In the summer of 2016, a Facebook group called “Secure Borders” began fanning the flames of rumors that a young girl had been raped at knifepoint by Syrian refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho. The group accused government officials, including the prosecutor and judge in the case, of conspiring to protect the immigrant community by covering-up the true nature of the crime. Secure Borders attempted to organize a rally, demanding, among other things, that “[a]ll government officials, who are covering up for these criminals, should be fired!” The claims were riddled with falsehoods. There were no Syrian refugees involved, and there was no knife. But because the suspects were minors, privacy laws made it difficult for the court to publish facts that could correct the public narrative.
The “Secure Borders” Facebook group was not the product of outraged Twin Falls residents. It was created by Russian operatives as part of Russia’s ongoing campaign to weaken our institutions of American democracy—in this case, by sowing discord and painting the justice system as an agent of politicians.
As Russia’s desired narrative took hold, images of the judge in the case were shared by a website called “Bare Naked Islam,” stamped with the words “corrupt judge.” Others posted his home address. When the local federal prosecutor issued a public statement warning against the “spread of false information or inflammatory or threatening statements about the perpetrators or the crime itself,” she became the subject of online vitriol, accusing her of attempting to censor the public.
The Defending Democratic Institutions Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has studied how Russia continues its attack on democracy by pushing a narrative weakening faith in the rule of law as administered by the justice system in both the United States and Europe. While policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have made important strides in confronting election manipulation and related attacks—and, increasingly, understand that information warfare is targeting public attitudes beyond elections—they have not yet come to grips with the threat to the justice system specifically and have not taken adequate steps to protect against it. [Continue reading…]