Suspected Russian-run Facebook pages that were taken offline this week were used to organize protests across the country and convinced unwitting Americans to work with them -- in one instance, CNN has learned, even sending an activist a megaphone and a bouquet of roses.
Facebook's culling of the accounts came ahead of an event planned for Washington, DC, next week that one of the pages was promoting. Facebook said the network of pages had promoted a few dozen events since May 2017.
A Facebook event promoting a demonstration advocating universal health care that took place in New York City on July 17 was managed and promoted by 13 different Facebook pages. While most of the pages were seemingly legitimate activist groups, among them was a page called "Resisters," one of the pages Facebook removed on Tuesday.
What went on behind the scenes of the New York rally has all the hallmarks of tactics used by Kremlin-linked groups.
A week before the event, Mariana Pineda, a health care activist living in Long Island, received a message from a woman named "Mary Smith" asking to help coordinate the event.
In an interview with CNN, Pineda said she understood Smith to be associated with the "Resisters" group. Smith, whose profile photo showed a young black woman, said she was given Pineda's name by another activist, and she asked Pineda if she could step in and help run the event.
Pineda, who is affiliated with a number of health care advocacy groups and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, agreed, saying it's not unusual for activists who have never met to communicate online to coordinate events. She told CNN that health care advocacy is a personal issue because she lost her insurance while she was pregnant and had a waiting period before being covered again by Medicaid.
Smith asked Pineda to look into getting permits for the rally, and when Pineda mentioned they would need a sound system for speakers at the event, Smith offered to send her a megaphone in the mail.
A few days later, the event went ahead and a modest gathering of demonstrators listened as speakers talked about the need for Medicare for all, through the white megaphone Pineda had received in the mail from her new acquaintance Mary Smith.
A few days after the rally, two dozen roses were delivered to Pineda's Long Island home, apparently a thank-you for her help in coordinating the event.
"First a megaphone, now two dozen red roses. ... You really know the way to a (socialist) girl's heart, lol," Pineda posted on Facebook at the time.
The disappearance of Mary Smith
Pineda had not heard from, or thought about, "Mary Smith" in a while.
After CNN contacted Pineda on Tuesday, she said she found Smith's account was no longer on the platform. CNN understands that Smith's profile was among the 30 accounts and profiles Facebook removed on Tuesday, which Facebook suspects may be tied to a Russian troll group.
When asked if she was concerned she may have unwittingly been communicating with suspected Russian trolls, Pineda told CNN, "I haven't been fooled by Russians, one particular group may or may not be tied to Russians," and pointed out that many real Americans and legitimate activist groups were also involved in the demonstration and that Facebook hadn't conclusively proved the accounts were Russian.
"Everything can be exploited at any time by anyone. You could be a part of an organization and you could be infiltrated by police officers that are looking to gather intelligence if they think that you're going to be doing a disruptive event," she said.
She said outlets including CNN spend too much time on the topic of Russian interference, "I think that this country is spending entirely too much time dwelling on Russia when we have so many more issues to talk about like the water in flint Michigan and young African men who are being killed by the police and by others so I think that we need to stop talking about Russia and start talking about health care."
In February, special counsel Robert Mueller's office indicted a Russian troll group, the Internet Research Agency, on charges related to an alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States.
One of the group's clear goals was to co-opt unwitting Americans to stage events across the United States. On one occasion in May 2016, the group even organized two opposing demonstrations to take place at the same time in Houston.
Effectively exploiting the nature of the often faceless coordination of real protests and demonstrations through social media, the group would set up Facebook events, and then, in an effort to make the events appear legitimate, would reach out, often through Facebook, to real American activist groups asking them to promote or co-host the events. Occasionally, it would go a step further and provide materials or financial assistance to real, unwitting activists to help run the event.
CNN has documented instances similar to this in Florida, New York, Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere.
Facebook said Tuesday that it "found evidence of some connections between these accounts" and accounts that had been run by the Internet Research Agency but that it couldn't conclusively determine the accounts were tied to the group. In closed briefings with lawmakers the company said it suspected Russians were behind the accounts, a congressional source briefed on the matter told CNN.
Pineda is not deterred.
"If you're on social media, you've already exposed yourself," she said, before encouraging CNN to come back another time and interview her about issues she spends much of her time campaigning on, rather than Russian trolls. "I'm having my health care justice working group meeting on August 4th at Panera Bread so we welcome Russians, we welcome communists, we welcome socialists because this Russia hysteria has to stop."
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