An Instagram post about a Confederate rally in Houston is cited in special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report as the “earliest evidence” of Russian influence in political rallies across the U.S.
The Mueller report states on Page 29: “The Office identified dozens of U.S. rallies organized by the IRA (St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency). The earliest evidence of a rally was a 'confederate rally' in November 2015.”
In a footnote, the report refers to an Instagram post about a Houston-area rally planned for Nov. 14, 2015.
The report also says: “The IRA (Internet Research Agency) continued to organize rallies even after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The attendance at rallies varied. Some rallies appear to have drawn few (if any) participants, while others drew hundreds. The reach and success of these rallies was closely monitored.”
Though some of the events organized by Russian operatives never came to fruition or had low attendance, one anti-Muslim rally in Houston drew small crowds of both protesters and counterprotesters.
In May 2016, a handful of protesters with the banner “White Lives Matter” showed up for a protest to “Stop the Islamization of Texas” outside the Islamic Da’wah Center in downtown Houston. A larger crowd of counterprotesters also showed up.
The protest was organized by the Heart of Texas Facebook group.
“The Heart of Texas Facebook group really was a group that was created by the Russians,” Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said. “There was no group of concerned Texans forming it; it was formed by Russian trolls with the idea of gaining a following and manipulating that following to political ends."
The New York Times reported that the group had about 250,000 likes on Facebook before it was taken down.
“Russian trolls were able to mobilize people on one side that were antagonistic toward the mosque and people on the other side that were supportive of the mosque to get out there and protest,” said Jones, who added the rally shows how the Russians were somewhat successful in undermining the democratic process by stoking existing ideologies.
The use of Facebook and Instagram to manipulate political beliefs is now being monitored more closely.
Last August, Facebook said in a post that it took down more than 650 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook and Instagram for “coordinated inauthentic behavior." It said some of the activity originated in Iran, and some originated in Russia.