For less than a quarter of average apartment rent in Houston, Russia bought a brawl, according to a testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As part of the investigation into election interference on social media, the involvement in a clash over Muslim Americans in Houston, Texas was highlighted by Senator Richard Burr (R-North Carolina).
In May of 2016, Russia-linked accounts belonging to “Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims of America,” the former promoting a radical anti-immigration message and the later posing as an advocacy group for Islam in the US, created events at the same time and place (a mosque in Houston) with the intent of inflaming tensions between supporters and opponents of Muslims in Houston — home of the largest Muslim population in Texas.
The Heart of Texas group even encouraged its protesters to bring firearms. A comment on the group encouraged blowing up the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston, where protesters and counter-protesters were told to gather
This came amid tensions that already existed for Texan Muslims.
People attended both the Heart of Texas demonstration and a counter-demonstration totally unaware that they were playing a role in a scheme concocted by Russian operatives with the now-infamous Internet Research Center troll farm.
“What neither side could’ve known is that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans,” Sen. Burr said in a hearing on Wednesday. “It’s hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas, when you’re trolling from a site in St. Pete, Russia. Establishing these two competing groups, paying for the ads and causing this disruptive event in Houston cost Russia about $200.”
Burr went on to blast Facebook’s stunning failure in accomplishing their stated goal of bringing people together in this instance.
The potential brawl was far from the only demonstration executed by Russian provocateurs,
Hearings with tech giants about Russian influence in American social media are ongoing, following some hard questions and few helpful answers Wednesday morning.
Katelyn Kivel is a journalist and political scientist in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.