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Russian trolls used Emanuel church shooting to create division ahead of 2016 election

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Emanuel AME vigils

Phyllis Holmes of Charleston takes a moment to pray with her 3-year-old granddaughter after placing a candle at a memorial on the sidewalk in front of Emanuel AME Church on Thursday, July 18, 2015 in Charleston. The stunned city tried to come to grips with tragedy a day after a mass shooting at the church left nine people dead. (Paul Zoeller,The Post and Courier)

A Facebook page linked to a Russian propaganda machine used the hate-fueled massacre at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church as part of a larger scheme to sow racial and political division in America before the 2016 election, newly released documents show.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released more than 3,500 Facebook ads created or promoted by a group called the Internet Research Agency.

The St. Petersburg firm was indicted by the Justice Department in February for a long-running strategy to interfere with the presidential election.

Last year, the committee released a sampling of the ads purchased by the company. They are now releasing the full cache of ads that Facebook officials turned over to the panel after acknowledging in September they had discovered the Russian efforts.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, said he was releasing the ads to keep it from happening again.

"Russia sought to divide us by our race, our country of origin, our religion and our politics," Schiff, of California, posted on Twitter.

"By exposing these Russian-created Facebook advertisements, we hope to better protect legitimate political expression and safeguard Americans from having the information they seek polluted by foreign adversaries," he said. 

Among the thousands of ads was one with ties to the South Carolina hate crime.

On June 17, 2015, a self-avowed white supremacist walked into a Bible study at Emanuel AME and gunned down nine parishioners that night. The very next day, the propaganda account, Black Matters, paid Facebook 1,295.48 rubles —or about $20 — for one ad to capitalize on the tragedy in an effort to gain more Facebook page followers.

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"Sadness and shocking tragedy at historically black church in Charlestone (sic). *CLICK TO GET LIVE UPDATES ON OUR PAGE,*" the post reads. 

The message continues, "American xenophobia is based on the dominant white heritage that is giving birth to another form of hate and discrimination. These forms take another level of hate. Unfortunately, American tolerance is not what we think it is. US public is swapping patriotism for nationalism, tolerance for Islamophobia, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment."

"What if America is still a deeply racist country? What if the church is not a safe place anymore?" the post says at its end before incorporating the hashtags #CharlestonShooting and #chsnews.

The ad got 274 clicks, and had 5,072 impressions.

The ad was also intended to reach audiences outside of South Carolina. From June 18-19, the ad was digitally deployed in Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri. All of those areas were the sites of police shootings of unarmed black people that garnered national attention: Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.

Researchers who track disinformation and Russian meddling have said trolls are quick to pounce on divisive issues and deploy swarms of bots to stoke incendiary messages.

The Associated Press said the ads pushed by the Russian firm show they promoted arguments for and against such issues as immigration, LGBT stances and also gun rights. A large number of the ads also tried to stoke racial divisions by mentioning police brutality or disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement.

Other ads promoted President Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, who ran against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Few, if any, supported Clinton.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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