A network of Twitter accounts suspected to have links to Russia were reportedly used to stoke the controversy over whether NFL players should protest during the national anthem.
Twitter accounts were allegedly used to promote both sides of the issue, using hashtags such as #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem and #takeaknee, The New York Times reports.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the controversy in August 2016, when he refused to stand during the traditional playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest injustice toward African-Americans.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL.com at the time.
Kaepernick's protest has gradually spread among NFL players, and has continued into the 2017 season. President Donald Trump added fuel to the fire at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sept. 22, when he called for NFL owners to fire players who knelt during the national anthem, The Washington Post reports.
Trump said at the rally: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b***h off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’
The hypothetical was met with cheers from the assembled crowd.
Trump's remarks backfired and generated the largest demonstrations yet, with more than 200 players protesting during the following weekend's games on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, according to ABC News. Even Trump-supporting billionaire owners joined the players in protest.
Since August, researchers at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy have been tracking 600 Twitter accounts allegedly linked to Russian propaganda operations -- the accounts tweeting opposing messages on the NFL and the national anthem.
That information was revealed as Twitter prepared to brief staff members of the Senate and House intelligence committees on Sept. 28 for their investigation of suspected Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In August, Facebook disclosed that Russians used fake pages and ads to spread inflammatory messages during and since the presidential campaign.
This new evidence from the Alliance for Securing Democracy suggests that Twitter may have been used even more extensively than Facebook for such operations.
"What we see over and over again is that a lot of the messaging isn't about politics, a specific politician, or political parties," said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. "It's about creating societal division, identifying divisive issues and fanning the flames."
Twitter responded to the news with a statement, The New York Times reports: "Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies, and will continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our Terms of Service,”