- Russian trolls organized a protest and a counterprotest in the same place at the same time in May 2016, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr, said on Wednesday. The revelation shows how far Russia was willing to go to foment unrest and division in the US in the months leading up to the election. Burr said that organizing and promoting these protests cost Russia “about $200.”
Russian actors organized both anti-Islam and pro-Islam protests in the same location at the same time on May 21, 2016, using separate Facebook pages operated from a so-called troll farm in St. Petersburg, the Senate Intelligence Committee disclosed on Wednesday.
A Facebook page named Heart of Texas, whose link to Russia was first reported by Business Insider, organized a rally at noon on May 21 at the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston to “Stop Islamization of Texas.” The account paid to promote the event, which was viewed by about 12,000 people, said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr.
Another Russia-linked account, United Muslims of America, organized a counterprotest – a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally.
As The Daily Beast reported in September, the United Muslims of America page was impersonating a real nonprofit organization. More than 2,700 people saw an ad placed by the account that targeted people in the Houston area, Burr said.
The committee released documents showing how the events were organized on Facebook:
“What neither side could have known was that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans,” Burr said on Wednesday during an open hearing with the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
“Ironically, one person who attended stated, ‘The Heart of Texas promoted this event, but we didn’t see one of them,'” Burr said. “We now know why. It’s hard to attend an event in Houston, Texas, when you’re trolling from a site in St. Petersburg, Russia.”
Burr said that organizing and promoting these protests cost Russia “about $200.”
“Facebook enabled that event to happen,” he said. “I’m certain that our adversaries are learning from the Russian activities … You must do better to protect the American people, and all of your users, from this kind of manipulation.”
The anti-Islam rally was not the only event the Heart of Texas page promoted before the election. The group advertised a “Texit statewide rally” in October and a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies across the state three days before the election.
Heart of Texas had over 225,000 followers as of last summer. It was shut down in early September 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 at the time.