Data obtained by Wired shows that Russia’s massive online disinformation resources are being deployed to escalate divisions of the southern border in Texas.
If you’ve spent any time reading comment sections on stories about illegal immigration lately, you may have noticed something vaguely familiar about the cries for civil war, secession, and other highly charged statements related to the issue. That’s because it’s the same style of attack that was deployed by Russia in the two previous U.S. presidential elections.
Since January, state-run Russian media such as Sputnik and RT have repeatedly supported Governor Greg Abbott’s call for defying the federal government and running the border as he sees fit. This includes stringing his own razor wire barriers, which the conservative U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional. Undeterred, Abbott called on other Republican-controlled states to send operatives to help him police the border.
Wired received their data from Logically, a form that uses artificial intelligence to track disinformation campaigns. Logically combed through Telegram, the preferred social media site for far-right commenters and where much of the recent Take Our Borders Back convoy was arranged. The convoy drew in anti-migrant dissidents, neo-Nazis, and conspiracy theorists, who happily disseminated the additional Russian disinformation.
“The idea of targeting highly contentious US domestic issues and amplifying them via their own channels—it’s the standard Russian playbook for disinformation,” Kyle Walter, director of research at Logically, told Wired.
The campaign mirrors those launched in the two previous national elections. Russian provocateurs amplified stories that would increase political division, which were then picked up and integrated on by social media users. In the 2016 election, Russian operatives pushed the idea that Sen. Bernie Sanders had been cheated out of the Democratic nomination, leading to a significant drop in popularity for eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton. It contributed to an overall distrust that helped secure former President Donald Trump’s narrow victory.
Increasingly, the Russian operatives are pushing the idea of secession. While Texas has always had a secessionist streak, calls to break away from the union over border issues have been considerably louder lately.
“Of course there’s already a controversy at the border and there’s things going on,” Samuel Woolley, program director of the University of Texas at Austin’s propaganda research lab, told The Dallas Morning News. “But I think what you see Russia doing is stoking the fire by bringing up things related to Texas secession and the idea that America is falling apart.”
Russia’s goal is clear and simple. An American Civil War would divert resources that would otherwise be used to support Ukraine, who Russia invaded and is currently trying to annex. A divided America would be less likely to seriously engage in conflicts overseas, having to handle a major domestic crisis. It would also undermine America’s position on the world stage, throwing dozens of treaties and delicate relationships into jeopardy.
While some Texans’ anger at the border is genuine, it is also being used by a foreign power to further its own dreams of empire.