy from the inside out.”

Ben Nimmo, senior fellow for information defense at the Atlantic Council, agrees with Shafer’s conclusion. The accounts have a strong Chinese, not Russian footprint, he says. Their advertisements feature Chinese phone numbers, and they’re connected to websites that list physical addresses in China. “I don't see anything that makes me think the accounts are anything other than commercial spam,” Nimmo says.

But regarding how so many social media super-users could suspect that the accounts were linked to Russia and the IRA, he has a simple theory: the public is now aware of the Russian government's propaganda operations but media coverage has not made it clear exactly how Russia interfered in 2016. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” Nimmo says.

Perhaps even more significant than the analyses of Instagram techs and cybersecurity experts is that of Porscha Weeks, owner of BAPS Hair Salon in Philadelphia. Weeks has been a hairstylist for nearly 18 years. She opened BAPS more than a year ago and has a thriving Instagram account where she promotes her services and peddles wigs and hair weave to 90,000 followers. She says some of the mysterious accounts have to be legit hair sellers because she’s actually bought units from a few. “I think the majority of the accounts are real,” Weeks says. “I took a chance to order hair from a few and it was quality.”

Weeks adds that she understands why others might be skeptical of the accounts. They don’t operate on Instagram like most U.S.-based hair businesses—with stylist tutorials, customer reviews, and videos of hair in motion. She attributes that to cultural differences and an unsophisticated marketing strategy that relies on just a few pictures of units and very little messaging spread across a seemingly infinite number of Instagram accounts. “It seems like the accounts are connected to one business in China,” says Weeks. “I think that’s just how they do business.”

via Instagram.

The near-consensus from experts that the weave accounts are standard spam does little, however, to allay concerns that they’re up to something nefarious. After all, other groups—namely white supremacists—have long been engaged in campaigns to troll Black social media users using fake accounts, Thompson points out.

After the release of Black Panther, for example, trolls took to Twitter claiming they’d been the victims of Black moviegoers. And in March of last year, NPR reported on a plot hatched via The Daily Stormer to infiltrate Black Twitter by pretending to be Black users. In both cases, the trolls were found out by amaetuer sleuths on the platform.

“The idea that someone or a group of individuals might use hair weave in an attempt to infiltrate Black social media networks is not too far off,” says Thompson.

Upon request, Instagram officials did not provide comment on the possibility of Russian-backed weave accounts, but the company did say it is investigating the phenomenon. A rep for Instagram indicated the accounts are likely run-of-the-mill spam, and as a result of the Broadly’s inquiry, hundreds of the accounts have been removed from the platform.

Both Dana Carroll and Cashawn Thompson say they’ll continue to be on guard for suspicious activity on social media platforms regardless of whether or not the weave accounts are, indeed, foreign plants. “People who think we’re being paranoid aren’t paying enough attention,” Carroll says. “Social media is a major part of our culture; it’s only natural that people who want to know more about America, for reasons that may or may not be good, are going to use social media as a tool.”

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To that end, Instagram and Facebook say they’re investing in technology, especially machine learning, to remove fake accounts. Additionally, they're doubling the number of people working on safety and security from 10,000 last year to over 20,000 this year. Finally, they’re hoping to increase transparency in advertising on the platforms, especially for political ads, by collecting more identifying information from advertisers and sharing how much an advertiser spent, the types of people who saw the ads, and the number of times the ad was seen.

There’s no telling just yet how much those developments will discourage efforts to spread propaganda on Instagram. In the meantime, Carroll and Thompson say they’ll continue to flag and block every suspicious account they encounter, hair weave accounts included. “I don't know what Instagram is going do to prepare for the midterms, but it should start by listening to users, especially Black women,” Thompson says. “We tend to be ahead of the curve on most stuff.”

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