TEXAS — The flood of online comments about the Austin Independent School District's decision to mandate masks came as no surprise amid a heated, statewide debate about how to protect students and teachers as cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 raged in Texas.
The surprise came when the school district conducted a monthly analysis of online engagement with its social media accounts and found that a chunk of the debate’s comments came from Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation of 18 million wedged between Russia and China.
In an analysis of Austin ISD’s social media accounts metrics from July 20 to Aug. 18, there were twice as many engagements on Twitter and Facebook from profiles based in Kazakstan than Canada, where America’s neighbors are having similar debates about school mask mandates.
The fact that Kazakhstan-based profiles came in second to U.S.-based profile comments is unusual and, although more investigation behind the data is needed to confirm, it follows a pattern of what disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz said could be a case of a foreign adversary seeking to deepen divisions within U.S. society.
“I can tell you generally that foreign disinformation actors use preexisting fissures within societies in order to drive more discontent, more discord, and distrust in the system,” said Jankowicz, the director of external engagement for Alethea Group, a firm that detects and mitigates disinformation. She is also the author of “How to Lose the Information War.”
It is a tactic U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russia of using by employing disinformation campaigns on platforms such as Facebook in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. has also blamed China for using various platforms, including text messages, to spread disinformation and panic during the pandemic.
Analysts have studied several examples when foreign operatives created fake social media accounts on platforms such as Twitter, which is blocked in China, to push messages to sympathetic Americans, who then spread the misinformation online.
In the case of the Austin ISD mask mandate decision, the Kazakhstan profile comments may be part of what Jankowicz called “disinformation for hire,” a tactic Russia has been using a lot lately, she said.
The U.S. sanctioned Russia for what Washington said was the Kremlin’s attempt to interfere in an American presidential election. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied Kremlin involvement in the disinformation campaigns.
To deflect and create an air of plausible deniability between Russia and the target audience for disinformation, the Kremlin has redirected its inauthentic activity to a third country, Jankowicz said.
In other words, with U.S. intelligence communities and social media platforms already on the lookout for Russian trolls and bots setting up false accounts and spreading misinformation, the Kremlin has hired out operatives to do its dirty work in other places, such as in Kazakhstan or, in the case of a CNN investigation last year, the West African nation of Ghana.
Earlier this year, another investigation found that a public relations firm registered in the United Kingdom with apparent Russian links had offered French and German YouTube bloggers money to spread false information claiming the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine caused hundreds of deaths.
Jankowicz said if indeed the Kazakhstan comments proved to come from fake accounts created to stir up division in Austin and elsewhere, it could just as easily be China as Russia behind the scheme.
So, why target Austin, where there has been an outpouring of support from district parents for the ISD’s defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates?
“The idea isn't to change the policy in Austin,” Jankowicz said. “It might be to say to other Texans who might not support a mask mandate to say, ‘I don't want my kids to have to deal with that. I don't want that to happen in our community.’”
It's about increasing that discord online, especially with politically charged issues in the U.S., such as the response to COVID, she said.
“The idea is to just pit us against one another because a weaker America is good for either of these potential foreign actors,” Jankowicz said.
The Kazakhstan-based engagements with the Austin school district’s social media accounts occurred during the height of mask mandate debate, according to online analytics run using a media monitoring program called Meltwater, said Jason Stanford, the chief of communications and community engagement for Austin ISD.
The period between July 18 and Aug. 20 was the first time the district had looked at the metrics, and it’s possible the Kazakh accounts had been active for months before, he said.
“The whole thing is a good reminder of how easily divided we’ve become,” he said. “A lot of time the local issues that can consume us also give others a chance to mess with us.”