Russian Twitter Accounts Reportedly Helped Fuel NFL National Anthem Debate

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistOctober 23, 2018

In this Aug. 21, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump pauses while speaking during a in Charleston, W.Va.  Trump assailed longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen for making a plea deal in an interview that aired Thursday, accusing his former fixer of “flipping” and arguing “it almost ought to be illegal.”  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

It wasn't just the sitting president who inflamed debate about NFL players who protested racial inequality and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.

According to a report from Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal, Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency—"the Russian and Kremlin-backed company accused of attempting to sow discord in the U.S."—sent thousands of tweets about the NFL and the national anthem.

Beaton cited figures from Clemson University researchers that revealed 491 accounts linked to the agency tweeted 12,000 times about the league and anthem controversy from the end of 2014 through the middle of 2018. Twitter ultimately shut down the accounts following investigations into their origins.

The report pointed to a specific 2017 speech from Donald Trump as well where he criticized NFL players for kneeling and noted "tweets about the NFL and the national anthem surged from accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency" in the coming days.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first NFL player to kneel during the anthem in the 2016 season, although Trump's involvement in the issue and his insistence on making it a talking point during campaign rallies sparked the additional tweets from the Russian-linked accounts.

The specific speech highlighted in the report came from a rally in Alabama where Trump said NFL owners should "get that son of a bitch off the field right now" if one of the players knelt during the anthem.

Those comments came before Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, which saw an increase in the number of players and teams who protested during the anthem.

Trump wasn't the only political figure to become involved in the controversy, as Vice President Mike Pence left a game between the Indianapolis Colts and 49ers because there were players who didn't stand during the national anthem.

Beaton noted 87 percent of the tweets from the Russian-linked accounts were "conservative-leaning" and criticized the protests, while the other 13 percent showed support for Kaepernick and others who knelt.

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