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Russian 'Trolls' Fan U.S. Controversy Over Football Player Protests, Senator Says

Some members of the Indianapolis Colts kneel for the national anthem prior to the start of a game against the Cleveland Browns in Indianapolis, Indiana, on September 24.

Russian Internet "trolls" are exploiting a controversy over protests against police violence by black American football players to stir up divisions in the United States, a senator on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said on September 27.

Senator James Lankford (Republican-Oklahoma) said paid social-media users, or what he called "trolls," have been fanning both sides of a heated public debate that emerged recently after some black football players, to protest against recently reported incidents of police violence against black crime suspects, knelt on the ground rather than stood up, as is traditional when the U.S. national anthem is played.

President Donald Trump in recent days has lashed out at the players, saying they "disrespected our country," and has called on National Football League team owners to fire or suspend them.

Lankford said the Russian trolls, who congressional aides said were detected by U.S. intelligence agencies that briefed committee members, are not taking sides in the dispute but rather are seeking to amplify the anger expressed by people on both sides.

"They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend, and pushing them out from their troll farms as much as they could to try to just raise the noise level in America and to make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue," Lankford said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is one of several congressional panels that has been investigating alleged Russian efforts to influence last year's presidential election. Congressional aides said investigators have found evidence that the influence efforts have continued this year.

Russia has denied any effort to influence the election or public debate.

Private researchers who track Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns said Lankford's charges are plausible.

A website put together by researchers working with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan, transatlantic project to counter Russian disinformation, shows tweets promoting both sides of the football debate from accounts it said were used to spread Russian propaganda on Twitter.

Clint Watts, a researcher who helped create a website that tracks Russian propaganda on social media, told AP that the campaign Lankford described is similar to propaganda campaigns he said were well-documented, such as one using Facebook to spread messages for and against the Black Lives Matter movement.

Watts said the recent Russian propaganda efforts are similar to the "active-measures" campaigns of the Soviet era, when Moscow engaged in information warfare designed to destabilize Western democracies from the inside.

"The goal is to sow division in America," he told AP.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee and its counterpart in the House of Representatives have asked technology giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter to testify about their experiences with Russian organizations placing ads on their networks in public testimony in coming weeks.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters