In November 2015, just days after terrorists killed 130 people in a coordinated attack in Paris and its suburbs, Texas governor Greg Abbott declared that he would oppose Obama administration efforts to resettle Syrian war refugees in Texas. “Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Abbott wrote in a letter to President Obama. Less than a week after Abbott threw down the gauntlet to Obama, hundreds of people supporting the refugees held a rally in downtown Austin, chanting, “Let them in, Abbott, let them in.”
More than 5,500 miles away—in a rather plain-looking office building at 55 Savushkina Street in the northwestern Primorsky District of St. Petersburg, Russia—the trolls took notice.
The Internet Research Agency, a Russian company believed to be run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, was humming around the clock in the building. Since 2013, more than a thousand Russians had been trained there in the use of social media to create disharmony and discord among Ukrainian and Russian citizens. Now the IRA—which would become known as the Russian troll factory—was turning its attention to the U.S. elections. The conflict between Abbott and the Obama administration was exactly the kind of wedge issue the Russian trolls were looking for to sow division in America.
“They would read the news every day, and they would find the most sensational stories and grab them and they would put their own spin on them,” said Renee DiResta, the leader of a six-month investigation into the Internet Research Agency for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that was released this week.
Syria, she told me, was an issue the Russians could play to different American groups for opposing effects. For African-Americans, memes would be pushed that babies were dying in Syria. For the South and Texas, the idea was pushed that if the U.S. would get out of Syria, then fewer refugees would be brought to the United States. For liberals, the Russians would pull the heartstrings of “why wasn’t something being done for the refugees?”
But the time the controversy erupted in Texas, the troll factory had already created a false identity—“sock puppet”—Facebook page called Heart of Texas, featuring images of sunsets, fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, and lounging longhorn cattle. The page was also filled with memes like a photo of Middle Eastern refugees and the headline: “Should Texas Accept Syrian Refugees?” The answer, in red: “NO!” Another meme called for an anti-refugee rally at the Texas Capitol. Other memes were more generic to the idea that Texas should secede. One transformed the Texas flag into a “Don’t Tread on Me” image in the white field, with the red field converted into a Confederate battle flag. “There also was an undercurrent of Second Amendment and anti-immigration memes,” according to a new study of Heart of Texas by DiResta’s team at Austin-based New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm.
In May 2016, the troll factory prompted opposing rallies in Houston by Heart of Texas readers and those of United Muslims of America, both “sock puppet” sites. Russian teams using the same Internet Protocol addresses were set up to play Americans on both sides of an issue. Before the Russian trolls were done, the Heart of Texas Facebook page had 5.4 million likes and had been shared 4.9 million times, according to a second study performed by the University of Oxford. United Muslims had 2.4 million likes and 1.2 million shares.
Even before the 2016 presidential election, DiResta noted, the Russians had been testing disinformation in Texas by stirring up the controversy surrounding the Jade Helm military maneuver in the summer of 2015. Conspiracy theorists had created the idea that a joint military training exercise in Texas was cover for President Obama to declare martial law and seize Texas. The conspiracy theory gained traction when Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military. Earlier this year, a former head of the National Security Agency and the CIA—Air Force General Michael Hayden—said the Jade Helm disinformation campaign was pivotal to the Russians’ decision to try to influence the U.S. presidential campaign. “At that point, I’m figuring the Russians are saying, ‘We can go big-time.’ And at that point, I think they made the decision, ‘We’re going to play in the electoral process,’” Hayden said.
The New Knowledge and Oxford studies give the greatest detail to date about the extent of the Russian propaganda campaign against America and attempts to influence the 2016 election. The studies also suggest that Texas was often at the heart of the campaign. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence received the reports earlier this week as part of its ongoing investigation into Russian meddling through social media. While the reports show the Russians clearly were trying to tilt the election to Donald Trump, the Russian troll factory also keyed off of news events and societal disputes to fan the flames of American outrage in a broader effort to disrupt American unity.
“The scale of their operation was unprecedented—they reached 126 million people on Facebook, at least 20 million users on Instagram, 1.4 million users on Twitter, and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube,” says the New Knowledge report. The Russian troll factory had a budget that exceeded $25 million in U.S. dollars and continued functioning well into 2018. “The data provided to [the Senate committee] illustrates that for approximately five years, Russia has waged a propaganda war against American citizens, manipulating social media narratives to influence American culture and politics.”
As the general election approached between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the Russian trolls increased their operation to influence the election. “The goal appears to have been to generate extreme anger and engagement for those most likely to support then-candidate Donald Trump, and to create disillusionment and disengagement on the Left-leaning and Black communities,” the New Knowledge report says.
Even before the general election, the Russians were trying to steer the Republican presidential nomination to Trump. There were memes attacking former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “Joke or stupidity,” and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida with the question, “Rubio is a traitor?” Rubio had won office as a tea party outsider, but then became an establishment candidate. When U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, criticized Trump, memes appeared on the Russian-controlled sites questioning his sanity.
When the field of candidates was winnowed down to Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz as Trump’s main Republican opponent, the Russian efforts focused on knocking Cruz out of the Republican nominating contest. “There appeared to be a strong and consistent preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, beginning in the early primaries. There was unfavorable content about a wide range of Republican candidates and leaders, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and then-candidate Dr. Ben Carson,” the New Knowledge report says.
A meme on the Russian sock puppet site Being Patriotic had a photo of Cruz with a red X through his face next to a photo of Trump with a green check mark under his. “Wisconsin don’t fail America! Vote Trump.” At this point, Cruz and Ohio governor John Kasich were the only credible candidates who could block Trump from winning the Republican nomination outright. Cruz gave Trump a thumping in Wisconsin. Afterward, the Trump campaign put out a Twitter statement, calling Cruz a “Trojan horse” for the establishment.
NEW: Trump campaign statement tonight pic.twitter.com/ycqP3IJYWn
— Robert Costa (@costareports) April 6, 2016
In January 2016, Austin’s Alex Jones had raised the question on his Infowars internet show of whether Cruz was a Trojan horse for Wall Street. Political consultant Roger Stone, who has ties to both Jones and Trump, admitted this week in a lawsuit that he had used his platform on Jones’s Infowars to spread false information about a Chinese businessman. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller is investigating whether Stone colluded with the Russians in the release of purloined Clinton and Democratic National Committee emails by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Stone denies the connection.
A Being Patriotic meme featured a cartoon image of a Trojan horse passing the U.S. Capitol with Cruz’s image replacing the horse’s face. “GOP establishment’s ruse,” the headline said. “The Trojan Cruz.” The cartoon is a replica of one that ran in Harper’s Weekly on July 31, 1880, warning that Democratic presidential nominee General Winfield Hancock was a Trojan horse for a deceitful political party more interested in personal gain than governance. The Russian meme merely replaced Hancock’s face in the cartoon with Cruz.
Ultimately, of course, Trump defeated both Kasich and Cruz. The Oxford study found that Russian pro-Trump activity had one of its major peaks in Facebook advertising three days after Cruz suspended his campaign. Only the day after the first general election debate between Trump and Clinton had a higher peak of Facebook traffic.
Anti-immigration, border wall, and secession themes were repeatedly directed at Texans, especially men. Much of it played off of the vote by Great Britain to leave the European Union, commonly called Brexit. As the New Knowledge report said: “Brexit narratives were shared on the Instagram account @rebeltexas as a justification for #Texit, as well as on @_americafirst_ and @mericanfury to encourage American isolationism and a retreat from involvement in global affairs. The Facebook Page Heart of Texas posted about secession with some regularity, and coordinated real-world pro-secession demonstrations across the state using Facebook Events.”
Even though the Russians targeted Texas with secession messages and played off the disputes over accepting Syrian refugees, the report also leaves the impression that the Russians may not have known that Texas was never really in play in the 2016 election. In describing the scope of the Russian operation, the New Knowledge report pointed to the indictment of thirteen Russian nationals by special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The indictment states that some of the Russian operatives posing as U.S. citizens in June 2016 contacted an individual in Texas who was connected to a “Texas-based grassroots organization.” The individual told the ersatz Americans not to waste time on Texas and instead concentrate on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.”
For me, after four decades of covering American politics, the most troubling part of the report is that much of what the Russians did cannot be called fake news. “The divisive propaganda Russia used to influence American thought and steer conversations for over three years wasn’t always objectively false. The content designed to reinforce in-group dynamics would likely have offended outsiders who saw it, but the vast majority wasn’t hate speech. Much of it wasn’t even particularly objectionable. But it was absolutely intended to reinforce tribalism, to polarize and divide, and to normalize points of view strategically advantageous to the Russian government on everything from social issues to political candidates.”
This is not particularly new to American politics as conducted by American political groups. Radio and television ads reinforced voter bias, often with commercials that were true only in the most literal sense. For political reporters, the internet at one time seemed like an opportunity to catch skullduggery in the act. Politicians could no longer say one thing in one town and then something else in another. Ads that ran in just one city could be tracked down. But in this new realm of social media advertising, to keep track, you’d almost have to “like” every political page that comes along and fill your own stream with buzzwords to have the ads directed at you. And then, what do you make of them if you don’t know whether the source is real?
Political and social rage are almost epidemic in America as we sort ourselves into the echo chambers of social media and cable television news. DiResta told me the Russians rarely even create their own content any more. They merely take what Americans create and amplify it on social media. So, are the Russians really to blame for where we are today? As Walt Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”