Domestic actors trump foreign influence in polarising Black Lives Matter debate

It is now well established that foreign actors, particularly Russia, have sought to spread online misinformation that stokes political and racial divisions.

This has been one driver of divisive narratives about the Black Lives Matter protests in the US - but we wanted to examine the relative impact of foreign actors compared to domestic political actors in promoting divisive narratives about the protests.

Our case study of the UK Black Lives Matter protests and the far-right counter-protests that follows show that while there is evidence that Russia is repeating its attempts to stoke racial tensions in Western society, that foreign influence is not the main driver of the anger and outrage that is being expressed about Black Lives Matter online.

It is well known that Russia's Internet Research Agency’s attempted to exploit the divisions exposed by the Black Lives Matter movement during the 2016 US Presidential election campaign. Experts have already found evidence to suggest that Russia, joined by other foreign actors, is repeating some of its old tactics. It is no surprise that this activity is attracting interest, especially when so many examples of misinformation about the protests in the US appear to have taken hold. However, it would be a mistake to focus on foreign interference as the cause of the activity we have seen online or offline since the death of George Floyd.

Taking the content published by state-sponsored media outlets, we found that similar or identical posts about the protests received far more engagement when shared by high profile domestic figures.

Video footage of a protester scaling the Cenotaph and attempting to burn the British flag was watched 26,000 times when posted by RT, the UK television channel owned by the Russian state. But the same footage tweeted by Katie Hopkins received ten times that number of views.

Another RT video showed young soldiers cleaning graffiti from a war memorial in Whitehall while being shouted at by protesters and was viewed 102,00 times. But an anonymous Twitter account with a small following of around two hundred which posted the same clip racked up 3.5 million views after its tweets were shared by an MP, a Breitbart writer, and pro-Brexit campaigners.

We also found examples of figures on the right of the political divide amplifying content from the left. Left-wing magazine, Huck, posted clips of the protests which were then hijacked and boosted by figures on the right, with one viewed over four million times.

Foreign actors may be attempting to interfere with the online debate around Black Lives Matter, but it appears that their interference is not the prime driver behind the divisions that are highly visible on social media, and that drive both normalisation of anti-Black Lives Matters narratives and further polarisation of our society.