The proud Texan who never was

The Guardian - - NEWS - Alex Hern

A sim­ple tweet, sent when a na­tion is in shock, is an ef­fec­tive way of pro­vok­ing out­rage. That’s what @SouthLoneS­tar dis­cov­ered af­ter re­buk­ing Bri­tish Mus­lims in the wake of the West­min­ster ter­ror­ist at­tack in March.

Af­ter the at­tack, the tweeter shared a pho­to­graph of a young Mus­lim woman walk­ing along the bridge us­ing her phone, and wrongly ac­cused her of ig­nor­ing the in­jured. It was swiftly picked up in the me­dia – and the de­pic­tion of the in­ci­dent be­came a mi­nor cause célèbre.

SouthLoneS­tar ap­peared to be a fairly con­ven­tional mem­ber of the Amer­i­can “alt-right” tak­ing a sud­den in­ter­est in London. For days af­ter, the tweeter was glee­fully shar­ing press clip­pings. “Wow … I’m on the Daily Mail front page! Thank you Bri­tish libs! You’re mak­ing me fa­mous,” he said, re­fer­ring to an ar­ti­cle that ap­peared on MailOn­line and which still bore the tweet at the time of writ­ing. A day later: “I’m on The Sun! Thank you again, Bri­tish libs! Now I’m even more fa­mous!”

But there was a hid­den – and dis­turb­ing – di­men­sion to the in­ci­dent: the tweeter was part of a Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign. Un­til his Twit­ter ac­count was sus­pended this sum­mer for its Rus­sian links, @SouthLoneS­tar sought a dif­fer­ent iden­tity. With a bio that pro­claimed him a “proud TEXAN and AMER­I­CAN pa­triot”, hash­tags show­ing his sup­port for gun rights and op­po­si­tion to abor­tion, and an avatar of a young man in a cow­boy hat, he might have been any one of mil­lions of Don­ald Trump-supporting Amer­i­cans.

He was, nat­u­rally, a vo­cif­er­ous op­po­nent of Hil­lary Clin­ton and Barack Obama, at­tack­ing them for “cre­at­ing Isis un­der Obama’s rule”. “I don’t think it is pos­si­ble to beat Isis while its co­founder Hus­sein Obama is liv­ing in the White House,” he tweeted on Box­ing Day, be­fore cel­e­brat­ing on New Year’s Day that the “traitor-in-chief leaves the White House in 18 days”.

Eclips­ing his in­ter­est in US pol­i­tics, how­ever, was LoneS­tar’s ob­ses­sion with Is­lam. World news was fil­tered through that lens: ter­ror at­tacks in Europe were a reg­u­lar fo­cus, as were links to sto­ries on far-right news web­sites about “ji­hadi train­ing camps” in UK pris­ons, images of Mus­lims burn­ing Amer­i­can flags out­side the US em­bassy, or a pic­ture of men chant­ing “Al­lahu Ak­bar” while re­ceiv­ing sen­tences for child abuse.

Yet spread through­out his 4,000-odd tweets, de­liv­ered by the end of his two years on the site to 50,000 fol­low­ers, was lit­tle per­sonal de­tail. Twit­ter has con­cluded he did not ex­ist. The site sus­pended the ac­count and de­cided SouthLoneS­tar was the cre­ation of the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a Rus­sian “troll army” based in St Peters­burg.

Al­though Twit­ter dis­cov­ered and closed @SouthLoneS­tar in the sum­mer, its Rus­sian af­fil­i­a­tion was only made pub­lic this month, when the com­pany handed Congress a list of 2,700 ac­counts in­volved in US po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion and sus­pected of be­ing run by the Rus­sian group.

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