Charlotte activists were ‘duped’ by Russians, feds say – and it started on Facebook

The alleged Russian conspiracy to infiltrate a 2016 political rally in uptown Charlotte began with a friend request on Facebook.

The message to Andrew Fede came from a woman who identified herself as an activist with a group named BlackMattersUS.

Fede, a political organizer who came to Charlotte in April 2016, says he gets numerous friend requests each month. When he went to the woman’s Facebook page to learn more about her, he found that she had already been befriended by dozens of his existing Facebook friends. The BlackMattersUS page on Facebook had some 400,000 followers.

Fede thought they were both legit. He knows better now.

Last month, an indictment released by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller outlined a brazen attempt by Russian operatives to infiltrate the American political process and tip the presidential election to Donald Trump.

The “Charlotte Against Trump” rally in Marshall Park on Nov. 19, 2016, is included in the list of events allegedly hacked by the conspirators.

Fede was the chief organizer. One of the main targets of the Russians appeared to be African-American activists like himself.

In his first interview since the Russian link to his rally became public, Fede says he had no idea that BlackMattersUS was reportedly a Russian front and that at least one of the people volunteering to help him promote his event is believed to have been part of the election conspiracy.

“They tricked the FBI, the CIA, the Obama administration, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and, yeah, they were going to trick the activists and media who were running to cover the stories,” Fede told the Observer.

“We were duped. We were all duped.”

On the surface, the Russians’ impact from infiltrating the Charlotte event may appear limited.

According to participants, fewer than 100 people turned out on that Saturday to hear the speeches in Marshall Park.

Since the rally took place more than a week after Trump’s surprising win, not a single vote was changed by what was said or done that day.

Yet Fede and others believe the damage from the Russian intrusion could be significant.

“The Russians accomplished what they wanted to accomplish,” he says. “They took our freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free press – and they used them against us.”

Because of the potential for more Russian hacking, political organizers will be hesitant to stage events, Fede says. Poorly served communities with legitimate grievances about immigration, deadly police force and other public issues “will not want their voices heard or may stop coming to rallies.”

A skeptical press may cut back on coverage of grassroot movements and the issues that drive them, Fede says. Likewise, the media audience may question whether the public discourse presented to them as factual rises above the level of “fake news.”

Political scientist Michael Bitzer agrees. He says the Russian hacking in Charlotte and beyond deepens a mistrust of the federal government that dates back to Watergate and the Vietnam War.

“What this poses is a loss of trust in electoral legitimacy. That, in combination with the loss of trust in institutions, offers a double blow to American civic society,” says Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College.

“Our political process has been called into question. Whether or not the actions had real consequences on voting, it’s on people’s minds. How can you have an active civic engagement when trust is called into question?”

At least one other group that attended Fede’s rally says the indictment’s revelations have left its members feeling exposed to online attacks by conservative critics or even the Russians.

“I don’t need the Russians to tell me who to vote for,” says Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte. “But what this does is give ammunition to folks on the Alt Right – a face and a name to copy and paste in a blog to make up their own story or their own connections, something that’s not true.”

‘Abysmal failure’

Before and after Trump’s surprise victory, the team of conspirators used fake American identities to trick the leaders of grassroots groups into becoming the Russians’ partners, Mueller’s indictment alleges.

“Similarly, (Russian) Defendants and their co-conspirators organized a rally entitled ‘Charlotte Against Trump’ … held on or about Nov. 19, 2016,” the indictment says.

Thirteen Russian nationals were named as defendants. The investigation continues. A Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman for Mueller said investigators would not comment beyond what was said in the indictment.

In the case of the Charlotte event, no local activists were named in the document. As for the Russian activity here, it may be more accurate to say that the conspirators latched onto an event that was already in the works.

BlackMatttersUS is not named in Mueller’s indictment. But it has been linked by Russian and U.S. media to a St. Petersburg, Russia, company included in the list of defendants.

The group had made its presence known in Charlotte before. BlackMattersUS had a hand in at least two rallies here following the September 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, according to BuzzFeed. At the second rally on Oct. 22, 2016, Fede was among the speakers.

A month later, a relatively small, polite group of demonstrators gathered in Marshall Park to speak out against the incoming policies of the Trump administration. Fede was among them.

“We believe Donald Trump when he says he is going to build a wall. We believe him when he says he’s going to ban Muslims. We believe him when he talks about taking away a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “After doing an entire year of tearing this country apart ... I think we know who Donald Trump is, and we’re not going to be fooled by that.”

In the days leading up to the rally, the BlackMattersUS group volunteered to publicize the event through social media and recruit some speakers.

In retrospect, the promotional effort was only partially successful. Charlotte attorney Kimberly Owens says she was surprised at how few people turned out, leading her to wonder if the organizers were from out of town.

She and others on hand that day describe the event as peaceful and similar to other rallies they had attended in town.

None of the speakers promoted anything radical, Owens says. No one called for violent resistance to Trump. No counter-protesters supporting the president-elect showed up to join in.

“Quite honestly, it was more a feel-good event than anything,” says Owens, who describes herself as an “unapologetic” liberal. “If it was organized as part of an effort to destabilize us, it was an abysmal failure.”

When Owens learned that the rally had been cited by Mueller and his team of federal prosecutors investigating Russia’s role during the campaign, she says she was surprised.

“I thought it was kind of goofy. … This was poor execution if indeed it was a set-up,” she says.

Besides, Owens adds, “I don’t care who organizes as long as the message is consistent with my values.” Given that this was a rally against the Trump administration, “it could have been Harvey Weinstein organizing and it would not have mattered.”

Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston, then a community activist who had met Fede that fall, was also invited to speak at Marshall Park. He believes Charlotte and North Carolina became an obvious target for the Russian conspiracy due the city’s highly polarized reaction to the Keith Scott shooting, the growing divisiveness of North Carolina politics, and the important role the state played during the presidential race.

“Folks were trying to subvert some of our most precious freedoms,” Winston says. “It reminds us that we have to be more vigilant on how we interact with one another. … These wars are real.”

When the U.S. media began writing about possible Russian manipulation of grassroots rallies, Fede says he went back to the Facebook pages of the woman who had sent him a message and of BlackMattersUS only to find that they had been taken down.

The Facebook messages between himself and the woman had also disappeared.

An Observer email left on the BlackMattersUS website seeking comment for this story did not draw a response.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS