Is Brittney Griner a pawn in Russia’s mis/disinformation war?

OPINION: We know Russian troll farms targeted Black Americans during the 2016 election, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Putin were at it again ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner stands in a cage in a courtroom prior to a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Is Russia at it again?

You ever look to the internet for a quick answer to a question? Think of misinformation as a game of telephone. By the time the last person receives the original message, it is embellished and details are added or omitted. Another example is when someone quotes and shares stats from an online source that is wrong and then shares it. While misinformation can be a form of propaganda, it is an unintentional act, and the messenger is not trying to deceive or sway opinions, thoughts and actions. The messenger simply shared misinformation from a bad source. 

Now, disinformation, the more dangerous offspring of propaganda, is more intentional than misinformation. Disinformation is not concerned with provable facts. It is often disguised as alternative opinions, meant to disrupt or sow chaos by creating false narratives. Disinformation is designed to trigger certain responses from targeted groups. In the case of Brittney Griner, much of the disinformation circulating on social media and in the news is meant to tug at the emotions of Black Americans. 

Why would that be the case and who is doing the manipulating?   

Brittney Griner was arrested on Thursday, February 17. The morning the world was alerted to her arrest was Saturday, March 5. This date stands out in my mind because I was on Tiffany Cross’ show on MSNBC talking about Russia and Ukraine the moment it was announced. Responding in the moment, I said Griner was arrested for political reasons. I did not make this claim because of Russia’s war with Ukraine. I said it because Russian troll farms viciously targeted Black Americans during the 2016 election. 

A Senate report investigating Russian interference highlighted a St. Petersburg-based troll farm, Internet Research Agency (IRA), efforts to “deter black people from voting and planted subtly racist content.” Reporting from the BBC said the goal was to dissuade Black Americans from voting for Hillary Clinton. The report revealed that “more than 66% of Facebook adverts posted by the Russian troll farm contained a term related to race.”  While this may seem like a movie plot, it is real life. 

So, considering Griner’s intersectional identities—Black, female, queer, American, athlete and celebrity—her arrest was sure to trigger an outcry of emotion from the multiple communities she belongs to. Because of the amount of data IRA collected, Moscow understands how to manipulate Black voters through blogs and memes. Moscow also knows that identity wars can destabilize the U.S. from within.  

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner listens to the verdict standing in a cage in a courtroom in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool Photo via AP)

Here are a few examples of disinformation talking points that have spread across social media and repeated in the news. I selected these because disinformation is successful once talking points are repeated by a critical mass.

  • She knew better than to break the law therefore Russia has the right to imprison her.
  • The U.S. government does not care about Griner’s imprisonment.
  • If she were a male American athlete then she’d be out by now.
  • If Donald Trump were still president then he would have her home already. 

These claims are untrue and here’s how we know:

  • While Griner plead guilty, her legal team made a point to say that she did not intentionally break the law. In other words, she was not engaged in a massive drug-smuggling conspiracy, she had a prescription. 
  • While the White House did not get directly involved until recently, which is protocol, the Department of State has been actively involved in her case along with other wrongfully detained Americans’ cases in several countries. 
  • Griner’s case has gotten worldwide attention in a way that other detainees have not received. And regardless of gender, Putin would use an American celebrity to his advantage. 
  • Former President Trump has said publicly that Griner belongs in jail. Under his guidance, the Department of State would not have gotten involved. Paul Whelan and the now-released Trevor Reed languished under his tenure as president.  

So, is Russia up to its misinformation and disinformation trickery again and why now? Under the Biden-Harris administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has grown stronger with Finland and Sweden well on their way to becoming member states. A western security alliance was formed not only to assist Ukraine in defending itself against Russia but to prevent Putin from advancing his war beyond Ukraine. Trump was actively dismantling NATO and would have legitimized Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. With a significant number of pro-Russian allies in the House and Senate, material support for Ukraine could be blunted. Make no mistake, Moscow knows that 2022 is a midterm election year and that Black voters are once again gearing up to protect democracy by voting in historic numbers. The Black vote, or black caviar as I call it, is under attack and unfortunately, our beloved Brittney Griner is at the center.

Remember, Griner is a real person fighting the battle of her life in a hostile country. Let’s not complicate negotiations by spreading mis/disinformation, which can strengthen Putin’s bargaining hand. Stay alert and vigilant by asking yourself these three things when scrolling through the internet.

  • Who is the source?
  • Is the post informative or performative? 
  • Are you emotionally triggered? 

We want all Americans returned safely, especially Brittney Griner. 

Dr. Nola Haynes, Ph.D. and M.Div is a political scientist teaching at Georgetown University at the School of Foreign Service. Nola’s research centers on national security and foreign policy issues particularly arms control and international security.

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