On February 20, 2015, five military wives with high profiles on social media received death threats from a group identifying itself as CyberCaliphate, the hacking operation for ISIS.
“Bloody Valentines Day!,” one threat read. “We’re much closer than you can even imagine.”
Among the wives targeted was Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partners Association. Mack has been with her wife, Heather, an Army lieutenant colonel, for more than 20 years, and is a leader in the effort to support LGBT families in the changing military.
The threats received widespread media attention. The messages fueled the fear that ISIS had a presence in the U.S. and corresponded with reports that CyperCaliphate had hacked multiple media sites, including Newsweek’s, as well as the Twitter account for the U.S. Central Command.
Except it turns out that the threats weren’t coming from ISIS. They were the work of Russian bots.
An investigation by the Associated Press has found that the same Russian groups that hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails was behind the CyperCaliphate’s efforts. In fact, the groups are so closely linked that they seem to be virtually synonymous.
Government officials have known of the overlap for some time, but the wives only discovered it when the AP contacted them.
“Never in a million years did I think that it was the Russians,” said Angela Ricketts, one of the women targeted. “Not only did we play right into their hands by freaking out, but the media played right into it.”
The report corresponds with the release of 3,500 Facebook ads that were the product of Russian bots. The ads were meant to sow discord and stir up arguments among Facebook users on controversial topics, including LGBTQ rights.
Of course, if you’re the president of the United States, you think that such evidence is just fake news.
But for Broadway-Mack and the other wives, it’s proof that Russia is not just willing to make mischief but to make people fear for their lives.