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Shuttered Facebook group linked to Russia organized anti-immigrant rallies across Texas

Business Insider | Sep 13, 2017, 09.55PM IST

Heart of Texas

Screenshot/Facebook

A screenshot from "Heart of Texas," a Russia-linked Facebook group that has since been shut down.

A Russia-linked Facebook group attempted to organize a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies across Texas last November, three days before the election and months after Russian operatives used the social-media platform to organize an anti-refugee resettlement protest in rural Idaho.

The group, called "Heart of Texas," had over 225,000 followers as of last summer but was shut down last week as part of Facebook's takedown of accounts and pages "affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia," a Facebook spokesman told Business Insider on Wednesday.

Casey Michel, a journalist who has spent years tracing US secession movements to Russia, tracked the group's activity throughout the election and determined it was more than just a platform for far-right Texas secessionists.

Several signs pointed to the page being a Russian influence operation, including a lack of contact information, no ads, and a corresponding Twitter account that was created in November 2015 - right around the time Facebook experienced a surge in Russia-linked, fake accounts, Michel said. Its "about" section read only: "Texas's the land protected by Lord."

Perhaps the most revealing clue that "Heart of Texas" was not a project spearheaded by dissatisfied Texans was the language. The memes posted in the group contained typos, grammatical errors, and a general unfamiliarity with basic English phrases.

Many didn't make any sense at all:

Heart of Texas

Screenshot/Facebook

In late October, however, the group transformed from a nativist, anti-Clinton meme machine to an organizing force when it created a Facebook event for a "Texit statewide rally" titled "Get ready to secede!"

The event has since been removed from Facebook, but it still appears as the top result on Google using certain keywords. A cached version of the group's announcement of the event on Twitter - where its account was also suspended - can still be viewed.

Heart of Texas

Screenshot/Facebook

The event called on Texans to protest "establishment robbers" and "higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens" in major cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin. It further claimed that a "Killary Rotten Clinton" victory would lead to an influx of "refugees, mosques, and terrorist attacks."

The page also created "an approximate map" for the rallies and explained, in awkward English, "what will be happening" at the event.

"Signing the petition, delivering speeches, Texas flags and signs waving, open carry, getting media coverage, producing photo and video content to spread on social media," the post said. "This is how we'll bring more awareness about our real needs. God bless y'all!"

heart of texas

Screenshot/Facebook

It is unclear how many people actually showed up to the protests. The group's efforts came on the heels of a similar Russian effort disclosed by The Daily Beast earlier this week: an anti-Muslim protest in Twin Falls, Idaho, titled "Citizens before refugees."

The group that organized the protest, which called itself "SecuredBorders," was also shut down as part of Facebook's purge of Russia-linked pages. It had roughly 100,000 fewer followers than "Heart of Texas" when it was shuttered. SecuredBorders and Heart of Texas both linked refugees to crime and posted Islamophobic memes and photos.

"A lot of different people are working on the Russian active measures problem from a lot of different directions, and they all consistently find examples of the same general content being promoted -- highly divisive anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and activity," said JM Berger, an expert on extremism and influence operations who helped build a digital platform that tracks Russian propaganda in real time.

"At this point we have a lot of independent sources pointing to the same conclusion," Berger said.

Former FBI agent Clint Watts, who spearheaded the platform, told The Daily Beast that the Facebook events organizing protests were "the next step" in Russia's influence operations.

"The objective of influence is to create behavior change," Watts said. "The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something."

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