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Report: Texas Secession Was A Key Theme In Russian Disinformation Campaign During 2016 Elections

Collage via Texas Tribune
Collage via Texas Tribune

A sprawling Russian disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 elections found success with social media accounts promoting the idea of Texas secession, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Senate that was released Monday.

When it came to stirring up social divisions and exerting political influence, two accounts about the Lone Star State proved especially effective: a “Heart of Texas” Facebook page and a @rebeltexas account on Instagram.

Both accounts were created and managed by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company that’s been characterized by the U.S. government as a “troll farm” and was indicted by a federal grand jury.

Heart of Texas, which amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook, promoted an image of the state as a land of barbecue and guns while sharing posts that attacked immigration.

The page had the most shares of all IRA Facebook accounts, at 4.8 million, according to the report, which was prepared by an Austin-based company, New Knowledge.

“Heart of Texas visual clusters included a wide swath of shapes of Texas, landscape photos of flowers, and memes about secession and refugees,” the report said.

Posts by the Facebook page cited in the report include a truck with a giant state flag and a photo of Texas wildflowers as well as another laying out the “economic grounds for Texas secession.” The page also shared memes criticizing immigration.

In at least one case, Heart of Texas’ vitriolic posts resulted in dueling protests outside a Houston mosque during the 2016 election cycle.

As the page announced a rally on May 21, 2016 outside the Islamic Da'wah Center to “Stop Islamification of Texas,” a separate Russian-sponsored group, United Muslims of America, advertised a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time. Interactions between the two groups eventually escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks.

That Russian groups were behind both protests came to light in late 2017, when federal lawmakers released a cache of information about the extent Russian operatives made use of Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign.

On the @rebeltexas Instagram, according to the New Knowledge report, the IRA manipulated political events such as Brexit to promote armed insurrection and Texas secession, which has a long history in the Lone Star State.

Social media accounts focused on Texas secession also pushed for a real-life #Texit rally, though it did not include specifics, the New Knowledge report said.

Heart of Texas posts also emphasized voter fraud as a major problem in the state, claimed that “illegals” were overrepresented in the state’s voter rolls and that the Democratic Party was assisting these undocumented immigrants to vote multiple times.

Altogether, the report found 109 posts — across IRA social media accounts — focused on “amplifying fears of voter fraud,” most of them targeting right-wing audiences.

Texas Tribune provided this story.