If you thought Texas' Facebook fever swamp got especially weird as the 2016 election approached, you were right. According to a couple of new, third-party reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm behind the country's fake news campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, specifically targeted Texas with one of its most successful pages.
According to one of the reports — from Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project — a page managed by the Russian agency called "Heart of Texas" racked up the third-most likes of any page managed by the group, with 5.5 million. Users shared posts from the page nearly 5 million times and made more than 400,000 comments before Facebook shut it down in September 2017.
Images from the second report, compiled by New Knowledge, an Austin-based cybersecurity firm, show the type of posts that appeared most often on Heart of Texas and its sister page on Instagram, @rebeltexas. They're the sort of thing you might've seen if you've ever spent any time on Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller's popular Facebook page — all Texas pride, non sequiturs and Second Amendment memes.
"Heart of Texas visual clusters included a wide swath of shapes of Texas, landscape photos of flowers, and memes about secession and refugees," the New Knowledge report says.
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Posters on Heart of Texas did everything they could, according to the reports, to push the #texit narrative that sprung up in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in June 2016. On pages targeted at leftist voters the Russians hoped to push away from Hillary Clinton, operatives pushed for California secession, as well.
In May 2016, the group successfully organized an anti-Muslim rally outside the Islamic Da'wah Center in Houston. Demonstrators from the "Heart of Texas" group at the rally confronted a pro-Muslim group across the street, the "United Muslims of America," which was also organized by an Russia-managed Facebook page, as local outlets in Houston first reported last November.
Not content with pushing xenophobia and secession, Heart of Texas page administrators also pushed anti-government violence during and after the January 2016 standoff between militia members led by Cliven Bundy and the federal government at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
Armed insurrection and the Bundy standoff were talking points on Stand for Freedom, Defend the 2nd, Heart of Texas and Being Patriotic — all Russian and all in favor of it. LaVoy Finicum was hailed as a hero and martyr in memes following his 2016 death during a militia occupation of federal land in Oregon; in addition to the Facebook pages mentioned, Instagram accounts @stop_refugees, @army_of_jesus_, @_american.made, @stand_for_freedom, @rebeltexas, @_americafirst_, @wall__up, and @defend.the.second weighed in with the opinion that he had been murdered by the government," the New Knowledge report concludes.