Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a Twitter flash mob to free Russian national Maria Butina following U.S. charges that she conspired to influence American politics while covertly working for the Kremlin.
It’s an intriguing strategy by a foreign government, though perhaps not surprising, given the U.S. intelligence finding that the Kremlin manipulated social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The ministry urged people to show support for Butina by changing their Twitter profile photos to a portrait of Butina posted on the ministry’s official Twitter account and Facebook page on Thursday. Those pages feature an image of Butina, 29, with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina beneath.
“In connection with the arrest in the United States of Russian citizen Maria Butina, we’re starting a flashmob in her support: #FreeMariaButina,” reads the translated Tweet. “Put a photo of Maria as your avatar.”
The English version of the ministry’s Twitter account simply announced #NewProfilePic and #FreeMariaButina.
— МИД России ?? (@MID_RF) July 19, 2018
By late Thursday, it appeared that no one who had responded in Russian to the Russian Twitter account had changed their profile photo. Responses in English were harsh.
Unbelievable. Russian ministry of foreign affairs changes its profile photo to #FreeMariaButina. This is war. You realise this, right? It's a troll war. But it's still war. It's what war looks like now. pic.twitter.com/9qEREECTJr
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) July 19, 2018
What's wrong, Russia? Want your spy back? pic.twitter.com/N2lF3JcL9n
— Rogue US Mint ??, #AltGov (@WatchPresTrump) July 19, 2018
— Rogue NASA (@RogueNASA) July 19, 2018
U.S. prosecutors say Butina cultivated contacts she made at a “gun rights organization” that fits the description of the National Rifle Association to get close to politicians. She “gained access” through one unidentified American with whom she was cohabiting to an “extensive network” of people in “positions to influence political activities in the United States,” according to court documents.
According to reporting by Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, Butina’s key American contact was likely South Dakota Republican Paul Erickson, 56, who reached out to Trump campaign leaders in a bid to establish a “back channel” between the campaign and the Kremlin, according to The New York Times.
Butina’s attorney has said she was just networking and hasn’t done anything illegal. Prosecutors argued in court Wednesday that Butina posed a flight risk, and the judge ruled that she will remain in custody without bail at least until her hearing next week.