Re­port: Rus­sians messed with Texas

Se­nate de­tails ef­forts to set Amer­i­cans against Amer­i­cans

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By TODD J. GILLMAN Wash­ing­ton Bureau tgill­[email protected]­las­news.com Twit­ter: @tod­dg­ill­man

Rus­sian in­ter­net trolls tried to or­ches­trate a clash in Hous­ton be­tween lo­cal Mus­lims and an­tiMus­lim demon­stra­tors, a Se­nate com­mit­tee re­ports.

WASH­ING­TON — A Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee re­port is­sued Tues­day re­counts ef­forts by Rus­sian trolls to or­ches­trate a clash in Hous­ton be­tween lo­cal Mus­lims and anti­mus­lim demon­stra­tors in May 2016 — one of many in­stances of Rus­sia try­ing to stoke un­rest in the United States.

The in­ci­dent and its links to Rus­sia’s on­go­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion ef­forts are well­known. But the new Se­nate re­port uses it to high­light the con­tin­u­ing threat of dis­rup­tion via Face­book and other so­cial me­dia, and the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the Krem­lin­backed In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a se­cre­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion in St. Peters­burg.

“Rus­sia is wag­ing an in­for­ma­tion war­fare cam­paign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 elec­tion,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Car­olina, the Repub­li­can who chairs the com­mit­tee. “By flood­ing so­cial me­dia with false re­ports, con­spir­acy the­o­ries and trolls, and by ex­ploit­ing ex­ist­ing di­vi­sions, Rus­sia is try­ing to breed dis­trust of our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and our fel­low Amer­i­cans. “

At least two other in­ci­dents of Rus­sian mis­chief played out in Texas:

■ A Novem­ber 2015 Con­fed­er­ate rally in Hous­ton was the “ear­li­est ev­i­dence” of Rus­sian ef­forts to med­dle in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the re­port re­leased in April by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller.

■ In April 2015, Gov. Greg Ab­bott di­rected the Texas State Guard to mon­i­tor an an­nual fed­eral mil­i­tary ex­er­cise called Op­er­a­tion Jade Helm. Right­wing groups were in an up­roar, warn­ing of a dark plot by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. For­mer CIA Di­rec­tor Michael Hay­den said later that Rus­sian bots had stoked the fear and tur­moil, and were prob­a­bly em­bold­ened by their suc­cess.

Dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cam­paign, Sen. Ted Cruz was “tar­geted and den­i­grated,” along with other politi­cians in both par­ties who had ad­ver­sar­ial views to­wards the Krem­lin, the re­port says.

The Mus­lim vs. anti­mus­lim clash in Hous­ton, ac­cord­ing to the Se­nate re­port, “il­lus­trates the IRA’S ide­o­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity, com­mand of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and will­ing­ness to ex­ploit the coun­try’s most di­vi­sive fault lines.”

Rus­sian trolls used a Face­book page called “Heart of Texas,” a home for ad­vo­cacy of Texas se­ces­sion and a va­ri­ety of con­ser­va­tive goals that drew 250,000 fol­low­ers at its peak, to pro­mote a protest against Is­lam at noon on May 21, 2016. The protest would oc­cur out­side the Is­lamic Da’wah Cen­ter, a mosque es­tab­lished and funded by re­tired bas­ket­ball star Ha­keem Ola­ju­won, who played cen­ter for the Hous­ton Rock­ets. The Rus­sians used tar­geted ads urg­ing sup­port­ers to at­tend the “Stop Is­lamiza­tion of Texas” event.

But that wasn’t all the trolls had in mind. They had an­other Face­book page, called “United Mus­lims for Amer­ica,” with more than 325,000 fol­low­ers. For that au­di­ence, they pro­moted an event at the same time and place, with ads that “be­seeched its sup­port­ers to demon­strate in front of the Is­lamic Da’wah Cen­ter … to ‘Save Is­lamic Knowl­edge.’ “

Ads tar­geted to each side made no men­tion of a coun­ter­protest.

“The com­pet­ing events were cov­ered live by lo­cal news agen­cies, and ac­cord­ing to the Texas Tri­bune, in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the two protests es­ca­lated into con­fronta­tion and verbal at­tacks,” the Se­nate re­port says.

The ads cost $200, a bar­gain, Burr said dur­ing a hear­ing Nov. 1, 2017.

“And the en­tire op­er­a­tion was con­ducted from the con­fines of the IRA’S head­quar­ters in Saint Peters­burg,” the re­port says. “So­cial me­dia re­searcher John Kelly char­ac­ter­ized the IRA’S op­er­a­tional in­tent as ‘kind of like arm­ing two sides in a civil war.’ ”

Much of these de­tails had al­ready come to light in con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony or through fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions af­ter the 2016 elec­tion. Mueller’s of­fice ob­tained an in­dict­ment on Feb. 16, 2018, against the In­ter­net Re­search Agency. Ac­cord­ing to the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice, the IRA cre­ated a “trans­la­tor project” aimed at the U.S. elec­tion, post­ing more than 1,000 pieces of con­tent a week and reach­ing up to 30 mil­lion peo­ple by Septem­ber 2016.

The Rus­sians cre­ated and ad­min­is­tered pages with an as­sort­ment of themes. One was anti­im­mi­grant (“Stop A.I.” — short for “Stop All In­vaders”). An­other fo­cused on gun rights (ti­tled “Be­ing Pa­tri­otic”). An­other, called “Black­tivist,” fo­cused on African Amer­i­can cul­tural is­sues and po­lice bru­tal­ity.

Jac­que­lyn Martin/the As­so­ci­ated Press

Se­nate in­tel­li­gence panel Chair Richard Burr, R­N.C., (right) and col­league Mark Warner, D­VA., ad­dressed the me­dia last month. The bi­par­ti­san panel is urg­ing steps to foil for­eign so­cial me­dia med­dling in the 2020 elec­tion.

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