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Atlanta Activist Uses Russian-Backed Media To Spread Message

At a friend's house, activist Anoa Changa records an interview with a congressional candidate for her podcast and YouTube channel.
Credit Johnny Kauffman

Anoa Changa is a progressive activist and political commentator in Atlanta.

When I met her recently, Changa was preparing to record a segment for her own podcast and YouTube channel “The Way with Anoa.”

She sat on a couch at a friend’s house, adjusting a microphone and web camera on the coffee table in front of her. This is Changa’s studio for the day. Her two teenage kids are at home.

On the other end of the video call is Amy Vilela, a Bernie Sanders-aligned candidate running for the Democratic nomination in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District. Changa asks Vilela some friendly questions.

Vilela responds, hitting on the theme of the interview.

“What we’re actually fighting against is the corruption that is seeped into our political parties and our government by extension,” Vilela said.

Changa has interviewed a handful of Sanders-aligned congressional candidates on her show.

“Folks, definitely go check Amy out, give her a like, share, contribute,” Changa tells her audience.

Changa isn’t paid for this work. She has a separate day job. But her Twitter account still boasts over 14,000 followers.

“Having the opportunity and the space to use my voice, and really standing up for people or helping other people get their voices and their stories out there, that’s what kind of really motivated me,” said Changa.

During the 2016 election, Changa often ended up speaking to media looking for a female supporter of Sanders. Since the election, she’s been part of an online network formed by supporters of Sanders and former Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Changa is managing editor of a blog called “Progressive Army,” where some of the activists regularly post.

But Changa’s work as a commentator got more complicated after she took a call in 2016.

As she remembers it, the call came from a producer at Sputnik radio, a network funded by the Russian government. Sputnik has a website, and broadcasts on both AM and FM in Washington, D.C.

By agreeing to appear on two Sputnik programs, Changa gained something hard to find: a bigger platform to broadcast her political views. But Changa’s association with Sputnik may put her credibility at risk, while furthering Russia’s effort to create chaos in the U.S.

Sputnik 

A report released in January by the FBI, National Security Agency and CIA called Sputnik and the TV network RT, formerly Russia Today, part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine.”

The report titled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in US Elections” links Sputnik to Russia’s broader efforts to influence the 2016 election, noting it served as “a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.”

“Those platforms are set up for the sole purpose of promoting the Kremlin line,” said Robert Orttung, an associate research professor of international affairs at The George Washington University.

When progressive activists appear on Sputnik, that makes the outlet seem more legit, Orttung said. Russia may be using the activists’ frustrations about U.S. politics for its own purposes.

“The idea is to create as much chaos as possible,” Orttung said, “Because the Russians see it as a zero-sum game, where anything that weakens us is going to strengthen them.”

Changa doesn’t plan to stop appearing on Sputnik programs.

The two shows where she’s a regular, “By Any Means Necessary” and “Loud & Clear,” are a place where she’s comfortable talking about issues important to her, like police brutality, voter suppression and corporate influence in the Democratic Party. The shows, Changa said, are independent. She trusts their hosts and producers.

“If there’s a space available to occupy and get that voice across,” said Changa, “then we should take it.”

Doubts About Russian Interference 

Changa and the hosts of the Sputnik shows where she contributes talk a lot about Russian interference in U.S. politics.

To them, the story gets too much attention, and they question the seriousness of it.

Eugene Puryear is paid to host the Sputnik show “By Any Means Necessary.” In addition to their broader concerns about coverage of Russian interference, Puryear, Changa and others take issue with stories about Russian agents who tried to trick black activists in an effort to amplify racial divisions.

Puryear said reporting on the topic often equated white nationalist groups with the racial justice movement.

“So raising Black Lives Matter issues is divisive in America? I mean I think what’s divisive is racism and police brutality,” he said in a phone interview.

In other words, Puryear argues, Black Lives Matter isn’t the divisive issue, racism is.

Many media reports describe links between white supremacist groups and Russian propaganda outlets like Sputnik.

For Changa, the attention on Russian interference and its potential influence distracts from other problems they see in U.S. politics.

“This type of rhetoric is being launched to undermine progressive candidates who are trying to run, who may have benefited from the grassroots support that grew up around Bernie Sanders,” Changa said on a February episode of “By Any Means Necessary.”

Political Distraction?

One of Changa’s goals is boosting progressive candidates around the country.  A handful have appeared on her podcast and YouTube channel.

She’s also involved in Georgia politics.

Changa helped lead a protest last year at the progressive Netroots Nation convention drowning out the speech of Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia.

Changa and the other protesters chanted “trust black women.” Evans is white, while her Democratic primary opponent Stacey Abrams is black. Changa supports Abrams.

In August, Marcus Ferrell appeared on Sputnik’s “By Any Means Necessary” and discussed the Georgia governor’s race. Ferrell is a friend of Changa’s, and at the time was a deputy campaign manager for Abrams. He later resigned from that position and is currently running to be a state representative in Arizona.

There’s no direct link between Changa and the Abrams campaign.

A few Georgia politicians have appeared on Russian-backed media themselves.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry was once a guest on “By Any Means Necessary” to discuss the controversial Plant Vogtle. Georgia Democratic state Rep. Erica Thomas has appeared regularly on RT.

Congressional candidates Changa has boosted through her own platform were mixed about her relationship with Sputnik.

In Wisconsin’s 1st District, a staffer for Democrat Cathy Myers said the campaign doesn’t regret Myers’ appearance on Changa’s YouTube channel last year.

But at least one politician interviewed by Changa had concerns about her regular appearances on Sputnik shows.

Richard Winfield is running in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District on a Sanders-like platform that includes “Medicare for all” and a federal jobs program.

Winfield said he didn’t know Changa was a regular on Sputnik, but if he did, he wouldn’t have agreed to appear on her personal podcast.

“It raises the possibility of people impugning not just me,” said Winfield, “but the political positions I’m advancing and distracting from the power of these positions.”