A Russia-linked Facebook group asked a Texas secessionist movement if it would participate in a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies it was planning to hold across the state last November, the group’s president told Business Insider on Thursday.
“When they decided to start doing all these ‘Texit’ rallies, they reached out and wanted us to participate,” said Daniel Miller, the president of the Texas Nationalist Movement. “And we said ‘thanks, but no thanks.'”
The Facebook group, called Heart of Texas, had over 225,000 followers as of last summer. It was shut down last week 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 on Wednesday.
Russia has a long history of working to cultivate Western separatist groups. The group Yes California, for instance, set up a makeshift embassy in Moscow in December in partnership with far-right Russian nationalists who enjoy Kremlin support while promoting secessionist movements in Europe and the United States.
But the revelation that the Texas Nationalist Movement — which says its mission is to “secure and protect the political, cultural, and economic independence of the nation of Texas” — was contacted to participate in widespread protests by a page Facebook believes to be linked to Russia marks a significant escalation in the Russians’ efforts to influence the United States’ political climate.
Miller said the group had heard from the Heart of Texas Facebook page before. He said an administrator had reached out via Facebook messenger when the page first launched several years ago. Miller said a “gentleman living north of Houston” who seemed legitimate “identified himself as the admin of the page,” which at the time was just posting “a bunch of Texas pride memes.”
“The character of the page changed over time,” Miller said. “It got very political.”
Miller would not provide names of the Facebook users who contacted the Texas Nationalist Movement claiming to be Heart of Texas administrators. But he said their accounts, which had photos of their family members and friends, “didn’t seem” fake.
As The New York Times reported this week, however, entities believed to be Russian have become highly adept at impersonating real people.
After the Times determined that a profile of someone named “Melvin Redick” was fake, a 36-year-old salesman from Brazil stepped forward and confirmed that his family photos had been stolen and used to create the “Melvin” persona. The online version of “Melvin” spread Russian propaganda on Facebook and was shut down as part of the company’s purge.
Several signs pointed to the Heart of Texas page being a Russian influence operation, including a lack of contact information and ads and a corresponding Twitter account created in November 2015. That was right around the time Facebook experienced a surge in Russia-linked, fake accounts, said Russia expert Casey Michel, who tracked the group over several months.
Its “about” section read only: “Texas’s the land protected by Lord.”
Perhaps the most revealing clue that Heart of Texas was not a project spearheaded by dissatisfied Texans was the language: The memes posted in the group contained typos, grammatical errors, and a general unfamiliarity with basic English phrases.
Miller said he didn’t notice any typos in his interactions with the administrators “beyond what you’d expect in a Facebook conversation.”
But he said that while the Facebook user that reached out to the his group several years ago seemed to be a legitimate Heart of Texas administrator, the user who contacted the Texas Nationalist Movement about the rallies in November claimed to be asking on behalf of an administrator.
“I wound up handling the first inbound message” about the rallies, Miller said. “It was someone new that we’d never heard from before.”
But his group decided to take a pass, he said, because while they “ostensibly were Texit rallies, no one could really tell us who was organising it, or anything about the logistics.”
“And anyway, Texans are not big rally-goers,” Miller said.
The Facebook group transformed from a nativist, anti-Hillary Clinton meme machine into an organising force in late October, when it created a Facebook event for a “Texit statewide rally” titled “Get ready to secede!”
The event called on Texans in major cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, and Austin to protest “establishment robbers” and “higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens.” It further claimed that a “Killary Rotten Clinton” victory would lead to an influx of “refugees, mosques, and terrorist attacks.”
The page also created “an approximate map” for the rallies and explained, in awkward English, “what will be happening” at the event.
“Signing the petition, delivering speeches, Texas flags and signs waving, open carry, getting media coverage, producing photo and video content to spread on social media,” the post said. “This is how we’ll bring more awareness about our real needs. God bless y’all!”
The group said it would pass along the rallygoers’ information to the Texas Nationalist Movement. But Miller said the group never followed through on that. In any case, he said, the Texas Nationalist Movement was never inclined to coordinate with Heart of Texas to begin with.
“Anyone can set up a Facebook page,” he said. “It doesn’t impress us.”
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