On May 21, 2016, two groups with passionate opposing views on Islamic influence in the U.S. found themselves attending rallies at the same spot and at the same time in Houston, Texas.
As you might expect trouble ensued, but it stopped short of rioting and bloodshed. That was not the intent of the organizers of the two rallies who were hoping for much more. In fact, the Russian provocateurs behind the events were hoping for open conflict.
Earlier that month, one of the groups, called Heart of Texas began a campaign to stop the spread of Islam in Texas. Another group called Muslims of America said it was spreading knowledge of Islam.
In reality, both groups were the invention of Russian social media experts at the Internet Research Agency and they were intentionally set against each other. The ads backing those groups were a central exhibit in Nov. 1 meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The IRA, as it’s come to be known, was behind other groups seeking to drive wedges between various ethnic and political interest groups in American society and if possible provoke open conflict among them.
There was a group called BlackMatters that was set up in opposition to another called Back the Badge. There were groups working to pit veterans organizations against backers of candidate Hillary Clinton, groups backing the Second Amendment of the US Constitution set against others backing gun control. There was even one called the Army of Jesus.
The ads and posts by the groups that created these fake entities were designed specifically to create dissension. They did this by spreading fake news, encouraging heated conflicts on social media, while at the same time gathering “Likes” and making use of bots to extend their apparent reach.
The attempts to cause conflict even included an active role exploiting the controversy generated by the decision of some National Football League players not to stand for the National Anthem.
These revelations were examples presented to the Senate hearing, as well as another set presented to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which released images of a number of the ads paid for by the Russians at the IRA. Notably, the House images also included the metadata which reveals the financial and targeting information for the ads. You’ll note that the ads were paid for in Rubles.
The testimony revealed that the paid ads were only a small part of the Russian efforts to affect social media in the U.S. For the most part the ads were intended to get the attention of people who might share the sentiments expressed in the ad and then draw them into discussions on social media that were intended to focus their opinions. The overall result was intended to cause fractures in U.S. brought on by feelings stemming from social media.