Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray both warned that foreign adversaries are attempting to exploit the George Floyd protests by sowing discord and inflame the violence that has stemmed from some of the demonstrations.
“We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity. And we are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence,” Barr said during a virtual media briefing on Thursday. “I believe that we have evidence that some of the foreign hackers and groups that are associated with foreign governments are focusing in on this particular situation we have here and are seeking to exacerbate it in every way they can.”
Barr stressed that “people shouldn’t think that countries that are hostile to the United States — that their efforts to influence the U.S. or weaken the U.S. or sow discord in the U.S. comes and goes with the election cycle.” The attorney general said these foreign actors “are constantly trying to sow discord among our people, and there is a lot of disinformation that circulates that way.”
Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, died in police custody last week after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned him down by placing a knee on the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes. Footage of the incident set off a wave of outrage, leading to protests in major cities across the nation, some of which became violent as protesters rioted, looted stores, destroyed property, burned buildings, and clashed with police. Chauvin is now facing charges of second-degree murder and third-degree manslaughter, and the other officers involved in Floyd’s detainment have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Wray echoed Barr’s remarks on Thursday, noting that “it is unfortunately not unusual for foreign actors to choose to try to amplify events in this country to sow divisiveness and discord, and in particular through the use of state-associated media from some of those countries, but also social media, provides a bullhorn or amplifier to gin up more controversy where controversy may already exist and to try to generate upheaval in that regard.”
The FBI director warned that “foreign actors should know that we are watching it extremely closely, and are prepared to act if necessary.”
Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted: “Tonight seeing VERY heavy social media activity on #protests & counter reactions from social media accounts linked to at least 3 foreign adversaries. They didn’t create these divisions. But they are actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles.”
Graphika, a New York-based social network analysis company, released a report Wednesday on how Chinese, Iranian, and Russian state-run media and state-backed social media accounts were looking to exploit the unrest to advance their own agendas.
“State-controlled media outlets and official public diplomacy accounts in China, Iran, and Russia are focusing on the anti-racism protests in the United States, but they are primarily doing so in a way that furthers their existing narratives, rather than stoking American divisions,” Graphika concluded. “China’s primary goal appears to be to discredit U.S. criticism of China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Iran’s primary goals appear to be to discredit U.S. criticism of Iran’s human-rights record and to attack U.S. sanctions. Russian state-controlled outlets largely focused on the facts of the protests.”
Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times, pushed the notion that the Floyd protests had been infiltrated by Hong Kong protesters, baselessly tweeting: “Vicious HK rioters obviously are mastermind of violent protests across the US.”
China is currently working to assert full control over semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which the U.S. has strongly condemned.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, compared U.S. efforts to pressure the Iranian theocracy into ceasing its funding of international terrorism to Floyd’s death in police custody, tweeting: “The ‘knee-on-neck’ technique is nothing new: Same cabal — who’ve admitted to habitually ‘lie, cheat, steal’ — have been employing it on 80M Iranians for 2 yrs, calling it ‘maximum pressure.’ It hasn’t brought us to our knees. Nor will it abase African-Americans.”
Russia’s embassy in the U.S. criticized the treatment of journalists by police during the protests, tweeting: “We remind the #US authorities of their international obligations to ensure the safety and unhindered activities of journalists.”
Data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlights Russia as one of the leading jailers of journalists in the world.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation highlighted how the Russia-backed Internet Research Agency attempted to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement and sow racial discord in the U.S.
In March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told lawmakers that the intelligence community had not concluded Russia is backing any particular 2020 candidate and also warned of interference by China and Iran.