Did Russian government trolls really drive a pro-Israel, anti-Muslim campaign targeting Palestinian American Democratic Party activist Linda Sarsour?
That’s what The New York Times would have us believe.
But the story collapses under scrutiny. Rather, it smacks of yet another tedious example of how mainstream media and the American liberal political class have tried to blame their failures and divisions on a foreign enemy, typically with little or no evidence.
In this case the claims of Russian interference serve to deflect from a reality that no one can deny: The ongoing campaign against Sarsour has been relentlessly driven by the Israel lobby and the American far-right, as well as people within Sarsour’s own Democratic Party.
Sarsour and the organization she heads, MPowerChange, quickly gave the Times’ claims credence, though neither responded to The Electronic Intifada’s requests for comment for this article.
“It’s real,” Sarsour tweeted about the alleged Russian government campaign against her.So too did the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, which stated that the Times “reveals that the Russian government spent years systematically targeting Linda Sarsour with Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism.”
CAIR urged that the “federal government should investigate this conspiracy to determine whether any laws were violated.”
Divisions over Israel
The focus of the Times article by Ellen Barry – splashed across its homepage on Sunday – is the Women’s March, a liberal movement that formed in reaction to the election of Donald Trump and held a huge protest rally against the new president in Washington in January 2017.At the time, there were already divisions over Sarsour’s leadership role in the march, particularly since she had expressed support for BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.
Although that upset liberal Zionists, Sarsour was able to reassure them behind the scenes.
“We worked closely with Linda specifically on the messaging for this march. The concern we had had to do with Israel. She could not have been more open and reassuring that there would be no Israel bashing, and she kept her word,” Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper just days after the march.
“I didn’t see one anti-Israel sign, not one BDS sign,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman and other Democrat-aligned opponents of the Palestinian struggle for freedom were rallying to Sarsour’s defense after she had come under fierce attack from far-right figures, with Frontpage Mag, a website run by notorious anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racist David Horowitz leading the charge.
“That article’s allegations spurred others that quickly circulated online,” Haaretz noted.
This included other well-known anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian websites that have targeted Palestinians and their supporters for years.
Errors and omissions
According to the Times’ narrative, shadowy networks of Russian trolls linked to the Kremlin helped propel these attacks on social media, putting them in front of vast audiences.
But the Times hedges its claims of powerful Russian interference and disguises the overall lack of evidence with cautionary statements peppered throughout the article:
“What effect these intrusions had on American democracy is a question that will be with us for years. It may be unanswerable.”
“It is maddeningly difficult to say with any certainty what effect Russian influence operations have had on the United States…”
“Once pumped into the American discourse, the Russian trace vanishes, like water that has been added to a swimming pool. This creates a conundrum for disinformation specialists, many of whom say the impact of Russian interventions has been severely overblown.”
Rather than genuine warnings to be skeptical, these throwaway lines give readers permission to believe the worst even when there is little or no evidence – because ultimately, the Times says, the questions are “unanswerable” and like “chasing ghosts.”
Meanwhile, the reader is confronted with sensationalist framing that goads us to take everything at face value, beginning with the headline: “How Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step.”
Such bold assertions conceal fundamental problems with the Times’ story.
One, pointed out by writer Robert Skvarla, undermines the Times’ assertion that an allegedly Russia-linked account posing as a Trump supporter amplified a false claim that Sarsour “favored imposing Sharia law in the United States.”
According to the Times, the fake pro-Trump account tweeted its attack on Sarsour at 7 pm on 21 January 2017.
But as Skvarla notes, by that time major US right-wing accounts had already been “banging that drum” and getting far more traction.
Indeed, one of those tweets was posted on the morning of 20 January. It has more than 31,000 retweets and 8,000 likes – far more than the allegedly Russia-linked account described by the Times.
Despite the shoddiness of its reporting, The Times does try to give its sensational claims a veneer of “academic” authority.
“Data on Russian messaging around the Women’s March first appeared late last year in an academic journal, where Samantha R. Bradshaw, a disinformation expert at American University, reviewed state interference in feminist movements,” the Times states.
But that 2021 article, co-authored with Amélie Henle, describes itself as a “qualitative analysis of 7,506 tweets” made by accounts allegedly linked to Russian intelligence.
The authors observe that some of those accounts “tweeted content suggesting Sarsour wanted to implement sharia law in the United States or was secretly a jihadi terrorist infiltrating America.”
But they concede that due to the limitations of the data, “it is not possible to measure the impact these campaigns had on real individuals.”
The Times moreover does not disclose that Bradshaw’s research was funded by the Canadian foreign ministry. Bradshaw previously worked for the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank funded by the Canadian government, which also appoints two members of the think tank’s board.
It may be that these government ties do not compromise the research, but it is inconceivable that The New York Times would not have disclosed them if the money came from a government friendly to Russia rather than one like Canada, which is effectively at war with Russia.
This is not the only dubious source.
According to the Times, 152 different “Russian accounts” produced a total 2,642 tweets about Linda Sarsour over an 18-month period – a tiny number given the newspaper’s effort to portray Russia as a significant actor in US internal affairs.
To put that into perspective, Twitter users typically generate 500 million tweets per day – about 6,000 tweets every second.
The number of tweets about Sarsour, the Times states, comes from an “analysis” of archives made publicly available by Twitter. That analysis, which has not been published, was performed by Advance Democracy Inc.
Advance Democracy did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of it.
The Times benignly describes Advance Democracy as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts public-interest research and investigations.”
But that is at best an incomplete and misleading description of a group that tries to reveal as little as possible about itself. Advance Democracy’s website contains no information about the organization’s personnel, funding, methodologies or clients, and describes its work in only the vaguest terms.
But Internal Revenue Service filings show that its CEO is Daniel J. Jones, a former FBI “intelligence analyst” and a Senate staffer who worked under Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to compile the 2014 report on torture by the US government during the so-called War on Terror.
Advance Democracy received $4.3 million in contributions in 2019. Jones was paid more than $450,000 in compensation that year alone from Advance Democracy and “related” groups, according to the filings.
In addition to Advance Democracy, Jones runs his own opposition research firm, The Penn Quarter Group. Its website also reveals virtually nothing about who is involved, what it does and for whom.
But we do know a few things about Jones and what he may consider to be credible and reliable information.
According to investigative materials cited by Senator Charles Grassley, the most senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jones played a role in the long-running effort to accuse Donald Trump of secretly colluding with Russia.
That campaign began immediately after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and continued throughout his presidency.
In March 2017, Jones told the FBI that The Penn Quarter Group “had secured the services” of Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS to continue investigating alleged Russian interference in the US election.
Jones told the FBI that he “was being funded by 7 to 10 wealthy donors located primarily in New York and California, who provided approximately $50 million,” according to Jones’ testimony quoted by Grassley.
Jones also told government investigators, as Grassley put it, “that he planned to push the information he obtained from Fusion and Steele to policymakers on Capitol Hill, the press and the FBI.”
Steele, a former British intelligence officer, was the principal author of the discredited “Steele dossier,” that formed the basis of many of the collusion allegations, including lurid fantasies about Trump’s supposed sexual exploits in Moscow.
As New York Times Washington correspondent Charlie Savage described it in December, the dossier “grew out of a political opposition research effort to dig up information about Mr. Trump funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party.”
Trump, who had been ridiculed for years for calling it a hoax, turned out – at least on this occasion – to be correct.
It was only after one of the Steele dossier’s main sources was charged last November with lying to the FBI that mainstream media were finally forced to concede that the document was corrupt and full of fabrications.In November, The Washington Post announced that it had gone back and “corrected” or removed “large portions” of articles published in 2017 and 2019 related to the dossier.
“The Post could no longer stand by the accuracy of those elements of the story,” Sally Buzbee, the newspaper’s executive editor, said.
“A reckoning is hitting news organizations for years-old coverage of the 2017 Steele dossier, after the document’s primary source was charged with lying to the FBI,” a commentator for the outlet Axios wrote.
Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism professor, pondered in an essay for The New York Times how the media could have been so easily taken in by the Steele dossier and its “fictitious” and “unprovable” claims.
“Over time, the standards for proof diminished to the point that if something couldn’t be proved to be false, the assumption was that it was probably true,” Grueskin wrote.
But even in 2017 independent journalists, notable among them Aaron Maté, were expressing skepticism about the Steele dossier and pointing out the lack of evidence for its claims.
Anyone closely reading the latest Times story would have to conclude that none of those lessons has been learned by the newspaper of record.
After it had regularly parroted the George W. Bush administration’s lies about “weapons of mass destruction,” helping sell the brutal and illegal 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the Times published a mea culpa.
A year into the catastrophic and criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq, Times editors admitted that they often published sensational claims from dubious sources, including US intelligence, with little to no scrutiny.
Had The New York Times really learned anything, it would not now try to market the likes of Daniel J. Jones and his shadowy “research” organization as credible sources. But that is also to assume that the Times sees its mission as actually uncovering the truth, rather than serving as a mouthpiece for power.
Jones did not respond to requests for comment sent to the general email addresses on the Advance Democracy and The Penn Quarter Group websites.
Israel lobby attacks
Of course, it is possible that Russia-linked accounts tried to “amplify” attacks on Sarsour.
But The New York Times falls woefully short of showing that these attempts – if they were real – had any measurable impact compared with the attacks on Sarsour by established American right-wing and liberal media and activists, and not least, the Israel lobby.
One of the earlier attacks on Sarsour’s role in the Women’s March – predating the supposed Russian trolling campaign – was published on 19 January 2017 by Women in the World, a now defunct annual summit and online publication founded by Tina Brown, the celebrity former editor of such publications as Newsweek, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
The hit piece by Washington-based writer Emma-Kate Symons described Sarsour as a “religiously conservative veiled Muslim woman, embracing a fundamentalist worldview requiring women to ‘modestly’ cover themselves.”
“Why is a woman seen wearing a heavy veil pulled up tight to cover her neck – not even a headscarf – emerging as the symbol of the rally?” Symons pondered before promoting so-called “ex-Muslim women” who have become the favored native informants for anti-Muslim campaigners.
In the following months, Sarsour was even a target of The New York Times itself. Its then columnist Bari Weiss, a long-time anti-Palestinian campaigner, wrote an August 2017 piece justifying the attacks on Sarsour and dismissing claims that they were motivated by Islamophobia. Weiss accused Sarsour of having a “history of disturbing views,” some of the “anti-Zionist sort.”Sarsour was regularly a target of The Israel Project, a lobby group which collapsed after its collusion with the Israeli government to smear and sabotage American citizens working for Palestinian rights was revealed in Al Jazeera’s bombshell documentary The Lobby–USA.
The film was suppressed by Al Jazeera, after pressure on its funder Qatar, but leaked and published by The Electronic Intifada in 2018.
Those revelations of very real Israeli interference in US affairs never garnered a fraction of the attention of the ongoing fake or unproven claims of covert Russian activities.
Sarsour continues to be the target of high-profile attacks from Israel lobby leaders, including Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America.Avi Mayer, a former Israeli army spokesperson and subsequently a senior staffer at the American Jewish Committee, also joined the attacks, along with his organization: Dov Hikind, a far-right Israel supporter and longtime Democratic Party state assembly member in New York, hounded Sarsour relentlessly for years, even comparing her to serial killer Charles Manson. According to The New York Times in 2017, Hikind was largely responsible for setting off protests and demands that CUNY, a state college in New York City, cancel a May 2017 commencement speech by Sarsour.
But now that history is being revised. In its article claiming Russian involvement, the Times omits mention of Hikind’s role, stating vaguely that “the furor began weeks in advance.”
The Times also claims that “Russian troll accounts were part of that clamor.”
In July 2017, Sarsour made a comment that right-wing media dishonestly interpreted as a call for violent “jihad” against Donald Trump.
The story was picked up by Fox News.
In addition to broadcasting the story on its Fox & Friends show, the network favored by Trump and his supporters posted it on social media.
On the Fox & Friends Facebook page, the item has garnered 11,000 likes, 9,000 comments and more than 400,000 views.
The Fox story was even shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. His tweet has attracted more than 6,000 retweets and 12,000 likes.Sarsour’s comments were also covered by other major right-wing outlets including Breitbart.
But the Times never mentions how Fox, Breitbart and Trump Jr. broadcast the story to tens of millions of people, and instead focuses on one allegedly Russian-run troll account that tweeted about the story and received more than 6,000 likes and retweets.
The New York Times offers no evidence that any Russian troll account drove this story, rather than simply riding a wave of outrage fueled by well-established US right-wing media. But that is the impression the newspaper leaves.
Sarsour’s affiliation with the Democratic Party, especially her role as a surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders in the run up to the 2020 election, ensured she would remain a favorite target of the right and anti-Palestinian forces – notwithstanding the praise she received from liberal Zionists for keeping BDS out of the Women’s March.
Racism and bigotry against anyone identified as Arab or Muslim, especially if they are Palestinian, has been a staple of American politics for decades and has never needed Russia to stoke it.
In 2000, when she was running for US senator from New York, for example, Hillary Clinton returned campaign contributions from a Muslim American group because members had expressed support for the Palestinian struggle and had made comments supporters of Israel claimed were anti-Semitic.
Those claims were based on “research” from Steven Emerson, a notorious anti-Muslim conspiracist and pro-Israel agitator.
This kind of bigotry remains present among Democrats and liberals just as it is among Republicans.
NPR, the US public radio network, for instance, reported on divisions among Women’s March organizers in January 2019.
Angie Beem, president of the Washington state chapter of the Women’s March, told NPR that her local chapter was dissolving itself because it could no longer support the movement’s national leadership.
“They’re anti-Semitic,” said Beem. “I mean, they claim they aren’t. But they are. They’re being racist.”
Amid such unceasing attacks, Sarsour and two other activists, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland, finally resigned their leadership roles in the Women’s March in September 2019.
But despite their departure, the Israel lobby campaign against Sarsour continued and continues with full force:Among those attacking Sarsour is Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobby group that aims to influence the Democratic Party: Without any sense of irony, Democratic Majority for Israel accuses Sarsour of bigotry for criticizing Israel, while one of its own board members has made a genocidal call for Israel to “burn” Gaza.
Following Sunday’s Times article, Democratic Majority for Israel took to Twitter to attack Sarsour anew, rejecting the notion that Russia was responsible for the opprobrium she faces.“It’s undeniable that Russia and its online trolls have tried, and often succeeded at, wreaking havoc on our politics” the Israel lobby group said, giving credence to unproven Russiagate claims. “But they’re not responsible for her anti-Semitic actions – she is.”
But perhaps the most prominent person to attack Sarsour is the leader of the Democratic Party himself.
“Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel and a vehement opponent of anti-Semitism his entire life, and he obviously condemns her (Sarsour’s) views and opposes BDS, as does the Democratic platform,” the candidate’s campaign announced in August 2020, just two months before he would be elected president.
Nonetheless, Sarsour urged Muslim Americans to vote for Biden.
It is a “sad irony” that the Women’s March “was an early sign of grassroots opposition to Trump,” but “Russiagate destroyed that by channeling ‘resistance’ into Russia conspiracy theories,” Aaron Maté, the independent journalist whose skepticism has been consistently vindicated, observed in reaction to the Times’ Sarsour story.
“Fitting that Russiagate propaganda is now deployed against the march too,” Maté added.“Everything about Russiagate is a projection,” Maté said. “The disinformation ‘experts’ hyperventilating about disinformation from Russian trolls are themselves the trolls spreading disinformation.”
“And while they claim to protect democracy, their goal is to undermine it at every turn,” Maté concluded.
With all the real enemies she has – the Israel lobby, The New York Times, anti-Muslim right-wing media and politicians, and her own Democratic Party including President Biden himself – Sarsour can at least breathe a sigh of relief that she really does not have to worry about Russia.
Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.