- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Russian bots spread misinformation to stoke racial fears during the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri, according to a new report.

On Nov. 11, 2015, a now-suspended Twitter account with the handle @FanFan1911 and the username Jermaine posted a picture of a severely bruised black child with the caption, “The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out!” and the hashtag #PrayForMizzou.

The tweet and picture were fake, according to Lt. Col. Jarred Prier, director of operations for the 20th Bomb Squadron. In an article he wrote for the winter edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly, Mr. Prier said the account’s tweets were shared by an army of 70 bots as well as hundreds of real users and became part of the narrative about the race protests.

“The rapidly spreading image of a bruised little boy was generating legitimate outrage across the country and around the world,” Mr. Prier wrote in the article, which was first reported by the Columbia Daily Tribune. “However, a quick Google image search for ‘bruised black child’ revealed the picture that ‘Jermaine’ attached to the tweet was a picture of an African American child who was beaten by police in Ohio over one year earlier. The image and the narrative were part of a larger plot to spread fear and distrust. It worked.”

The tweet coincided with widespread fears that the KKK were marching on the University of Missouri campus.

Payton Head, then-president of the Missouri Students Association, wrote in a widely shared Facebook post that the “KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus” and that he was “working with the MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard.”

Mr. Head later retracted the post and apologized, saying the information came from “multiple incorrect sources.”

“In a state of alarm, I was concerned for all students of the University of Missouri and wanted to ensure that everyone was safe,” he wrote in the apology. “The last thing needed is to incite more fear in the hearts of our community.”

Prior to the account’s suspension, @FanFan1911 had a long track record of spreading misinformation. The account reported a fake chemical factory fire in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, in 2014 and spread panic about Syrian refugees in Germany in 2016.

Mr. Prier is a 2003 University of Missouri ROTC graduate. The Strategic Studies Quarterly article expands upon the Master’s thesis he wrote while studying at Air University for the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

The KKK propaganda was so effective because it tapped into the biases of students at University of Missouri, Mr. Prier wrote, and was reported by several trusted media outlets.

“One of the primary principles of propaganda is that the message must resonate with the target,” he wrote. “Therefore, when presented with information that is within your belief structure, your bias is confirmed and you accept the propaganda.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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