AUSTIN, TX — The same Russian bots that interfered with the U.S. presidential election in 2016 were busy this month pushing false narratives that media ignored the serial bombings that terrorized Austin because the first two victims were black, according to a watchdog group.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan nonprofit monitoring some 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russia-affiliated accounts to discern efforts to shape American public opinion on myriad issues, reports that the bots were aggressively tweeting about the Austin bombings in the midst of the violence. To that end, the bot-driven push helped elevate the words "Austin," "Austin bombings" and "Texas" as trending topics on the group’s website, researchers found.
But the keywords yielded as top-trending weren’t meant to inform objectively about the parcel bombings, but to promulgate false narratives on social media positing that media ignored the story — a terror campaign that, in fact, commanded local, national and international headlines since it began on March 2 — because the first two victims were black. The inference being that given the race of the two victims who died in the serial bombings were African American, the story wasn’t worthy of coverage.
On the site’s dashboard, a spike of nearly 2,000 tweets by Russian-linked accounts is seen on March 20 when a fifth parcel bomb detonated at a FedEx facility in Schertz, Texas, just outside of San Antonio. The later use of FedEx by the alleged bomber later identified as Mark Anthony Conditt, 23, would prove his undoing. The scores of law enforcement agents descending on Austin to assist local police on the case were then able to examine surveillance camera video showing Conditt at FedEx stores, easily able to cross-reference purchases he previously made for the deadly shrapnel ingredients he purchased at area hardware stores.
Conditt ultimately would blow himself up in his vehicle as police closed in on him in Round Rock, Texas, just north of Austin — violently perishing with the same type of lethal package with which he is said to have inflicted death and serious injury to innocent victims.
The first to die in the serial bombings was 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House, father to an 8-year-old girl, killed on March 2. Just ten days later, Draylen Mason, a promising 17-year-old musician, would die as he handled a lethal package delivered to his front doorstep that also injured his mother. Both victims were black. A third victim, 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera, sustained numerous injuries and continues to slowly recover after a second March 12 attack.
In the run-up to the presidential election, Russian bots sowed discord among the American electorate with stories casting a negative light on Hillary Clinton while promoting the campaign of Donald Trump as a way to shape the election’s outcome. Among the batch of Russian-linked stories were those meant to dissuade voting participation among African Americans and other minorities, a voting bloc that historically tends to vote Democratic.
The nation’s top law enforcement agencies unanimously agree Russians attempted to influence the presidential campaign, sowing seeds of discord serving to Balkanize the electorate. Some of this polarization was done by targeting minorities in an effort to dissuade them from participating in the voting process altogether, intelligence officials have found. A probe by a special prosecutor continues to this day to discern the depth of the Russian influence on American political affairs.
That same tactic appeared to be in play during the Austin serial bombings. The bot-induced narratives flooding social media in the throes of the terror campaign further promoted the idea that local police didn’t take the bombings seriously until white victims emerged. The Russian-linked stories also promoted a widely held belief that Conditt was treated differently given his Christian background than he would’ve otherwise been demonized had he been a person of color or a Muslim.
While a calming presence to residents in continually updating on his department’s investigation into the bombings while providing safety tips, Interim Police Chief Brian Manley was criticized in some circles for referring to Conditt posthumously as "frustrated" and "challenged." On Thursday, reports surfaced of Manley now unequivocally labeling the suspected serial bomber as a "domestic terrorist."
At a press conference after Conditt’s death, Manley revealed the existence of a 28-minute cellphone recording the suspect made shortly before his death the chief said was tantamount to a confession. Manley’s subsequent characterization of Conditt as a frustrated young man facing myriad life challenges gave rise to criticisms he had effectively humanized the Anglo suspect.
"Having listened to that recording, he does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate," Manley said during a news conference the day Conditt blew himself up. "But instead, it is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point."
By Thursday — following an outcry from largely minority Austin residents taking issue with what they perceived as his charitable characterization of Conditt — Manley was more strident in his description of the suspect.
"I actually agree now that he was a domestic terrorist for what he did to us," Manley said to the crowd gathered at the George Washington Carver Museum in East Austin, an enclave historically inhabited by blacks and Latinos that has been swept by gentrification in the better part of a decade. At the panel discussion organized by public radio station KUT, Manley added he is now "very comfortable" labeling Conditt as a terrorist.
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