Deception is getting real. This month, lawyers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before Congress, facing hard questions and ugly truths about Russia’s online operations to inflame American divisions and undermine American democracy. The story keeps getting worse. Twitter has now found more than 2,700 accounts controlled by Russians and 36,000 suspected Russian “bots”—accounts that automatically generated 1.4 million election-related tweets receiving 288 million impressions during the final 10 weeks of the 2016 presidential election. Google has discovered that suspected Russian agents uploaded more than 1,000 YouTube videos about divisive social issues. And Facebook revealed that Kremlin-instigated content may have reached 126 million Americans. That’s more than a third of the U.S. population. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr even had his own Cuban missile crisis moment—bringing out the big posters to show the world smoking gun evidence of Russian duplicity. But instead of secret missile sites, his pictures displayed two popular Facebook groups: Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America.
Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America weren’t created by Texans or American Muslims. They were conjured up by Russia’s deceptively named “Internet Research Agency” to lure American followers. And lure them they did. In 2016, each group grew to more than 250,000 followers. Then Russia struck. Heart of Texas announced a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest to be held on May 21, at noon, outside a Houston mosque. Muslims of America announced a “Save Islamic Knowledge” protest on its Facebook page for the same day, time, and place. The result: angry protests pitting real Americans against each other on the streets of Houston, all instigated by the Kremlin.