@JohnBanks09988231 is just your average, middle-aged American man on Twitter, and like most of his peers, his passions in life are professional sports, grilling, and “having a beer with the guys.” He is also shares many of the same concerns as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs– a lot.
“Just a simple American man who loves football, freedom, and GRILLIN’!,” his Twitter bio reads, ending with the hashtag #FreeAssange.
Browsing his timeline, you can find messages cheering his favorite professional and college football teams, or secrets for grilling the best steak, BBQ chicken, and brats. But these gems must be found hidden among dozens, if not hundreds of retweets from Russian Foreign Ministry accounts, on topics ranging from the 2014 MH17 disaster to the recent poisoning of dissident Alexey Navalny.
“Why would the Kremlin benefit from poisoning Navalny when he only polls at 2%,” John wrote as commentary accompanying a retweet of Russian UN Representative Dmitry Polyanskiy.
Despite claiming to “despise politics,” because “both parties are the same,” John shows considerable knowledge of Russian foreign policy, possibly more than his knowledge of American sports or outdoor cooking.
Strange as it might seem to some Americans, @JohnBanks09988231 is not alone. Russian Foreign Ministry-linked Twitter accounts often serve as a rallying point for self-described apolitical Americans who are into a wide variety of subjects such as baking or health and wellness, but who also share a passionate concern for Russia’s foreign policy interests.
The Twitter bio for @MissouriGrandma55 says she’s interested in “baking cakes, gardening, and spoiling the grandkids.” But while one may have trouble finding cake recipes on her timeline, it’s never difficult to find tweets about how MH17 could have been shot down by a Ukrainian military plane or a Ukrainian Buk surface-to-air missile system, but definitely not a Russian one. The 65 year-old is adamant about proclaiming Russia’s innocence in the disaster that claimed 298 lives six years ago, and her posts on this topic often coincide with the anniversary of the event as well as new developments in the Joint Investigative Team’s investigation or the ongoing criminal case against three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian being tried in absentia in The Hague.
“This whole investigation is nothing but a fake,” @MissouriGrandma55 writes in response to the Russian Embassy in Pakistan’s tweet on the same topic.
“The Russians weren’t allowed to participate and the investigators didn’t provide and proofs that Russia was responsible.”
Despite claiming to have lived her whole life “in a small town in Missouri,” and never going to college, @MissouriGrandma55 has repeatedly told her followers about “the report from Almaz-Antey, manufacturer of the Buk M1 TELAR SAM.”
Both @JohnBanks09988231 and @MissouriGrandma55 can often be seen posting in response to the same tweets by various Russian officials. Sometimes they can be seen in the replies discussing the “US/NATO coup in Ukraine” or more recently, the “color revolution in Belarus.” It’s not clear how such kindred spirits found each other on the micro-blogging platform, but the #FreeAssange hashtags in their user bios might explain how ordinary, ostensibly apolitical Americans who also take a deep interest in Russian politics always seem to converge on the same topics.
Some Twitter users have accused John of being a Russian “paid troll,” an allegation he staunchly denies.
“I am simply a concerned American citizen who is just asking questions,” he writes in response to one such accusation of being a fake account.
“This Navalny situation looks suspicious to me, just like the claims about WMDs in Iraq. My son was a soldier in the marine core (sic) over there and he died because of the neocon war for oil. I don’t want war with Russia.”
Next came a reply from @MissouriGrandma55, agreeing with John’s sentiment.
“There’s NO WAY NATO can win a war with Russia,” she wrote.
“The S400 SAM system can easily take down the F35, which is a waste of money that makes pilots sick. Also Russia has the T-72B3 and soon the T-14 Armata will be ready. WE WANT PEACE! #NowarwithRussia”
Her message was later retweeted by dozens of other accounts operated by “real,” “average,” or “ordinary” Americans, many of whom had avatars depicting Julian Assange with an American flag superimposed over his mouth.