A new paper considers one of the more prominent events organized by Russian operatives in the run up to the 2016 election, and the ways in which local organizers, the news media and social media were manipulated to create conflict on the streets of Houston, Texas. The study points to the necessity of more research as to why the information ecosystem in the United States appears so vulnerable to manipulation.
In its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed how the Internet Research Agency (IRA) crafted an influence operation that took advantage of social media to agitate “political events and protests in the United States.” Volume 2 of the Committee’s report noted how a “May 2016, real world event that took place in Texas illustrates the IRA’s ideological flexibility, command of American politics, and willingness to exploit the country’s most divisive fault lines.” The report described how IRA operatives used Facebook pages to pit two groups against one another in Houston:
IRA influence operatives used the Facebook page, “Heart of Texas” to promote a protest in opposition to Islam, to occur in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston, Texas. “Heart of Texas,” which eventually attracted over 250,000 followers, used targeted advertisements to implore its supporters to attend a “Stop Islamization of Texas” event, slated for noon, May 21, 2016. Simultaneously, IRA operatives used the IRA’s “United Muslims for America” Facebook page and its connection to over 325,000 followers to promote a second event, to be held at the same time, at exactly the same Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston. Again, using purchased advertisements, the IRA influence operatives behind the “United Muslims for America” page beseeched its supporters to demonstrate in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center-this time, in order to “Save Islamic Knowledge.”REPORT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE, UNITED STATES SENATE,
ON RUSSIAN ACTIVE MEASURE;S CAMPAIGNS AND INTERFERENCE IN THE 2016 U.S. ELECTION: VOLUME 2: RUSSIA’S USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The Senate investigators found the IRA’s investment in the operation, which sparked confrontation between the two protests and produced local news coverage, was $200 and that “the entire operation was conducted from the confines of the IRA’s headquarters in Saint Petersburg.”
Now, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have analyzed the event in a paper that relies on the Facebook political advertising data released by the House Intelligence Committee in 2018 and interviews with “counterprotest participants and local organizers, journalists who covered the protest, as well as representatives of local organizations” in order to better understand the relationship between propaganda, the news media, social media, protests and the motivations of the individuals in Houston that day.
In interviews with local organizers, it is clear that no one on either side of the events that day could verify who was organizing the Facebook pages, but the combination of the affordances of Facebook and the emergent nature of protest organization combined to produce a crowd. Despite the murky origin of the pages, protestors were motivated to participate because they recognized individuals and affiliations of those who indicated they were going to attend, including “neo-Nazis under the White Lives Matter” banner and a “member of the neo-Nazi organization Aryan Renaissance Society”. Multiple interviewees agreed on the fundamental motivation of individuals to take to the streets that day- a resurgence of public displays of white supremacy and the desire to counter it:
Interviewees bolstered the idea that the white supremacist rally emerged because people were more emboldened by a climate of hatred and Islamophobia if not directly stoked, then at least not inhibited by the ascent of [then candidate] President Donald J. Trump. One journalist said that Trump’s 2016 campaign led to a ‘coming out of the woodwork,’ with a counter-protester saying they had only seen these types of white nationalist protesters show up in Houston during a Trump rally at the Toyota center.
There were important differences between the protest and the counterprotest. The product of an appeal to a wide online audience, the Heart of Texas assembly was relatively small- no more than a dozen individuals. “They were guarded by police at the scene and were described as ‘frustrated’ by our interviewees. The counterprotest, which interviewees claimed was organized in response to the IRA’s protest page, mobilized preexisting activist networks to bring out as many as 100 counterprotesters,” said Brad Limov, one of the study’s authors, in an email. “The difference between how the protest and counterprotest emerged is key. It suggests that more than social media appeals are required to get people to take action- even if these appeals are made by a page with 250k likes.”
The researchers paid particular attention to assessing the role of the media, both in coverage of the May 2016 event itself and subsequent coverage of the IRA involvement, after it was revealed. Interviewees noted that local journalists seemed uninterested in who organized the protest at the time, focusing instead on the conflict between the groups that day. Afterward, there appeared to some that there was little introspection as to whether the journalists themselves were duped; rather, more than one organizer fielded queries about their reaction to the Russian involvement. The researchers conclude that “the legacy media response to the protests was predictable in its reliance on protest paradigm framing, but blind to possible manipulation.”
Some interviewees questioned whether it mattered that the IRA was involved, since the local individuals at the dueling events honestly held their positions. One interviewee found out about the IRA’s role on seeing themselves in a photograph on the front page of the New York Times:
Right, so I just laughed at myself and told my wife: Hey, they got me. And on the other hand, it’s almost like a philosophical question that the origin seemed immaterial. If you were there on the premise of opposing hateful persons, then attending was valid in any instance, right?
This response resembles that of counterprotestors from multiple organizations who in 2018 were found to be unwittingly working with an IRA operative on a Facebook event while collaborating to oppose a rally organized by white nationalist Jason Kessler, a key figure in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Facebook removed an event that the organizers had used to promote the counterprotest, which some felt diminished their ability to organize and express themselves freely. “[It] makes it look like we’re Russian pawns. We know that we’re not, and we know that we’ve been doing this organizing,” said Andrew Batcher, an organizer with the group Shut Down DC at the time.
On this question, the University of Texas researchers recognize the study’s limits. “While our research sheds light on the aftermath of IRA-sponsored ads that sowed disinformation, we cannot answer whether it matters on an individual level if someone was duped into participation, as long as the motivating factors (e.g., hatred, racism, Islamophobia) are real.”
Nevertheless, the researchers conclude that in order to counter manipulation, what is needed is “a more mature approach to propaganda possibilities, one that is cognizant of manipulation potentials but also the broader context and ecosystem that enables propagandistic, divisive appeals to operate and to flourish.”
Certainly, as journalists and researchers continue to investigate the role of propaganda and media manipulation in the 2020 election cycle, this lesson is important. On some level, the sparring between rival groups on the streets of Houston in 2016- facilitated by social media- was a prelude to what took place at the US Capitol on January 6, and to the ongoing media manipulation that continues to propagate and bolster the Big Lie. Understanding the complex relationship between political elites, the media, social media and the crowd will require more research.
“Regarding the US Capitol on January 6, what organizations were involved? What leaders or events instigated it? Should we understand it as an organized protest or a mass movement, and how do these differ? Answering these and similar questions is critical to understanding ‘the broader context and ecosystem that enables propagandistic, divisive appeals to operate and to flourish,'” said Limov.
Martin J. Riedl, Sharon Strover, Tiancheng Cao, Jaewon R. Choi, Brad Limov & Mackenzie Schnell (2021): Reverse-engineering political protest: the Russian Internet Research Agency in the Heart of Texas, Information, Communication & Society, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2021.1934066
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.