SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Trump administration has announced new sanctions on Russia, including on the Internet Research Agency. That's the troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, that engineered a massive online effort to post divisive political messages on American social media platforms during the 2016 presidential campaign. So far, the president has personally avoided condemning Russia for its actions despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that U.S. citizens were targeted by Russian operatives. And the trolling continued after the election. Ajah Hales owns Golden Goddess Cosmetics in Cleveland. And early in 2017, she was contacted by a Facebook account that promised to promote black-owned businesses like hers. She joins us from WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks so much for being with us.
AJAH HALES: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: The account called itself Black4Black. What happened? How did they contact you? What did they say?
HALES: They reached out to me on Facebook Messenger. And they said that they were interested in promoting black-owned businesses, that they were starting a directory. And would I like to be involved?
SIMON: And you said?
HALES: I said yes. I'm always looking for new ways to promote my business. So they asked me to complete a questionnaire because they wanted to do an article on my company. They did ask me for additional information, though - if I knew any other businesses that would be interested in free promotion. I'm involved with a local business group called Recycling Black Dollars. And so I forwarded them a spreadsheet with the businesses that had agreed to share their contact information.
SIMON: Where did you think these people were? I mean, you had no inkling they were on the other side of the world?
HALES: No, not at all. They said that they were with BlackMattersUS and that we would be able to tap into their social media network of over 300,000 followers. They sounded completely legitimate.
SIMON: Well, how did you find out that this operation wasn't what it purported to be?
HALES: Shelby Holliday from The Wall Street Journal reached out to me. I struggle with anxiety. And so my anxiety just skyrocketed as soon as I found that out because I'm obsessive about my brand. I don't want anyone to be using my brand or using any information I provide to do shady political dealings.
SIMON: Why do you think they were interested in targeting you?
HALES: Well, I think they targeted me because I'm a black-owned business. Black-owned businesses, especially black female-owned businesses, are some of the most vulnerable in the United States. So because we're vulnerable and because we're always going to be looking for ways to get the word out about our companies, we make easy marks. We're low-hanging fruit.
SIMON: Well, let me put it this way. Do you think they did you any good? Did they do you no harm?
HALES: I think that it's too soon to say. It's too soon to know what they intended to do with the information or how they might've used it.
SIMON: Ajah Hales owns Golden Goddess Cosmetics in Cleveland. Thanks so much for being with us.
HALES: Thanks for having me.
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