MADISON – Foreign actors are using social media to target Native American populations in an effort to create disruption and sow division ahead of the 2020 election, according to preliminary research from cyber reconnaissance company GroupSense.
Researchers from GroupSense say they have identified the development of Twitter and Facebook profiles that use Native imagery and hashtags referencing, among other things, Wisconsin tribes and Native concerns to disseminate unrelated messages.
The suspicious accounts often attempt to cause disruption by exploiting tensions between Native nations and the U.S. government, according to Amy Ruckes, lead researcher on the project. Other times, they use Native imagery to push anti-immigration messaging.
One post from a Twitter account created in 2019 touches on what the researchers label a “far-right” message.
The June 27 post features a picture of President Donald Trump with the caption: “Illegal immigrants MUST go back home.” Below that is a picture of what is supposed to be two Natives laughing with the caption “LOL.”
The tweet includes the hashtags #tribaltattoo and #standingrock.
Ruckes pointed to the hashtags seemingly unrelated to the content of the posts as a way these accounts gain traction. She highlighted the reference to Standing Rock, a Sioux tribe that has gained attention over the years for its opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.
In July, a federal judge sided with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and ordered the Dakota Access pipeline to shut down until more environmental review is done.
Another post from a different Twitter account uses the hashtags #nativesoltribe, #ojibwa and #decolonizethisplace above a picture of a group of white people that says, “Make America white again?” That photo is next to a portrait of a Native woman with the words “America wasn’t white before.”
Ruckes noted the #ojibwa hashtag, which she said could reference the Ojibwe people, who have territory in northern Wisconsin.
Researchers have so far identified 14 suspicious Twitter accounts, at least two Facebook accounts and three Facebook groups involved in disseminating the Native disinformation.
Many of these so-called trolls are linked to users based in eastern European countries like Kosovo and Macedonia, according to GroupSense founder Kurtis Minder.
Minder said GroupSense is “consistently monitoring certain actor groups” and tactics used by bad actors to cause disruption in the United States. He noted researchers from the company noticed a trend in 2016 where accounts were “micro-targeting” communities and using their platforms to attempt to affect public opinion on issues.
‘Just disruption in general’
He acknowledged the difficulty in determining the motivation behind the messaging but pointed to the foreign origins of the messages as a point of concern.
“There is an agenda,” Minder said. “We can’t exactly explain it. Sometimes it might just be disruption in general.”
The identified accounts demonstrate what GroupSense calls “cross-platform consistency” — they disseminate similar messages and content on not only Twitter but also Facebook and Instagram.
A research document from the group claims this strategy resembles “previous online behavior from Russia” but also notes that there is no current evidence “connecting these accounts to an influence operation by Russia or another foreign entity.”
The document does note, however, that researchers analyzed an NBC News database of more than 200,000 tweets tied to Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some of these Tweets contained the word “Native American” and others referenced hot-button issues like the Dakota pipeline and access to water.
Though there is no clear current connection to specific foreign groups, Minder emphasized the foreign origins of some of the accounts.
He said while the locations may sometimes be obvious — a Facebook group owner’s account may be labeled to be from a foreign country — researchers often need to do a little more digging.
This could include looking at a user’s posted photographs and memes, extracting geographical data and attributing that data to a location.
One Facebook group identified by GroupSense is run by users based in Kosovo, according to the group administrators’ profiles.
The group, which has nearly 40,000 members, is called “We love Native Americans.” Its description claims it is “for our dears American ancestors who gave their lifes for would not be more hatred and racism.”
Despite GroupSense’s early findings, members of Native communities around Wisconsin say they have not noticed the online behavior.
Ryan Greendeer, a spokesperson for the Ho-Chunk Nation, one of Wisconsin’s 11 federally-recognized tribes, said tribe members have not reported experiencing any of the types of targeting identified by GroupSense.
Greendeer acknowledged that tribal people have been “marginalized for quite some time” and added that Native imagery is often used in non-Native contexts, citing the use of Native American mascots by Wisconsin high schools.
He called the social media behavior “an issue” but dismissed its significance.
“I don’t think it would have a lot of impact at all,” Greendeer said. “One of the assumptions is that people can speak on behalf of Native Americans. That’s not true.”
Greendeer also indicated the foreign actors attempting to exploit tensions between the U.S. and Natives tribes are misinformed.
He said U.S.-tribal relations, while tense at times, have improved over the years. He pointed to the July Supreme Court ruling that determined the eastern half of Oklahoma can be considered Native American territory as one bit of evidence.
Paul DeMain, a journalist and member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, echoed Greendeer’s sentiment that the social media behavior would not be detrimental to Native people.
DeMain, who manages more than a dozen Facebook accounts for various organizations, said he is “not really aware of any political messaging coming into my Facebook sites.”
He added that most of the people he knows would recognize the social media posts as fake and claimed it would not impact Native voters because most of the people who vote are “generally involved in the political process on a regular basis.”
The people running the accounts “might think they are targeting a susceptible group,” DeMain said. “At least for the Great Lakes area and the people that I deal with, I don’t think they are going to have much influence.”
Richard Monette, director of the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, largely agreed that the messaging would not have much influence on Native people.
He doubled down on Greendeer’s statement that U.S.-tribal relations are not as bad as some make it seem, but he added the presence of these tensions opens Native groups up to these types of social media attacks.
“America has got this history of trying to separate the Native American from her land and from her wealth. That’s true, and that gets exploited by people throughout the world,” Monette said. “If we don’t want them to use this against us, then we should stop doing that.”
Contact Lawrence Andrea at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @lawrencegandrea.