A Russia-linked Facebook group attempted to organize a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies across Texas last November, three days before the election and months after Russian operatives used the social-media platform to organize an anti-refugee-resettlement protest in rural Idaho.
The group, called Heart of Texas, had over 225,000 followers as of last summer. It was shut down last week as part of Facebook's takedown of accounts and pages "affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," a Facebook spokesman told Business Insider on Wednesday.
Casey Michel, a journalist who has spent years tracing US secession movements to Russia, tracked the group's activity throughout the election and determined it was more than just a platform for far-right Texas secessionists.
Several signs pointed to the page being a Russian influence operation, including a lack of contact information and ads, and a corresponding Twitter account created in November 2015 — right around the time Facebook experienced a surge in Russia-linked, fake accounts, Michel said. Its "about" section read only: "Texas's the land protected by Lord."
Perhaps the most revealing clue that Heart of Texas was not a project spearheaded by dissatisfied Texans was the language. The memes posted in the group contained typos, grammatical errors, and a general unfamiliarity with basic English phrases.
Many didn't make any sense:
In late October, however, the group transformed from a nativist, anti-Clinton meme machine to an organizing force when it created a Facebook event for a "Texit statewide rally" titled "Get ready to secede!"
The event has since been removed from Facebook, but it still appears as the top result on Google using certain keywords. A cached version of the group's announcement of the event on Twitter — where its account was also suspended — can still be viewed.
The event called on Texans in major cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin to protest "establishment robbers" and "higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens." It further claimed that a "Killary Rotten Clinton" victory would lead to an influx of "refugees, mosques, and terrorist attacks."
The page also created "an approximate map" for the rallies and explained, in awkward English, "what will be happening" at the event.
"Signing the petition, delivering speeches, Texas flags and signs waving, open carry, getting media coverage, producing photo and video content to spread on social media," the post said. "This is how we'll bring more awareness about our real needs. God bless y'all!"
It is unclear how many people showed up to the protests. The group's efforts came on the heels of a similar Russian effort disclosed by The Daily Beast earlier this week: an anti-Muslim protest in Twin Falls, Idaho, titled "Citizens before refugees."
The group that organized the protest, which called itself SecuredBorders, was also shut down as part of Facebook's purge of Russia-linked pages. It had roughly 100,000 fewer followers than Heart of Texas when it was shuttered. SecuredBorders and Heart of Texas both linked refugees to crime and posted Islamophobic memes and photos.
"A lot of different people are working on the Russian active-measures problem from a lot of different directions, and they all consistently find examples of the same general content being promoted: highly divisive anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and activity," said JM Berger, an expert on extremism and influence operations who helped build a digital platform called Hamilton 68 that tracks Russian propaganda in real time.
"At this point, we have a lot of independent sources pointing to the same conclusion," Berger said.
Laura Rosenberger, the director of the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy, said Heart of Texas' efforts "shows that the Russian effort to influence our election may have had even more elements than previous reports indicated."
"The use of anti-refugee themes as part of this effort is also another example of the Kremlin's use of divisive issues to attempt to pit Americans against one another," said Rosenberger, who is also involved in the Hamilton 68 tracking project.
Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that Russia's efforts to influence the election via Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms was now a "red-hot" focus of the FBI investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. His team and congressional investigators say they want more information from the companies about Russia's efforts.
Andrew Weisburd, a nonresident fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said he saw the organizing effort "as another example of the Kremlin trying too hard, overplaying their hand, and creating additional problems for themselves going forward."
"What we see is an overt effort to manipulate Americans and interfere in US affairs that creates a specter of 'Kremlin-organized demonstrations' that will persist for the foreseeable future, while achieving... what?" Weisburd said. "How does it benefit the Kremlin that an entire generation of Americans is now painfully aware that Russia remains an enemy, and one that is capable of doing great harm to us?"
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