Russian Bots And Trolls Helping To Stir National Anthem Protest Controversy

New evidence indicates that the same Russian backed bots and trolls that sought to influence the 2016 election are now attempting to exploit the social divisions raised by the N.F.L. players kneeling during the National Anthem.

Russian-back social media trolls are using the same techniques they used during the 2016 Presidential elections to exploit and heighten the divisions in the United States over the National Anthem protests in the National Football League:

The same Kremlin-linked group that posed as Americans on social media during the 2016 US presidential election has repeatedly exploited the controversy surrounding the NFL and players who have protested police brutality and racial injustice during the National Anthem, playing both sides in an effort to exacerbate divides in American society.

The debate is almost certainly an irresistible one for the Russians, given that it includes issues of race, patriotism, and national identity — topics the Russian trolls sought to exploit during the run-up to the election, and have continued to focus on in the two years since.

CNN worked with researchers at Clemson University that have archived millions of tweets sent by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll group that was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February. The accounts’ links to Russia were discovered by Twitter, which provided details about them to Congress. The data shows the trolls repeatedly weighing in on the debate, using different accounts to take both sides. While they used some accounts to push petitions to fire the protesting players, they used others to hail them as heroes.

Over the past year, social media networks have identified and removed thousands of accounts tied to the IRA. But despite the tech companies’ efforts, there’s no indication that the group is shying away from the NFL controversy.

There is no question that the debate over the protests is real. But Americans watching the controversy unfold on social media ought to know that not all the outrage on either side is authentic, and not all of it is coming from US shores.

Clemson University researchers and CNN have found instances of accounts linked to Russian trolls by Twitter weighing in on the issue as recently as May of this year.

In March, an account posing as an African-American activist tweeted, “Just a reminder: Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job, because in this country fighting for justice will make you unemployable.”

Eugene Scott at The Washington Post comments:

The Washington Post previously reported that Russia bought more than 3,000 ads on Facebook during the 2016 election that showed “a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.”

The Post reported that Russian operatives used Facebook to specifically target Americans with strong feelings on political activism among African Americans, illegal immigration and other cultural issues. The Post’s Leslie Shapiro broke down what the specific ads look like.

The ads were an attempt to exploit the divide during the months leading up to the presidential election.

“Their aim was to sow chaos. In many ­cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in 2017.

It has not been difficult to sow chaos online over race issues in America, including those related to the National Football League protests, because there is so much racial tension here to exploit. Trump continues to harp on the issue, which plays well with his base. His supporters view the protests as disrespectful to the American flag, national anthem and military.

These Russian bots and trolls aren’t the only ones seeking to exploit the National Anthem controversy, of course. They are being joined by no less than the President of the United States himself.

Trump’s involvement in the Anthem controversy began, of course, just under a year ago at a political rally in Alabama where he attacked National Football League players kneeling during the National Anthem, calling them “sons of bitches” and calling on the league and/or the teams to fire or otherwise discipline players who don’t stand for the Anthem. Not surprisingly, the President’s tirade was well-received by his supporters and by conservatives generally, most of whom had been criticizing the kneeling players since the protests had started during the 2016 season. It was not, however, well-received by the league, the players, or by team owners. Responding to the President, the league, the NFL Players Association, and basically, all the team owners voiced support for the protesting players. Additionally, the weeks immediately after the President’s statement saw the kneeling protests expand as players of all races either knelt during the Anthem or engaged in some other form of showing solidarity with those players who chose to do so. It was during this period that Vice-President Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game when some players knelt during the Anthem, in what was obviously a staged photo opportunity by the White House to further stir the pot. Several weeks later, the league announced that it would not discipline players who continued to kneel during the Anthem, and polling in both September and October showed that most Americans opposed the position taken by the President.

Earlier this year, the league announced a new policy that attempted to reduce the controversy surrounding the protests, and perhaps end it altogether. Under this policy, players would no longer be required to be on the field during the Anthem but, if they were, they would be required to stand respectfully and failure to do so would lead to fines on both players and teams aimed at discouraging the practice. The President responded by saying that President Trump responded by saying that the new policy was not sufficient, that players who declined to stand should be fired, and that anyone who declined to stand for them Anthem should leave the country. In any case, the new policy was put on hold in late July in response to a grievance alleging that the policy was developed in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement currently in place between players and the league. This means that players would once again be required to be on the field during the Anthem, but that they would not face any discipline for any protests. As a result, there have been some sporadic protesting players during the pre-season and during last weekend’s opening games.

So far at least the President has not had anything to additional to say on this issue, but that is unlikely to last. He has been quoted in the past as saying that he believes that raising the issue of kneeling players will help Republicans in the fall by helping to energize the party’s base. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but the fact that Trump believes it means that we’re likely to see more protests, and more Trump attacks, over the coming weeks and months, and it looks like the Russian trolls will be there helping to fan the flames.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture, Race and Politics, Sports, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    It’s mostly just one Russian Bot… it does have a lot of followers on Twitter though.

  2. Tyrell says:

    Evidently some of the Dallas Cowboys took knees Sunday – while they were playing.
    “How about them Cowboys?”

  3. Hal_10000 says:


    It’s mostly just one Russian Bot… it does have a lot of followers on Twitter though.

    LOL. I was going to say exactly that!

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Look…if you are so fvcking stupid that you will fall for this faux-controversy…then you are fvcking stupid enough to be taken in by some Russian bots on social media.

    Big picture; what I would really like to see is a public shaming. Let’s gather up all these fake posts and fake ads and what-not…on any subject, not just this…and then figure out who in the US has liked them or re-posted them, or whatever, and name some fvcking names. These are your fellow citizens who are so fvcking stupid that they have been hood-winked into doing the Russians bidding work for them. Then make them wear a large red R on their chest…a la Hester Prynne.

    I’ve got money that says our local Trumpaloons would be on the list.

  5. James Pearce says:

    Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but the fact that Trump believes it means that we’re likely to see more protests, and more Trump attacks, over the coming weeks and months, and it looks like the Russian trolls will be there helping to fan the flames.

    Week 1 saw fewer protests, and if the president thinks the protests will “help him” with “his base,” week 2 will see fewer yet. At least that’s my hope.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Pearce:

    Week 1 saw fewer protests…week 2 will see fewer yet. At least that’s my hope.

    Yes…people protesting racial in justice and inequality can be so damn annoying. I mean…don’t they realize we have important games to watch?

  7. James Pearce says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Yes…people protesting racial in justice and inequality can be so damn annoying.

    More annoying still, gauging a protest on its motives and ignoring its results. You wanted racial justice and equality and you got Trump demagoguery instead.

  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @James Pearce:

    More annoying still, gauging a protest on its motives and ignoring its results

    Jesus-gawd you are dumb. You would have said the same thing right after the Boston Tea party.

    You wanted racial justice and equality

    I did??? Fvck you.

  9. george says:

    Kind of makes me wonder how much of what is read on political forums is from actual partisans of one side or another, and how much of it is from Russian (and I suppose other countries) bots.

    Sometimes I suspect 90% of what is seen is from bots, to the point where many forums are just bots replying to bots. Maybe the population is much less partisan than forums.

  10. James Pearce says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    I did??? Fvck you.

    It’s impressive to see a man feeding off his emotions.

  11. george says:


    Kapernack was doing the normal looking for a better deal within the NFL – if that’s called quitting, then 90% of professional athletes ‘quit’ at one time or another. He seemed to be unlikely to get a starting QB position (too many better quarterbacks), but most football analysts say he was pretty much in the middle of the pack for 2nd quarterbacks, so looking for a better deal was not unreasonable on his part.

    He took a very real risk in starting the kneeling. Ad btw, kneeling is a very respectful act, which is why people kneel in church, kneel to be knighted, kneel to propose marriage. Painting kneeling as disrespectful is one of the funniest, most cynical things I’ve seen in a long time – you basically have to ignore thousands of years of almost global human custom to see kneeling as disrespectful.

  12. george says:


    Wait, you’re seriously arguing that kneeling is a sign of disrespect? That when people kneel in Church its disrespecting God, when people kneel to be knighted they’re disrespecting the sovereign knighting them, when someone kneels in proposing marriage they’re disrespecting the person they’re proposing to?

    My bad for assuming you were someone worth responding to, clearly you have no idea of history or human custom. Carry on, I’ll just skip your posts from here on, you obviously live in a very different reality.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    @george: Obviously he’s a Russian bot himself….